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AMONG FRIENDS: Artist Dawn MacNutt has been driven to create

An armful of willow boughs in the hands of Dawn MacNutt represents potential without limit. An internationally known artist, she can manipulate the boughs to depict a mother and child or a requiem for a lost loved one.
An armful of willow boughs in the hands of Dawn MacNutt represents potential without limit. An internationally known artist, she can manipulate the boughs to depict a mother and child or a requiem for a lost loved one. - Rosalie MacEachern

An armful of willow boughs in the hands of Dawn MacNutt is potential without limit.
An internationally known artist, she can manipulate the boughs to depict a mother and child or a requiem for a lost loved one.  
Little Harbour sculptor Dawn MacNutt’s works have graced Rideau Hall, the Museum of Civilization, New York’s Museum of Art and Design, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and many an international gallery.
But collecting her materials along the rural roadside keeps her in touch with nature. 
“I love to work with willow and it is so available to me,” she said.
MacNutt, who has spent most of her life in Dartmouth, returned to her Pictou County roots when she married widower Merle Pratt and moved to his property which included an old, unused farmhouse.
“In cleaning it out and converting it to a studio, we discovered initials on the hand-hewn wooden beams and with some research we learned the house had been built by my great-great-great-grandfather for his family.”
Born at Black Point, growing up was a struggle to make ends meet but she jumped at the chance to attend Mount Allison university where she studied social work and minored in fine art. She studied art and worked with the likes of renowned artists Mary and Christopher Pratt and Tom Forestall, but wasn't confident she could support herself as an artist. 
“I knew social work would be where I’d make my living but my minor was very meaningful and I appreciated the exposure to so many forms of art.”
Her first job in social work was in Pictou County but she later moved to Dartmouth where she married and had three children, finishing a masters degree in social work when they were very young. 
“Through the years I worked in mental health and family counselling, in hospitals and with the family courts and while I’d have enjoyed art full-time, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the experiences that came with social work because they have certainly influenced my work.”
MacNutt insisted her clients showed her vulnerability, courage and resilience, all themes which occur repeatedly in her works, currently being exhibited until June 15 in a show called Limitations at StudioLab Gallery at 199 Provost Street. 
“We decided to call the exhibit Limitations because the space is limited but I am delighted with what Ken Roux has accomplished. Skillful lighting and professional placement and spacing give each piece a profile of its own.”
She pointed out limitations are actually positive and helpful when it comes to exhibiting. 
“You are forced to review your work, to discuss it, to edit out some favoured pieces because they may not be the best selections for the space. I totally enjoyed the discussions involved in that process.”
Even as a busy working mother, MacNutt was driven to create. In those days she worked in a small space behind her home furnace. In the mid-seventies she began weaving, and went on to study extensively, exhibiting her works in local art and crafts shows which resulted in invitations to other events, including joint and solo exhibitions. She also began to experiment with weaving wire.  
“The forms I could create with wire just appealed to me,” she said with a shrug. 
Over time she learned to electroplate the wire creations in a chemical solution to give greater stiffness. With many large works, she eventually had to design metal supports.
“It was difficult and challenging but I knew I wanted my pieces to be fixed, either standing or lounging or in whatever position.” 
That led her to become interested in casting as a complement to her work and she began to study foundry science.
“In the bronze casting process the original piece is destroyed so I learned I had to use combustible materials such as willow, honeysuckle, wisteria and grapevine. Casting made my sculptures suitable for outdoor presentation.”
As MacNutt continued to show her work, she began getting sales and commissions.
"Seeing galleries and individuals interested in my work spurred me to work even harder. I wanted to stretch but always to do the very best I was capable of.”
By the time her children were grown, she was single again and ready to risk working full-time as an artist.
“That no sooner happened than I hit some lean years when people seemed to have little money for art. I took on projects like invisible weaving for a department store, working a day a week at that. I understood people needed bread and butter before art but it was a great relief when I started selling and getting commissions again.”
It was at that stage MacNutt also earned another side of being an artist. 
“I realized if you want something you have to ask for it, you have to take a hand in making it happen. You have to make contacts and proposals and you have to keep at it.”
She and Merle Pratt met unexpectedly at a Mount A alumni event about 15 years ago.
“We’d met years and years before as students but we’d never dated or anything like that. It was just nice to meet him again and I suppose we had Pictou County in common to begin with. Moving back here has been a big change after so many years in Dartmouth but Merle has broadened my life in so many ways.”
Ruefully, MacNutt joked she cannot afford her own work these days. 
“To cast a 10-inch figure costs about $950, plus shipping (to a Georgetown, Ont., foundry) taxes and, of course, my time. Art is the manifestation of a peculiar or at least a particular vision and my work is not everyone’s taste.”
One of her larger figures currently being exhibited is named Mabel, representing the wife of Alexander Graham Bell. 
“It is Mabel Bell walking down to fetch her husband. It is a case of what I like to call fortunate adversity – if she’d not been deaf she’d never have met him and yet, what a match they made.”
The Mabel piece sells for $4,000, as does another representing folk artist Maud Lewis, prices being determined by evaluations at major shows, MacNutt explained. 
“But I also do lots of small pieces because I believe it is important to exhibit some work that is accessible to people.” 
The current exhibit, a balance of small pieces and large structures, reflects her belief that some art must be accessible to most people. Smaller, whimsical wire pieces such as Betrothed and Elegance, sell for $500. 
In recent years MacNutt has begun adding patination or colour to her works and she jokes it may have something to do with the new direction of her life with Merle. She also admitted to being deeply disappointed when a recent commission fell through. 
“Works by two artists were being considered and they chose the other. It happens all the time but by that time an artist is often very invested in the piece so the disappointment is definitely there.”
A few weeks shy of turning 82, MacNutt said she finds enjoyment in friends and nature but she is still driven to produce. The deck on her studio is filled with green willow boughs and she nodded toward a nearby pond which she uses to keep the willow pliable. 
“I’m delighted with this small exhibition in New Glasgow and I really feel I have at least one major exhibit to go, but right now my immediate priority is finishing a willow bower for my granddaughter’s wedding in June.” 

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