One of the greatest gifts that illustrator, teacher, and soapmaker Dawn Tan gives her students is the permission to make mistakes. Having taught art since she was seventeen, as well as working as an illustrator, Dawn embraces the art process as changeable. “If you make a mistake, just go for it,” she said. “Change it up a bit. See how you can do something new out of that mistake that you’ve made.”
Dawn’s “Making Space” Dawn welcomes me into her Yarraville home in Melbourne’s inner west. We can feel it is going to be a warm day, but for the moment we are both thankful for the coolness of her kitchen and dining room.
Dawn’s studio space has a gentle filtered light. The Victorian terrace she shares with her husband, Darren, is filled with art by friends and by artists she admires—such as good friend Madeline Stamer—as well as objects collected on the couple’s travels. A recent trip to the U.S. and India has prompted new designs featuring images and patterns inspired by the American desert and India’s magical colours and spices.
The long wooden table in her dining room is where Dawn creates her illustrations. On the day I visit, the table is neatly arranged with resources for a work in progress. The watercolour painting she shows me is of her client’s grandparent’s home, which Dawn carefully paints with fine detail as a precious memory for her client.
A Creative Life Along with working as a freelance illustrator and having her work published by such clients as Frankie and Hooray magazines, Dawn teaches workshops for adults in her home, and for children as a school art teacher.
In the last six months, Dawn has also discovered a love of making handmade soaps—enticing in both looks and aroma. The packaging for her soaps bears Dawn’s signature watercolour drawings, and the scents include apple cider, Joshua tree cactus, and chai milk tea. “I started making soaps not only because I wanted soap for myself, but because I was going through quite a rough patch when I was teaching and working in my previous school,” she explained. “I found that I needed a way to relax and not think about anything else, to do something different for a change.”
In high school, Dawn had great support from teachers who recognised her natural artistic ability and encouraged her to pursue an artistic career. Her friends and family have also encouraged her to keep going with her art, in part by ordering prints and custom house portraits, buying soaps, and sharing her posts on social media. “A lot of my colleagues were amazing, super troopers, cheering me on,” said Dawn.
The Little Art Yurt In June 2017, Dawn will fulfill her dream of opening her very own art school: The Little Art Yurt. “I’ve always known that I wanted to teach,” she said.
As Dawn awaits delivery of a large round tent, which will fill the entire outdoor space in her courtyard, she prepares for the school—planning, designing brochures, and adding students’ names to the ever-growing waitlist. She already has the most elegantly made aprons ready and waiting for the first class, hung on a plywood rack made by her father-in-law. The Hedley & Bennett aprons are examples of Dawn’s attention to detail: she is sensitive not only to the ways children engage with art, but also to how they feel physically while creating art. The aprons let children move freely without being hampered by stiff, bulky art smocks.
Dawn possesses a true joy of teaching, describing it as something that feeds her creativity. “I find that, especially working with children, they have this sort of crazy, fun energy about them. It makes you learn how to let go and just relax,” she said. “I see it as an exchange of knowledge. I see kids as teachers as well.”
Dawn comes from a family of teachers. “Being able to share what I love—which is art—helps me be inspired. I enjoy having conversations with people, sharing experiences, food, laughs. All these things help me create better as a maker.”
Being an Artist At the end of each day, Dawn makes a deliberate effort to pack all of her work away onto her shelves, a method she has recently adopted. “I used to leave everything out lying on the table,” she said. “I used to have a separate table in a little corner, but then we bought this bigger table and I realised that having this big kitchen table forces me to put everything away. It actually helps me think better and work better because every day is a new fresh start.”
Dawn’s watercolour illustrations are distinctive, with their use of fineliner and watercolour. Layers of watercolour in elegant tones capture doughnuts, cakes, food, plants, houses, and packaged goods. Dawn decided a while ago that drawing people was not for her, preferring to draw inanimate objects. Her style brings the subjects she paints to life, as if we are experiencing them through her eyes. “One word that’s kept coming up over the years is ‘raw’: how my work is so raw, almost like reading through someone’s journal. I like that,” she said.
Dawn is open and honest in the way she shares her life and work online. “When you have a very personal voice—when you’re just you and when you don’t hide, when you don’t make it all look nice and fancy—I find that people actually appreciate it more,” she said. “I always wanted to be the sort of artist where there’s no hiding, so, yeah, I think I’ve achieved that.”
Dawn’s Tip Dawn encourages women who want to start their own creative business, or who struggle to juggle their business with other demands, to believe in themselves. “Don’t doubt yourself,” she said. “I’ve learned over the years that if you’re going to sit there and hesitate and doubt yourself and think, ‘What if? What if?’ then it’s never going to happen. Just do it. If you fail, you fail. Dream big; go do it. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”
Photos and podcast audio production by Jenni Mazaraki
Jenni Mazaraki is an artist, designer, writer, and podcaster who helps women tell their stories. She is particularly interested in the ways women make time and space for creativity. You can see more of Jenni’s work at localstoryspace.com, on Instagram (@localstoryspace), or on Facebook.