After a personal tragedy changed her life, award-winning artist Dawn Adams is finding peace through her paintings of marshes, lakes and the open sea.
In her Bloomington studio, Dawn Adams layers more shadow along the bank of a creek bed on the four-foot-square canvas. Dawn’s silver, pixie-cut hair and her layered charcoal and cobalt sweaters blend into the autumn scene. To her right, stained paintbrushes fill glass jars like bouquets of wild bluets. Some bayside-blue paint splatters break up the otherwise all-white blocks of the basement walls.
Stacks of audiobooks – Dexter in the Dark and some Elmore Leonard stories – decorate the washing machine behind the 58-year-old artist. The more interesting the story, Dawn explains, the longer she’s likely to paint. An eight-foot-long painting of Lake Michigan spills from horizon to shore across two canvases in the center of her studio. It’ll sell for $7,500, she says.
A few feet away, blue ribbons from the juried Fourth Street Festival of the Arts and Crafts hang among other prizes. Dawn has won six first-place ribbons since 2001. For the last two years, her collection of water scenes have taken the top painting prize. She’ll enter up to 14 pieces again this September.
While she paints fulltime now, Dawn used to work on large glass pieces with her husband, Dale Steffey, an artist who now collects rare books and unique artwork. The basement stairs divide her painting studio from their glasswork storage; card tables and wooden shelves house disassembled works.
On a chair in the brightest corner of the basement sits a framed portrait of her son, Wade. He’s 15 and wearing a poppy-colored polo. Shaggy brown hair sweeps across his eyelashes. His dimpled chin softens his strong, square jaw. He’s smiling.
BY THE TIME Dawn puts on her smock, it’s 4 p.m. – a late start. She was on time for her usual morning meditation and hike with her “schnoodle,” Zeus, a schnauzer decorated in kinky black poodle curls. Today, Zeus got to romp around a lake on the Indiana University campus that inspired Dawn’s “Color Modulations” painting. After hiking, she tried to donate blood, something she does every eight weeks. For the first time, though, her iron was too low, so she headed home for lunch. Dale is home for lunch, too.
“You’re like a yeti,” Dale salutes Zeus with a burrito in one hand and a box of dusty discoveries on his hip. Dale carries the box to the patio. He’ll sort through it later while Dawn paints. In the past few years, Dale’s artistic energy has morphed from creating to collecting.
“It’s the treasure hunter in him,” Dawn says with a laugh. “He discovers it, he researches it, and ‘Oh my goodness, look at what I have found.’”
Dale’s compilation of books and pottery, prints and posters are on display in every nook and cranny of the artists’ home, where the decor seems rather Modern Mongolian. A framed tapestry hangs above a sleek leather couch embellished with silk pillows. Rugs trail through the living room to the basement door. A Buddha sits among six family photos.
Dawn hustles up and down the basement stairs to collect forgotten items – the phone, her glasses. It’s part of her painting preparation ritual that she repeats every afternoon. Then, she gives herself something like a pep talk. She examines each canvas and looks for a problem that needs fixing.
Water is still a new subject matter for Dawn, and from realism to abstract, its possibilities can be rather overwhelming. But nevertheless, she finds water to fit a non-formulaic style that prompts experimentation.
“My vocabulary is getting bigger, but I don’t tend to do the same thing over and over again, and so I don’t always know how to fix it,” Dawn says. “I have to give myself permission to try something if I’ve got an issue.”
Dawn’s biggest challenge with her water paintings is light refraction – balancing contrast levels and deciding how to get her translucent paint to look like light on water. She gauges how closely her painting should follow the photograph she took at the scene, and she deals with the daunting question of whether she’ll be able to finish, though she always does.
But she doesn’t have much time for self-motivation today. She adds some depth to a bend in the creek bed and then heads to her 6 o’clock committee meeting for the Fourth Street Festival, of which she’s vice president.
“It’s a lot of work,” Dawn says, but worth the effort. “I feel like it’s a way to be involved in the community and to sort of nudge it in a certain direction.”
DAWN HAS BEEN nudging the Bloomington art community since the late ‘70s when she was an IU graduate student. She met Dale in a Brown County crafts gallery where they sold stained glass and laughed about the macramé owls. They married in 1980 and began to showcase their glass collection at art fairs. Their frit-and-fired portfolio grew to well over 50 large glass wall hangings.
Their son, Wade Steffey, was born on June 10, 1987 – Dawn’s first and only child. Growing up with touring artists taught Wade how to make friends easily and quickly. He went to Bloomington South High School and was an Eagle Scout in a troop that was mostly Bloomington North kids. Dawn and Wade did taekwondo together almost every day. He ran cross-country, mostly because it – unlike schoolwork – was a challenge. Wade wasn’t a top runner, but he stuck with it. He had a knack for math and a slight interest in photography, but he wasn’t artistic like his parents. After a decade of art fairs and one particularly uncooperative trip to the Fourth Street Festival, Dawn gave in and called off Wade’s “art education.”
