Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A woman’s hair braids into a bird’s nest. A pair of doves bookend another’s cheeks. Flowers tumble and cascade around a dream-like face.
Lavanya Dawn’s otherworldly portraits emerged from vivid dreams when she was just five years old.
“I was interested in fantasy and storybooks, anything with vivid illustrations,” the Santa Fe artist said.
Today, her work hangs at Santa Fe’s Keep Contemporary Gallery.
All of Dawn’s faces are female; many enthroned like goddesses, embellished with tangles of blossoms and vines. Some figures press their hands in prayer. Butterflies and birds soar around them. Mystery veils them all in a touch of surrealism.
Dawn grew up in a creative Santa Fe household. She was fascinated by all things artistic, from her father’s tattoos to the covers of his Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix albums. A mechanic and auto airbrush artist, he filled their home with art, books and music. Psychedelic imagery from Santana’s “Abraxas” album and the magical illustrations found in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” beckoned.
“I listened to all that hippie stuff,” she said. “A lyric will evoke a certain image in my head. It’s one of my biggest inspirations.”
She began painting in watercolor at 5, then moved to pen and ink as a teen before discovering her niche in acrylics.
She doesn’t draw out or plan her compositions, instead preferring to rely on intuition.
“There’s this whole fantasy world that I lived in when I was younger,” she explained. “When it comes to painting, the more of a grown-up I have to be, the harder it is to get into that subliminal state of creating.”
Today, the self-taught artist’s work balances the dreamy with the dramatic in an enchanted forest of imagery. Her subconscious emotions ebb and flow as she creates each piece. She doesn’t use models. She says the faces are not hers, although some observers have said otherwise.
“I never want my people to look one way or another,” she said. “I want a thread of universality. I’ve had people buying my work tell me what it means and I’m fine with that.”
The artist works in multiple layers and washes in an effort to avoid the definitive. She bases her ambiguous narratives on energy. Emerging figures often seem androgynous, yet maintain a distinctively feminine energy as they intertwine with crescent moons, blooming flora and delicate fauna. These mystical visions beckon viewer engagement.
“It was the one thing I loved when I was younger,” she said. “I danced, I made jewelry; I loved all art.”
People have described her work as dreamscapes.
Women comprise most of her collectors. She has painted commissions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Francis and the Virgin Mary.
“A lot of people have said they see a myth in the women and a spirituality,” she said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to see in the world – that goddess figure.”
Dawn has exhibited her work for more than 20 years in Santa Fe’s cafes, storefronts and professional galleries. Just before the pandemic, the Jean Cocteau Cinema hosted a solo exhibition of her work. Today, she works from her home and at Beadweaver, where she sells notecards of her paintings.