Alumni Programs is denoted as AP and Dionne Bonner is denoted as DB in this interview.
AP: Tell us about yourself.
DB: I am a visual artist from Tacoma, WA and I have lived here all my life. I am a mother, community member, and storyteller. I am very observant of my environment, people, and society.
AP: What brought you to Evergreen?
DB: I wanted to go to Evergreen for a while. I received my associates degree in Graphic Design in 1994 from the Art Institute of Seattle, then there was a long period of time where I didn’t have a chance to continue my education because I worked full-time as a single parent.
I researched colleges in the area and Evergreen stood out because of its flexibility, evening class schedule, non-traditional focus on education that informs the work you are doing, and the philosophy of the institution. I attended the Tacoma campus, which was the best option for me, and took most of my courses in the evenings and online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AP: Were there any classes or faculty that inspired you while at Evergreen?
DB: Yes. Gilda Sheppard, who was also my advisor, her classes were so interesting to me. I think it is because of the approach I take with my work; I tell stories visually and her ability to teach storytelling through different mediums, looking at topics through a social lens was inspiring. All the instructors were inspiring though, because of the model that Evergreen follows, we all really teach each other through community-based learning.
AP: What sparked your interest in art?
DB: My family, because I come from a family of artists, musicians, writers, singers, everything! So, I grew up with art around me in one way or the other, so I think that inspired me even when I didn’t realize it. That is how I went down the road of being an artist. There were other opportunities of exploration by being exposed to different artists in this area (Tacoma/Seattle) and abroad. The initial desire was being comfortable and through individual expression through my home life. Because there was creative expression, and it was natural for me I was encouraged to do it and I saw it all around.
AP: What art project or piece has been the most impactful for you?
DB: The recent BLM (Black Lives Matter) mural in downtown Tacoma is definitely important to me, but I would say my first series of paintings left the biggest impression on me. The way this series played a role in the trajectory of my path as an artist was unique. They were originally 12 larger than life portraits of African American pioneers of the PNW, that exhibit introduced me to not only discovering the touch and style of my art, even though I explored a lot of that in art school, I really developed my skill and technique through that experience. It was my first major job and series, and it introduced me to history I did not know or was not taught. It opened a door for me to explore even more Black history in the PNW and all over the world really. It also inspired the story telling aspect of my art, so many things grew out of that one project like researching subjects and how that inspires me as an artist.
This portrait series has been exhibited throughout Washington State, I was originally hired by a museum in Tacoma (no longer in existence), and they hired me to do one of their main exhibits, this one, and they exhibited it with their other collections. When it dissolved it came back to me, so I have exhibited it in different ways, even the Evergreen Tacoma and Olympia campuses have hosted the work. In February 2023, some of the portraits will be at Tacoma Community College for a group show.
AP: The motto of our Tacoma Campus is ‘Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve’, what does depart to serve mean to you? How have you embodied the motto within your art?
DB: I think going back to when I mentioned my education at Evergreen, it informed my work and was fluid, very much a part of my work, not separate from. I believe that the reason I wanted to go to Evergreen was to 1.) gain knowledge and learn about myself and 2.) challenge myself to grow, I think as an artist it is easy to do, the thing we are so good at, and I wanted to push myself and think about my art in a different way. So, I enter that space with that hope and knowing that everything that happened to me in my life and skills gained are always informing what I do; but specifically, my goal was to be a better communicator with my community and to make a bigger impact with my work.
I want to do work that is transformational in some way, whether small or large, but I found that just having that desire to do work is not enough, you really have to make an effort to expand your knowledge base and really be a student. That helped me have a different perspective and approach to public art that I did not realize I was already doing somewhat but needed to learn more. Evergreen helped with that, some of my classes touched on working with and listening to communities; and the responsibility I have to care for those stories. I want to tell authentic stories and care for and be responsible for how I tell community stories from those who are different from me. Through my work, I want to bring a light to issues people aren't thinking about or to talk about things they haven't talked about or feel uncomfortable discussing.
AP: What impact or legacy do you hope to make through your art?
DB: When I create, it's about expressing how I feel about something even if it is a story. When it comes to the legacy/impact, I just want people to see the humanity of a certain group, my community is the African American/Black community, and I have different intersections as a woman of color and single parent. I want to show the beauty, vibrancy, and resiliency of the Black community, especially here in the PNW. If there was any legacy, it would be that I was true to representing my community and that I represented the community in a positive way.
AP: Do you have any advice you have for current Greeners looking to become more involved in community arts?
DB: I think trust your instincts, that is something that is not always easy to do, but you have to be confident in your ability, believe in yourself, and vision. Start finding areas that interest you that you feel passionate about, and it doesn’t have to be related to art, but what you do as an artist is use the art to connect to that thing.
Be a whole person, live your life, have joy, bring peace in your life, and trust your instincts. Artists are instinctively gifted, but we have to nurture our gifts through community and whatever else is needed. Surround yourself with people who can challenge you but can also support you. There are a lot of ways to get involved through the city, arts commissions, theaters, galleries, local or groups. Just reach out, it can be hard, but push yourself and breakout to get around other artists, there is so much energy there.
AP: Who/what inspires you?
DB: For me, I am inspired by our humanity and the complexity of humanity. Being resilient and fragile, that dichotomy and difference really makes us whole. I'm inspired by people and all the things we go through, triumphs, challenges, and how beautiful that is in the larger scheme of things. That connection in parallel with our environment is very powerful.
I was not exposed to art galleries, museums or formal exhibitions until later in life. So, I read magazines and things around the house. Norman Rockwell's images would be in magazines and when I looked at them, it brought me joy, I found that so interesting. Later, I learned about Jacob Lawrence’s work, he is a Black American painter who depicted African American historical subjects as well as contemporary life through portraits. When I studied art history, I was very fond of Claude Monet’s impressionistic and pastel works, of course Michelangelo, and many Black local, national and international artists. Expressing and telling stories through art is really what has stuck with me and continues to inspire me and my artwork.