Interview with Dunnie Onasanya
VisArts Studio Artist
By Iona Nave Griesmann
My artwork is an exploration of Pan African modernism which delves into the connectedness of the historic and the abstract by creating a conversation between color, texture and vibrancy.
Often referencing African culture or faith symbolism, my work explores the varying relationships between tribal influences and women in power. Engaging subjects such as unity and spirituality, my work produces visually stimulating experiences.
While I utilize a variety of materials and processes my methodology is consistent. Although there may not always be material similarities between the different projects I complete, they will always be linked by my unique free hand style of lines and curves. The subject matter and client preference of each of my works determines the materials I will choose to use. During both the research and production phase of my process new areas of interest always arise and often lead to the next body of work I venture into cultivating.
How you find out about the VisArts Studio Program, and how did you decide that working there was right for you?
I was at another networking event at Gordon Biersch. I saw someone who was an artist and they asked me if I’d heard of VisArts. I was like, “No what’s that?” and they told me it was around the corner. I ended up walking over and just gave myself a tour.
I ended up meeting Susan (Susan Main, VisArts Gallery Director and Curator) that day and she let me know about the Studio Artist program in the springtime of 2018. She let me know that the application process was going to open up in the Fall, so she gave me her contact information and stayed in touch. When the application rolled around I was able to apply, and then I got accepted! I started in November 2018 so it’s officially been a little over a year . I really love being here, and I feel like it was the perfect situation for me.
What was your first piece when you began working in the studio?
Prior to coming to VisArts I was actually working on a few commissions, so I was able to finish a couple of them. After that I started creating more textured pieces with glass and glitter, because I had the place to be really messy and creative. I started experimenting with glass and got inspired from seeing a lot of Nanette’s work. She’s a studio artist and teacher here and I really loved her glass work. Obviously our medium isn’t the same, but when I would see all the colors and how she used the glass, it gave me the idea to try. I really like how it catches light.
Your style of dress and presentation appears to be closely tied to your art style in terms of color and pattern. How do your two worlds of art and fashion influence one another?
I feel like they are mutually inclusive in a way. My personal style is a reflection of my artistry, and I feel like they are both a reflection of me at my core. Most of the time when people see me they say, “Oh that’s something you would wear.” Or they will see something with metallics, glitter and sparkles and go “Oh that looks like something you’d make.” I know I technically fall under the category of being an expressionist painter, so inadvertently I paint energy, and my energy is bright and colorful. There’s a lot of movement.
In your artist bio you state that you have over 7 years of marketing and event planning experience. When did you decide to make a jump into your art career, and how were you able to use your prior marketing experience to your advantage?
Well I feel like that’s been an interesting kind of segue. There are certain things that naturally become a part of your character and how your brain operates. For me I know how to package and market myself, though obviously there’s always room for improvement. But I feel like I’ve been able to figure out a formula that works for me.
I still do fashion marketing for other brands, and sometimes people come to me for consulting. There’s a brand I’ve been working with now for over a year called ÖFUURË, and we are based in Toronto. I’ve been working with that line and it’s all African inspired fashion. I’m actually wearing something from them right now! It’s cool to be on the marketing side and to work on fashion without having to do all the ins and outs of running a full brand.
Looking throughout your artistic career, what was your favorite project or commission to work on and why?
Okay so I went to Atlanta recently and I worked on my largest canvas yet, seven by ten feet. I did that for the McClure twins who are Youtube superstars. Their Mother actually commissioned me to come down. She reached out to me online and was like “Hey! I really want you to create some stuff for our house.” So she flew me out and I did an accent wall for their playroom and a canvas. It was definitely challenging because I didn’t have an assistant or a team of people helping me, but taking on a project and being able to execute it from start to finish has really shown me how much I’m capable of doing things on my own.
Have you done anything else similar to that project since?
