Artist Dana Roes Goes Under the Surface
“I don’t usually want to make pretty pictures.”
Averi Roes arrives home quietly and offers an apologetic wave, announcing that she has returned safe and sound after a weeknight outing with friends.
Her mother turns around in her chair, taking in her bespectacled teen as proof, then resumes the conversation with new relief. Something about positive and negative space. Or was it black holes? Definitely something about art.
Dana Roes the mother might call this parenting. But Dana Roes the artist would call it an interruption in the piece. A peeling back of the paint to reveal the raw canvas. A teasing glimpse into the world beyond one’s exterior.
“I like the tension that an interruption offers,” Roes says, explaining the halved canvases in her current series, Holding Fast. She creates unencumbered by beauty or realism. “I don’t usually want to make pretty pictures.”
Pretty or not, Roes’ work has earned her wide recognition. Roes the Fulbright Scholar spent 12 months in Iceland, earned her MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania, spent stints at both Savannah College of Art and Design and Carnegie Mellon. She then agreed to come teach at the small Florida SouthWestern State College (then Edison State College). She remains there in Fort Myers, her home now for helping others tap into their individual inspirations and for birthing those cerebral works of her own.
That signature interruption technique is all over Holding Fast. The series’ working title evokes a strain similar to that found in her 2013 series Threshold—something uncomfortable and intriguing that makes viewing her work more than just an aesthetic experience.
“Holding Fast is talking about the tension in two things coexisting,” says Wendy Chase, Roes’ wife, colleague and de facto interpreter—an English professor who is so in tune with her wife she can explain her perhaps better than Roes can explain herself. Chase has penned introductions to the literature accompanying Roes’ series and exhibits, and, before they met, even sat on the board at Edison that hired her.
“We never thought she would come,” Chase says.
“And then all the stars aligned,” Roes says, equal parts playful and genuine.
Roes was looking for a position in Florida because her mother was sick and she wanted to be close by. The struggle with cancer was a large part of the inspiration for Threshold, a collection of large oil paintings using a technique where turpentine is added to strip away paint and expose the canvas underneath.
The stories behind the work are not apparent at first or even third glance, save one particular painting of a human face exhaling its final breath. You might easily mistake the other pieces in the series for tangled wires, burnt spaghetti noodles or simply modern-day works of abstract art.
You’d have to sit down with Roes to get the full story. From her living room in Fort Myers, she explains that the looping metallic ropes are really a play on the tangled mats she used to comb from her mother’s hair in the hospital. And the pieces in the series that include the mats, with erasures between the crisscrossing lines that make the individual strands seem like one solid piece, are riffs on that idea. To quote Chase, who again expertly captured the essence of the works in the forward to the exhibit, one of the pieces “feels like looking beneath a thin layer of skin to see the veins that pulse with life—until you blink and suddenly it isn’t a skin that can be penetrated at all, but a barrier between you and an organic entity in the process of becoming.”
Roes was hired at Florida SouthWestern State College in 2009, and one of her first acts as chair of humanities and fine arts (she prefers artist-in-residence, a term many lovingly use) was to add four new art classes instantaneously on the way toward developing a full art program.
The students in her classes are unlike any she’s taught in the past. Their lack of experience in the various mediums has been their strength.
“The students I’m dealing with now are so nontraditional. They’re in their 30s or late 20s. They have real experiences to make art of, so I treat them like graduate students.”
It must be working. Roes’ students have returned semester after semester for classes that don’t necessarily further their majors. Rather than moving onto a four-year school with broader art offerings, they come back to Roes for a fourth and fifth year.
She used to think it was selfish or wasteful maybe, to be teaching kids art when really they needed to be learning the skills that would lead to careers and practical life tracks. But what she’s decided is that her students emerge as thoughtful human beings, creative problem solvers with tools to express themselves. Originally on a track for medicine, Roes too felt the pull toward art before switching her major to painting.
Evidence of her success in this realm is plentiful. In 2010, her class gained national recognition when they created an installation piece at Lover’s Key following the BP oil spill by lining up bottles of Dawn soap along the shore.
Then in 2014 she took two students to Iceland, returning through Iceland’s Fulbright Commission to view Yoko Ono’s work after she’d had an exhibit at Edison. The students added their “wishes,” written out on paper tags to the exhibit Ono had there.
Returning to the country where she spent her fellowship was a powerful experience for Roes, who recalled the months she spent creating art alone in a massive space the Fulbright program put her up in. She would go days without speaking to another soul, and—with the midnight sun phenomenon that only allowed for about five hours of daylight in the winter—she often worked in the darkness. The work, in that way, was all-consuming.
Over her life, Chase says, Roes has renovated about seven homes, the first when she was just 22. When her daughters were old enough, Roes built them a fully functional tree house they could have easily lived in.
“She really isn’t content unless she is working on a project,” Chase says.
There’s a knock at the door and Roes’ friend walks in, a fellow artist from Bosnia. She takes up a spot at the kitchen table around the corner as one of Chase’s sons plucks a tune on his guitar, his voice floating into the front room.
The floor of Roes’ studio in the room just past the living area is sticky with rabbit skin glue. She uses that instead of gesso when preparing her canvases because it dries clear instead of white.
Roes works in her home studio daily between teaching. On weekends, it’s as many as 10 hours a day.
“I’ll get ready and brush my teeth and I’ll come take a look,” she says. Looking at and thinking of the work regularly helps her find what’s wrong with it.
“I’ve always lived with my work,” she says.
It might seem like the life, but Roes does not find creating fun.
“It’s sometimes cathartic, but it’s work,” she says. “And it’s not always satisfying.”
Roes is nothing if not professional, serious about her work and dedicated to the craft. She considers making art her full-time job and teaching secondary to all of that. The balance, of creating for herself first, makes her a better teacher, she says.
A cluttered table on wheels sits in the corner of Roes’ studio, which she usually rolls to the center of the room for easy access. She uses a stepstool to reach the tops of her 8-foot-tall canvases. It’s physical work for Roes, a wisp of a woman dressed in all black with a small blond ponytail.
“‘She’s little but she’s mighty!’” Chase says, repeating a phrase the family often uses to describe Roes. “She is an absolutely unstoppable force of nature when she is working on a project; and she is basically always working on a project.”
A few weeks ago she ended up in the hospital for turpentine poisoning, having inhaled too much of the chemical. Days later she was back at it.
In college, she discovered the macrobiotic diet that had her subsisting on nuts and plants. The regimen gave her a kind of heady clarity that kept her up at all hours. She painted for 20 hours a day in her New York studio and slept for three, commuter trains shaking the makeshift apartment each time they rumbled past.
She’s always pieced together a living by creating art, but eventually she decided she wanted children and needed to have a more stable income. She entered academia and gave birth to her two daughters. She called pregnancy the ultimate act of creating.
“And I didn’t have to do anything,” she says.
Imagine, simply breathing, toiling away at your own work, while the most perfect masterpiece takes shape within.