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Dawn Lee Thompson

Warwick, NY USA

Art articles written by Dawn Lee Thompson

Since I made the leap, filed the paperwork and founded Indeestudios Glass and Illustrative Art 5 years ago, I've been constantly learning. I look back and can see definitive lessons and phases; learning the skills, defining my style, exploring new techniques, dealing with difficult clients. This year has been my year of public commissions.

Fortunately, my first experience with a public commission was a gentle one. A nearby college town library was celebrating its 125th anniversary and received a grant for a commemorative artwork. They put out a "call for submissions", I submitted my proposal and it was accepted. I created the work, installed it and got paid.

The submission process was daunting, but I drew from my experience with private clients to guide me. Rather than a simple sketch, I provided a full color digital mockup of my proposed pieces, as, in my experience, non-artists often cannot visualize from sketches well. I composed a respectful and friendly cover letter, praising the committee for their commitment to the arts and the community, as well as the typical "pick me" resume checklist. I provided quality images of previous work and composed my artists' statement for my proposed piece with the likely vision of the committee in mind. I am convinced that my careful preparation of my proposal contributed heavily to my being chosen over artisans more experienced.

"Pixilated Earth from Space" Waverly Public Library

My next public art experience presented itself before I had quite finished with the first. A former client was approached by the local library board about donating art for the children’s area of the new library under construction. She agreed, with the stipulation that I was to receive the commission. And then began the meetings!

They seemed endless! Meeting with the library board and patron, meetings with the architect and interior designers. Meetings with the library director and contractors.

The first meeting was a bit of a mind blower. You all realize I work in glass? Well, the architect and board wanted a suspended installation, "like a mobile or kites or something". Hmmmmm….. I’m thinking on my feet. They DO know I work in glass right? Glass and metal? And that those things are heavy? And that they want this art to hang above little kids’ heads? So my first realization about this project is that it isn’t going to be a "pop a panel in the pre-made hole" kind of commission. I play it cool, take lots of notes on their ideas, get the building blueprints and set up the next meeting.

Initial blueprint drawing of story area

I did some research, looked up suspended glass installations and figured out it could be done within the means of the patron, printed some examples and headed to meeting two somewhat more prepared. After a lot of argument between board members and some gentle guidance from me, we decide on fused pieces, with a "simple and elegant design, contemporary, but recognizable and accessible to the children." We set up another meeting to look at my designs. That meeting goes swimmingly, the budget is approved and I’m ready to go.

Shortly thereafter, I received a call from the library director asking if I can come look at some of the building plans. They were unhappy with what the architect drew up for the doors and windows into the children’s area where my art would be featured, and were having trouble articulating what they would like. "Dr. Seuss but not so feminine and retro, but still fun and playful" was the direction. I drew up some things that were promptly approved by the board and architect, and I became the "go to girl" for design advice.

The next call I got was for help in designing the donor wall. The condensed summary is as follows; meetings, arguments, meetings, agreement, architect hates agreed upon design and refuses to draw it up, draws up something different the day construction must start, library board is furious and has me tweak his design. The contractor and construction crew are pulling out their hair, and I’m in the middle. The good news is, the board wanted stained glass incorporated into the wall and I’ll be paid for those services. I go with the flow, come up with a design that everyone is OK with at the last minute and can get back to doing what I really do. (You know, glass art!)

Final donor wall proposal

And finally, 11 months after I was first approached, it is installation time. Thanks to careful planning oversight, the suspended installation was a breeze. The donor wall….not so much. They didn’t use the lighting I recommended for the wall, opting for undiffused LED, so there are some hot spots and an overall "bluing" of the glass colors. Not a single wall opening was uniform or square, requiring major trimming of the panels, and in a few cases, actually cutting down the glass to get a good fit. But despite the problems, both installations are in and ready for the public!

What did I learn? For practicalities, I learned that time put into a proposal is time well spent. Friendly, fast and responsive service leads to happy clients and more commissions. Being able to accurately visualize in 3 dimensions and communicate that vision to the client is a must. You should be prepared to spend, literally, at least twice as much time preparing, planning and meeting as you will spend working on your art. Budget for that time or plan to donate it. Expect snags and complications, and be grateful if things go smoothly.

I also learned that having your art displayed permanently in a public area is intensely gratifying. Being responsible for the visual impact of a public space is a weight, but a successful result and the wonderful feedback is immensely fulfilling. I look forward to visiting these places of learning and feeling a sense of contribution and pride for years to come. And when the next opportunity for pubic work arises, I’ll be ready to go!

"Prairie Box Kites" Fused glass, zinc and stainless cable

Independence Public Library donor wall 14’x10’ featuring 12 8"x34" stained glass panels

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