Well all the other large scale canvases I’ve done have been executed in studios. That was my first time creating a large scale canvas outside of the studio, and in such a short period of time. I finished the seven by ten foot in less than a week, and usually if I were to have done it in the studio I would have given myself two months to work on something like that. I’m glad I was able to pull it off.
What is your process like before starting a new project? Is it all intensively planned, or is it more intuitive?
It’s very intuitive. I feel like in my mind I will see what I want it to be like. But in terms of every stroke and detail, I just flow with the medium and the paint and the canvas.
Do you have any favorite techniques that you employ in your work?
I feel like I want to get more into using my fingers and stuff. I tend to use brushes and when I’m working on large scale pieces, I tend to use spray bottles to get the drip effect. There’s a lot of things I’m trying and figuring out as I go which is nice. I’m developing my own technique.
How about themes or motifs? I noticed that you make a lot of swirls and lines that resemble leaves or flowers.
I feel when people see my lines, that more than anything it’s just energy and movement. Most of the time it’s definitely inspired by music. I really enjoy music, so a lot of those lines if anything, are more like musical notes.
Acrylic painting with gold leaf and jewels on canvas, 4×5 ft. (2019)
You are not only skilled at running a business, but are also a very prolific artist. What do you do to keep up the motivation to create things when the business side of your career gets busy?
Yeah, that’s always the challenging part. I think I’m very emo in a lot of ways. Sometimes I’ll get into moods where I don’t want to, and even with the weather changing, it gets so hard for me to adjust. But when I feel like creating, I’m creating, and I’m not putting pressure on myself to create if I’m not feeling it.
When it comes to the business side of things, I just try to prioritize what is most important, because obviously, it’s a one-woman operation. I have to be everything for myself, which can be a little daunting sometimes, but I just take it one day at a time. I know that if I don’t get it done today, It’s okay. There’s always tomorrow, Lord willing.
As described on your website, your art is influenced by your Nigerian heritage. However, you also seem to go beyond the realm of making representative artwork. You plan events, design clothes and decorate homes with your influence. Out of everything that you have done on your platform, is there something you’ve done that you feel has significantly impacted your community?
I don’t know if I’ve done anything that has had a super significant impact. I feel like just doing what I do is impactful in a way, because what I do is very unconventional. I think typically most people that grow up in my culture are not necessarily encouraged to be an artist. It’s nice to know that by just being myself, I’m able to impact other people and show them that it’s possible. A lot of people message me all the time about how inspired they are, and how they want to start painting because they are seeing me do it.
Your VisArts’ bio states that you are a survivor of domestic violence, a very traumatic experience for anyone to go through. If you are comfortable with sharing your story, could you tell me how you were able to heal from such an event? Were you able to use your artwork to help you move forward?
Yeah! So, I am a mom, and my daughter is four years old now. We came back when she was two, so it’s almost two years ago now at this point. When I came back to this area, I came back with nothing from having to go through the whole divorce process and having to deal with being harassed.
The thing is, domestic violence is not a respecter of persons. It can happen to anybody at any level, at any class and at any situation in life. It takes a lot of courage to be able to move on from a situation like that, believing you want better for yourself, and if you have children, for your children. A lot of people don’t make it out, you know what I’m saying? So, I’m grateful that I’ve had this new start on life to be able to do what I love, and to be able to share and be honest about it.
I’m very blessed to be where I am right now and I don’t take it for granted. I know that I have a responsibility to share, because I don’t know who might hear this story or who might come across this. I just know it’s my responsibility now to let people know that no matter what you’re going through, if you really believe in yourself and believe that things will get better, they will.
Having that support system is key too. Community, family, people around you encouraging you and letting you know that things get better. You just have to take it one day at a time.
Thank you so much for speaking about your work!
Thank you for wanting to interview me!
This interview was conducted by Iona Nave Griesmann, a VisArts Intern. They specialize in illustration and are majoring in Graphic Design and Illustration at Montgomery College.