by Amanda Dillingham

When Natalie Dunham left Franklin to enter Birmingham-Southern College she had no intention of becoming an artist or working in a gallery. She began undergrad as a business major going through school on a soccer scholarship.

After five separate ankle surgeries, her soccer career came to a halt. Most students not able to play would lose financial support, but the school was willing to let Dunham work to keep her scholarship. Working for the soccer team was too heartbreaking, but serendipitously another door opened, a job as the art gallery assistant. By Dunham’s junior year she had shifted completely from business to a BFA in painting. After Birmingham-Southern, Dunham attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and received her MFA degree in sculpture.

The theme of accumulation has been constant since graduate school, and she approaches the sculptures as if a three-dimensional sketch, purposefully leaving the materials raw. The collection of material, such as pet screen, twine, strappings, and shims, assembled loosely on rods and brackets, allows the shapes to morph and shift freely.

Most sculptures grow from the wall or the ceiling. At times large enough that one can even walk through them, her sculptural installations overwhelm by their sheer size, but, contradictorily, the natural materials provide moments of meditation, similar to a Japanese Garden.

Dunham’s work is incredibly process oriented, and, like the contemplative emotions her sculptures inspire, the pieces function as a form of relaxation for Dunham. As she states, “When life is crazy the work is more controlled, and when life is calmer the work is looser.”

In graduate school, artists are afforded the opportunity to work interrupted days with designated studio space. The real trials come after, when one must juggle a creative process with lack of equipment and a full-time job. As Dunham puts it, “figuring out the balance of life out of school.” As she moved back to Franklin, Tennessee, she looked for a job that would keep her involved in art and was hired as the gallery director at The Rymer Gallery.

In her current position, Dunham assists in installing and designing contemporary exhibits. Her minimal aesthetic is reflected through moving from larger group shows to more intimate one- or two-person exhibits.

In June, Dunham partnered with her alma mater to bring four artists from Baltimore to Rymer, one even receiving representation. When visiting Baltimore, Dunham thought of herself as a Nashville art advocate, enthusiastically championing our growing art district and contemporary art scene.

She enjoys working with the artists on honing down their shows to a more selective exhibition: just because an artist has twenty drawings doesn’t mean that they should all be exhibited. When asked if her job has influenced her artwork, Dunham responded that it definitely makes her think more about marketability.

At the moment Dunham is shifting from her gallery director duties to concentrate on her own art making. Most recently one may have seen her meticulous sculptural installations exhibited at the Seed Space in Veneer, and in October she is part of Unaltered and Enduring, a two-person show with Luke Hillestad at The Rymer Gallery.

Dunham’s colossal artwork shows how confidence, ingenuity, and craft can create peace for an artist while making thought-provoking sensory experiences. Her astute personality allowed Dunham to change directions while finding a new passion that is clearly evident in the strong quality of her art.

Rymer Gallery show opens October 6–November 3. Seed Space show runs through October 26. www.nataliedunham.com

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