Interview with Dale Washington: “The Power of Creation Is the Act of Doing”

Dale Washington has turned his cozy apartment into a self-made gallery with his paintings, drawings, ink work, assemblages, and new art hanging on nearly every square inch of wall space. His work deals with everyday people and situations from nudes to landscapes, from jazz clubs to fish fries, and everything else in between depicting the urban Chicago lifestyle. A self-professed “obsessive-compulsive,” Washington creates when he is driven to do so and is talented enough to work “in all media” or uses “whatever is available at the time.” Featured in Daniel T. Parker's book African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond, Washington has exhibited at Gruen Gallery, Steele Life Gallery, South Shore Culture Center, Southside Community Art Center, Beverly Art Center, Hyde Park Art Center, and other galleries in Chicago and throughout the U.S.

Landscape. Oil pastel on panel board. Courtesy of the artist.

If an artist is not growing, what good is practicing his craft? As a practitioner, I feel that my latest pieces should be the strongest. For the landscape series, I started with a photograph of trees in the fall. I already had the oil pastel bars because I had been using them in a portrait series, and I started smashing them up on the canvas panel and letting them take their own shape, just having fun working and still getting the essence of the trees. It's all there: the shadows, the dark trees, and the background. I smashed whole sticks in some instances. I finished the work with polyurethane and let it sit out for the last day and a half to dry near the window.

ArtStyle: How did you get into art? Did you always want to be an artist?

Dale Washington (DW): I was born in L.A., but I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I said at 6 years old that I was going to be an artist. I've stuck with it through every grade and every step I've ever gone through with family and relationships. This is my life's work. I feel other people went to school to become artists, and I went to school as one because I had made up my mind at such an early age. I was raised in a foster home, but I learned that my biological mother was an artist. I went to Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio on a one-year fellowship. I returned to Chicago to finish at Columbia College and graduated in 1986 with a B.A. in advertising. It was only a means to an end because I decided I needed to make a little money until I was ready to show professionally. I worked in advertising and continued to do my work and started showing professionally 15 years ago. I've taught in the Chicago Public Schools, the Artist Resources in Teaching (ART) program, Hyde Park Art Center, and I just finished an after-school program on the west side at Catalyst Charter School.

Ball Point of Dolores
Dolores. Ball point pen. Courtesy of the artist.
Dolores Pastel
Dolores. Pastel. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What is the CAAP Grant that you have from the Chicago Cultural Center?

DW: The CAAP (Community Arts Assistance Program) Grant I have involves portrait work of artists, administrators in art, and art collectors in all of my various styles and techniques. I will have a solo exhibit in July of 2008 at Hyde Park Art Center. This past Sunday I stayed up with a good friend, Tracy Ann Simmonds, working on the project, having collectors come in and pose. I had a collector come through named Dolores, who likes my ball point pen work. She sat for me and I did this ink drawing in about 15 minutes. I also did another portrait of her using oil pastel sticks. Working freely allows me to keep my mind active and to loosen up more and that's what led to these drawings. I allow the creative process to work continuously. My statement of purpose is: “The power of creation is the act of doing.”

Red Sunrise
Red Sunrise. Assemblage. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: I noticed that you have several collage pieces on your walls. How did you create them?

DW: I call them assemblage pieces. This one is Red Sunrise and once again I start with an original photograph. The first process was to adhere objects such as broken glass, old frames, and paint brushes into an organic representation of the image. Then I dry brushed red paint onto the composition. If you really pay attention, everything is converging where the sun would have been in the sky on a hazy morning. All of this is leading right into that area.

Old Checker Board Lounge
Old Checker Board Lounge. Ink and pastel. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: How would you describe your paintings?

DW: I use all types of media and cover all subject matter. Everything is from original photographs that I've taken or original drawings that I've sketched at jazz clubs, blues clubs or some of the festivals and other activities throughout this city. Patric McCoy refers to me quite interestingly enough as the “Visual Griot.” Patric goes on to say, “He tells both his story and contemporary history through a series of drawings, paintings, assemblages that he has produced since the late 80's…he has seen us.” All of my work deals with everyday situations.

The Old Checker Board Lounge, a blues club, was on 43rd right off King Drive. You have the old men just sitting around in the bar, having their drinks and listening to the blues. I would sit in the Checker Board when I first moved back from California, where I lived for a while. I had my sketch book and just sketched everybody sitting around waiting for the music to start.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about what you like about doing art?

