What You See is What You Get
Dawn Oman, an established painter in Nova Scotia spreads cheerfulness with her joyful acrylic paintings. Growing up in Yellowknife after having been victim to the sixties scoop1, Dawn’s childhood was not all happy memories. Moving between foster homes she grappled to find any stability. One thing felt like home for her. Indigenous women would come from northern communities to run errands in Yellowknife and would stay a night in her foster homes. They would bring their beadwork and sewing projects, which drew Dawn to bright colours and patterns. She embraced her artistic skills and drawing became a happy escape from her living situation. At sixteen she was left all alone and managed to hitchhike her way to Victoria, British Columbia where she worked as a waitress to support herself. She married and moved to Lasqueti Island2 with her husband. There she finally had time to focus on her art again. Working with beads and textiles she sold her work at a local market. Dawn discovered coloured ink and felt connected with bright drawings more then black and white. She wanted to sell them, but her husband did not think she was ready.
In 1994, an old foster parent sent her a letter explaining that she was sick and wanted to see Dawn before she died. Dawn packed up to return to Yellowknife for a three-week vacation. That trip ended up being sixteen years long; she never returned to Victoria. While in Yellowknife she was offered a spot as an artist in residence at a local gallery. Without her own art supplies, she decided to experiment with acrylic paints. During that residency Dawn was captured by the versatility of acrylic paints, and never went back to pen and ink. Her work was very much appreciated, and people were approaching her about buying pieces. She was even approached by another gallery interested in her art. Dawn was overwhelmed by the love for her art, and subsequently discovered that she could support herself. Leaving her life behind, she moved to Yellowknife.
Dawn found quick professional success in Yellowknife. Major corporations became interested and commission purchases became more consistent. In 1999, Dawn opened her first gallery. Yellowknife also provided her with an opportunity to investigate her family’s past. Being removed from her home as a newborn, she had never met her parents or siblings. With the help of a local pastor, Dawn was able to locate a half sister, and by reaching out to her, she was able to connect with her father as well as other siblings. To fill in gaps in her identity, Dawn needed to reconnect with her history, culture and heritage.
Dawn’s paintings do not conform to any style; they are truly and uniquely hers. After developing her practice for many years, Dawn’s artworks are polished and colourful images that communicate escape. The colours are just meant to bring brightness to life. Northern imagery, polar bears, landscapes, and northern lights are common recurring themes in her art. Simple and straightforward are the reason for her success in Yellowknife.
Due to the increasing violence in Yellowknife, in 2010, Dawn decided it was time for a change. Her partner at the time was originally from Nova Scotia, and after a quick visit there, they sold their property in Yellowknife and moved. They bought a farm in the country, and Dawn opened a gallery in Annapolis Royal3. Her surroundings led her to experiment with east coast imagery such as lighthouses and dories, while continuing to include northern aspects such as the northern lights. Life in the north meant that the sky was constantly filled with bright dancing colours. Dawn’s incorporation of the northern lights is a link to her youth.
With some monumental career accomplishments, Dawn is most proud of the commission placed on a Canadian North Airlines plane in 1998. The plane is still in service and can be seen at airports all over Canada. Another commission that gave Dawn exposure was her participation of the 2003 Festivals of Canada coin collection. Each province and territory had a designated coin, and Dawn represented the Northwest Territories with her design Rising Star. This fifty-cent sterling silver coin features a figure gesturing to a sky filled with northern lights. Winning the people’s choice, artist choice and judges choice awards at the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik in 1996 was another proud moment. After participating in the ten-day festival, Dawn’s art was recognized in front of her peers and her community for its individuality and beauty.
After the passing of her partner Gary, Dawn relocated to Bridgetown, Nova Scotia4 where she purchased a decommissioned church. She completely renovated it to be a functional living and work/gallery space, while also preserving the rich history and beauty. The community has embraced her, and people enjoy visiting her home for weddings, easter services and even funerals. Running a gallery out of her home can be time consuming so Dawn tries to ensure she allows for a few hours of painting each morning before she opens. She is currently about to present a new series on women July 14th, 2023, in Bear River. These twenty-four pieces are all bold coloured loosely based self-portraits that picture strong empowered women. Dawn’s work has allowed her to live a life of freedom and happiness, and she hopes others enjoy her art as much as she loves creating it.
Interview by Ayshani Aurora
Women’s Art Museum of Canada DFD Project Assistant May to July 2023
- ” The term Sixties Scoop was coined by Patrick Johnston, author of the 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System. It refers to the mass removal of Aboriginal children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands. Professor Raven Sinclair recounts that Johnston told her that a B.C. social worker provided the phrase when she told him “…with tears in her eyes—that it was common practice in B.C. in the mid-sixties to ‘scoop’ from their mothers on reserves almost all newly born children. She was crying because she realized—20 years later—what a mistake that had been.”1 The Sixties Scoop refers to a particular phase of a larger history, and not to an explicit government policy.”
Hanson, E. (n.d.). Sixties scoop. indigenousfoundations. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/sixties_scoop/
- “Lasqueti Island lies in the Georgia Strait, north of French Creek (on Vancouver Island), and southwest of Texada Island. It is approximately 8 km wide and 22 km long, with an area of 73.56 km2. About 425 permanent residents call Lasqueti home (2011 census). It is accessible by foot passenger ferry service only, or by private boat or plane. The roads are unpaved and the island has no public transportation. There are no public campgrounds. Lasqueti is not serviced by B.C. Hydro. Residents live either without electricity or with alternative sources of power like solar or micro-hydro. There is very little industry and no bustling economy.”
About Lasqueti. About Lasqueti | Lasqueti Island. (n.d.). https://lasqueti.ca/island-info
- “Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia is a beautiful waterfront community nestled in the Annapolis Valley. Originally inhabited by a strong Mi’kmaq community, in 1605 the area became home to some of North America’s earliest European settlers. The Annapolis Royal area has gained a reputation as a vibrant center for cultural activity, and over the years it has become a magnet for visual artists, craftspeople, performers, and writers.”
Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia – Cradle of Our Nation. Town of Annapolis Royal. (2020, May 1). https://annapolisroyal.com/
- “Bridgetown is nestled in the beautiful Annapolis Valley. Its rich history is still evident in the proud Victorian homes.” “Bridgetown began as a very small Acadian settlement (Gaudetville), one of many established along the Annapolis River during the 1600’s and early 1700’s. The Acadians were attracted by the rich soils of the river’s tidal marshes, which they successfully drained and farmed.”
Home – community of Bridgetown, nova scotia. Home – Community of Bridgetown, Nova Scotia. (n.d.). https://www.bridgetownnovascotia.com/