“I made him walk through it, and I said, ‘Tell me three things you liked,’” Dawn recalls with a laugh. “And it was like a big eye-roll the entire time. He was so huffy about the entire thing.”
A couple of years later, Wade surprised Dawn by showing up at her festival booth voluntarily. It was the final festival he’d be able to attend before leaving for Purdue, and Dawn was delighted. Today, if you ask her about Wade, it’s always the first story that comes to Dawn’s mind.
AT THE START of their second semester at Purdue, Wade’s roommate went home for the long MLK weekend, and Wade went to a party on campus. When his roommate returned on Tuesday, Wade wasn’t in their dorm room. The lights were on, Wade’s computer was on, and his shoes were there. Wade’s roommate alerted his own mother, who called Dawn and Dale to ask if they’d talked to Wade recently. Dale didn’t think much about it, considering that college freshmen, with their newfound freedom, aren’t inclined to regularly update their parents. He called Wade’s phone and sent him an email with a deadline to respond.
That evening, the IU men’s basketball team was playing Iowa. Dawn and Dale had invited some friends over. They offered reassurance during the game.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“He’s just off somewhere.”
But by the end of the game, Dale was worried. He called the Purdue police. They already knew Wade was missing and said they’d call back.
At 11 police asked Dawn and Dale to come to West Lafayette. Two hours later, they picked up a missing person’s report with their hotel key.
The next couple of days were spent convincing people that Wade hadn’t run away. He was a straight-A student. He wouldn’t have left without his laptop or his shoes. He always wore those shoes. He didn’t have any issues with his friends or roommate.
For a week, they hung around the Purdue police station and joined search parties. Wade’s classmates posted notices on social media.
“HAVE YOU SEEN WADE?”
“Last seen on the night of Fri., Jan. 12 wearing a blue and white striped button up shirt.”
In the center was a snapshot of an 18-year-old Wade, with an Adam’s apple and a shorter haircut than he had in the portrait in Dawn’s studio. But he had the same dimpled chin and smile.
After a week in West Lafayette, Dawn and Dale made the tough decision to come back home to Bloomington. They worked with local and state police and even an FBI agent. Wade’s story made national headlines. Dawn and Dale were interviewed on Indiana, Florida and Maryland TV stations, and “Without a Trace,” Nancy Grace and “Good Morning America” aired their son’s story.
“It was all public and everybody got to be right there with us,” Dawn says. “Being shy didn’t count. We had to go out there and do the best we could for our son. All those tendencies got trumped by the need.”
Between interviews, Dawn insisted that she and Dale resume their glasswork. It was a way to keep their hands as occupied as their worried minds.
As Dawn and Dale talk about those nine weeks, Zeus, a therapy dog, cries in his sleep.
On March 19, 2007, nine weeks after Wade disappeared, Dawn and Dale got the call. A body had been found at an electrical supply unit close to the last place Wade had been seen. Dawn and Dale took Wade’s dental records to West Lafayette. The coroner had identified him by his clothing, student ID and phone. He had been electrocuted when he wandered into the high-voltage area.
“I was very thankful that we found him,” Dawn says. “We have met people who hadn’t found their missing child.”
For the next month, Dale describes the separation of his mind and body. He couldn’t concentrate, he forgot things, and he even ran into furniture and walls. He began to meditate and revisit Buddhism, which he had briefly explored in college. Dale and Dawn had left Wade’s belongings in his dorm room at his roommate’s request, and when they came back to campus in April, Dale found a miniature Buddha figurine among his things. They didn’t know the extent of Wade’s involvement with Buddhism, if any at all, but Dale felt this was a sign he was on the right track.
He was, however, no longer on the path to making art. Eventually, he let his artistic interests shift to collecting. “I was never the artist at heart that she is,” Dale says of Dawn.
DAWN COULDN'T SLOW DOWN, THOUGH. Creating was coping. She returned to what she was trained to do – paint. In their glasswork, she had been drawn to swimmers. This water immersion was a healing idea – hence the titles “Calm Waters” (2007) and “Ease” (2007) – and it carried over to Dawn’s current collection.
“The question was what did I want my artwork to do, and I thought that I wanted my artwork to be healing,” Dawn says. “The water just immediately became the subject matter because I had worked with water before.”
Since 2009, Dawn has filled canvases with scenes from Virginia Beach, Michigan and the lakes and streams around Bloomington. Because the smallest painting can take at least a month to finish, Dawn takes photographs rather than painting on-scene. Then, she alternates opaque and translucent colors in layers to create depth. Before she determines whether a painting is finished, she sometimes employs a method she learned as a 12-year-old: She looks at the reflection of the painting in a mirror. The flipped image shows mistakes or areas that need to be revisited. She also lays out her work upstairs in the living room under the same natural light in which art fair jurors will evaluate her work. It’s a painstaking process, and Dawn has gone back into her Lake Michigan scene three times since signing it.