DW: I like the excitement of doing it. I have to push myself where I'm not just sitting here and saying tonight I'm going to do art work. I feel a need to do it. I'll find something else to do with my time if I don't feel like doing art. I've learned that if you don't have patience, you have nothing. So the need to be obsessive compulsive and excited about working will be there, and time will dictate to me when to get back to it. I feed off of it mentally. I tell a lot of friends, if you thought the way I do, you would go crazy. I'm always drawing and painting in my mind.

ArtStyle: Do you have a complete image of something in your mind before you get it down on paper or is it just the process you're working with?

DW: It's just the process and just outlining everything. I can be sitting by myself and just outline the whole room. I'm counting every brick, and I'm laying down the whole framework for everything architecturally. But it doesn't necessarily mean that I will try to express every detail on paper.

The Naming Ceremony

The Naming Ceremony. Ink and water color. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Is your work autobiographical?

DW: It's interesting to capture my life story and tell everything that has transpired through my existence in my work as well. I had a few collectors come through in the last week and they loved this piece called The Naming Ceremony. The mother of my youngest son, Shiloh, is Nigerian, and she wanted a traditional Nigerian naming ceremony. I had Adedayo Laoye, a Nigerian artist who lives in Chicago, perform the ceremony. Dayo is holding up the plate and administering the herbs explaining what they mean as far as life's substance and passing it around. Standing in the circle are: Ifeoma Nkemdi, the mother of my son Shiloh; this is me; this is Shiloh’s grandmother holding the baby; this is my other son, Messajah; and my daughter, Dale.

ArtStyle: How do you approach your art?

DW: I am meticulous about how I handle my life, whether it's my children or my relationship with their mother. There is a way of doing things in the right manner, being positive about it, being patient, trusting that the outcome of whatever aspect of what you're doing will work through to everyone's advantage if you don't deal with things in a negative manner. I approach my art in the same way.

I teach abstract drawing and painting at Hyde Park Art Center, and the first thing I tell the adults is that I have no word for abstract. I tell them that we all will approach this with a different frame of mind as individuals. It's up to you to give a definition to that specific term. I say my work is considered abstract but it's based on photos or sketches I've done of reality-based situations, so what is abstract. Now they have to re-think a word that we really had not defined before.

Tuesday Dinner

Tuesday Dinner. Ink. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Let's talk about your ink drawings. How do you approach them?

DW: I would do 50 to 60 drawings until I get a nice flow and feel comfortable with it and then let it take its own shape. Trust and ability will be revealed in the work. I always say you can look at an artist who works in ball point pen and ink and tell if they were comfortable with a specific area or uncomfortable with it because there will be a break, and then you can tell they stopped. You can almost hear them talking through it metaphysically as they work.

ArtStyle: Why do you keep drawing and re-drawing the same scenes?

DW: It allows me to understand every small nuance that is taking place in the original photo. If I'm doing a jazz piece at a club, I only have maybe 10 seconds to get the essence of the moment. I need to re-do it to understand what a particular line was saying about the precision of the hands, the instrument, the gesture, the emotional state of the musician while he was performing. I re-do it because I don't want to lose any of those qualities, and so I make sure I have a strong understanding of what I had 10 seconds to capture, and I work it again and again until it becomes a mental state of being.

ArtStyle: How do you determine your subject matter?

DW: Within the last two years, at the beginning, I did mainly figurative work, illustrating my children and the pregnancy of my son Shiloh's mother. In Dan Parker's book African Art: The Diaspora and Beyond, a lot of people were connecting with my nude figurative work. He said, “This brilliant artist teaches us to love and to celebrate our bodies.” But in my separation and no longer being in relationships, I stopped doing the nudes and did more landscape work. It was just a natural transition.

A Woman Resting
A Woman Resting. Assemblage. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about your studio practices? How do you prepare yourself before doing anything?

DW: I'm always excited about starting a body of work. I have at least 15 years of sketch books. For example, the sketches of my sunrise work where I'm on the lake at 5 or 6 in the morning during the summer watching the sun rise, and then you can see the general process of the sun moving and shifting. After I have the sketches, I come home and go to my supply closet and pull out everything and lay it on the floor. I go to the sketches, and I might start re-drawing, and I let the work start taking its own shape. Like this series of a woman resting. I did variations of it. I started doing brush and ink. I might do 100 variations. I just keep working and working from that particular series.

From these 100 different variations, whatever stays in my mind, I go back into them. I pull out more supplies, which is why my work is done in such a wide range of media, and I just go with the flow and let it take its own shape. From those final ones, I let someone pick out the ones they like the best. I always say my best work is the work that nobody has ever seen because of that process.

Dale Washington can be contacted at

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