Dawn says she finds emotion in each scene she photographs and, later, paints. She often feels a sense of calmness from a shade of silver that’s cast over the Pacific or the light refraction on a local lake.
Beth Nash, an Ohio artist and former Fourth Street Festival juror, calls Dawn’s new work wonderful. “I believe the creation of art and painting is a healing journey,” Nash says. “Her work makes me feel calm and centered.”
Dawn’s work has had a similar effect on others. A Navy veteran is reminded of his commanding officer in World War II. A cancer patient is brought to tears. “That really is riveting to have somebody respond so strongly,” Dawn remembers.
WHILE ART HAS been a driving force in working through her grief, Dawn has also found meaning and comfort in other realms. She saw the peace Dale found in Buddhism, and, after meeting local monks and adopting the idea of samsara – a cessation to suffering – Dawn began attending classes at a local monastery. “Some of the ideas about dealing with grief really hit home for me,” she says. Dale says those ideas weren’t always easy to hear at first. “But after a while, the more you thought about it, they began to make some sense,” he says, slipping Wade’s well-worn Buddha back into his pocket. He carries it every day.
Dawn and Dale spent five years in couples’ therapy. They had been warned about support groups by someone who thought they were places where grieving parents stayed stuck. Their experience, though, was different.
“Along the way we met some other parents, and we found that it was helpful to be around and to talk with other parents who had lost children,” Dale says.
Last year, IU Health Hospice’s Cindy Moldthan asked Dawn and Dale to help lead a monthly one-hour meeting open to anyone who has lost a child. Many who come are newly bereaved, while others are working through losses from years before.
Lynn DiPietro also helps with the hospice group. . After her daughter Rachel’s death in 2008, Lynn received a letter from Dawn. Inside was the original copy of the condolence letter Rachel had sent to Dawn and Dale when she heard of Wade’s death. Lynn and Dawn have been friends since.
“The same kind of beauty and tranquility that’s reflected in her art is reflected in her manner in this group,” Lynn says. “She seems to have this dimension of peace that she can transmit in the group. Her manner is very gentle and understanding and convincing. She has a sense of calm.”
DAWN PLANS TO continue painting the vast water scenes that have helped her heal since Wade’s death, but she hopes to explore a more stylized approach – a method she initially avoided. “At one point, I thought if you stylized a landscape, it took the sense of place out of a landscape,” Dawn says. But that’s simply not true, she explains.
She hopes to marry her style with that of Gustav Klimt, a late 19 th Century Austrian painter, whose landscapes up-close look like violet smears and golden dots, cartoon-black outlines and shapes of red. Klimt’s “brushy and scruffy” look, as Dawn describes it, is a far different than her own.
And you can see some stylization in Dawn’s more recent work. In “High Water,” mossy greens and maroon woods of tree bark tangle together like vibrant veins. Again, in “Willows,” cotton-candy blue branches sweep across a bank of spring-green grass. And in “Falling Water 1,” clean white strokes form a mountain stream that casts sea-foam green confetti on stone.
While her approach may change, Dawn intends to stick with her subject matter, which she calls soothing, challenging and forgiving. It refreshes her understanding of immortality, a sense Wade’s death awakened.
“I know this may be odd, but the gift of Wade’s death is being able to understand this a little bit and maybe being able to be helpful,” Dawn says. She likes to think that Wade would appreciate his parents’ enhanced sense of compassion and their ability to move through their grief.
Although she can’t imagine what Wade would be doing today, Dawn believes her son would be fine. He was capable and self-assured, she says. Before Wade went missing, he had talked about studying abroad. Japan, probably. And though imagining what could have been offers neither clarity nor comfort, Dawn and Dale do remind themselves of their son and what once was. They occasionally wear his clothing. Sometimes keeping cool in the yard with his Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association cap. Other times grocery shopping in a green and white polo Wade wore in high school. Lounging in Bloomington South sweatshirts, they’ll snack on Doritos. Not because they necessarily have a taste for the cheesy chips, but because they were Wade’s favorite.
Dawn heard one of her favorite stories about Wade in a condolence letter from a student in Wade’s Purdue speech class. The student had given a speech about a scrapbook she made with her mother. When she turned to a page with a small bag of her mother’s ashes, some classmates were disconcerted. Once she sat down, Wade leaned over and said it was OK. His mother had made a scrapbook for him, too. It was a good idea, he said.
“As a parent you’re always surprised at the lives that your child touches,” Dawn says.
DAWN PULLS HERSELF out of bed and moves to the living room. Correcting her posture in a chair, she sits next to Dale and they set a timer. These 12 and a half minutes before morning tea and a hike with Zeus are for meditation. Dawn holds her right hand in her left, palms up; she breathes. In through her nose, she smells the subtle incense burning nearby. Out through her mouth. With her eyes nearly closed, she lets her breathing overwhelm her thoughts, like waves that rush to shore.
Twenty-one breaths later, and Dawn is prepared for her day – now an empty canvas.