Touchstones | a visual conversation between Dawn Surratt and Sal Taylor Kydd

Touchstones | a visual conversation between Dawn Surratt and Sal Taylor Kydd came down in the Gallery recently.  We hated to see it go. It was a true joy having this creative conversation between these collaborators and friends in the gallery over the past month. The images are simple, soft, understated — referencing childhood, past experience and longing.

They have created diptychs and both have written poems to go along with each set of images. They chose a call and response process for their image making, akin to African American gospel music – one making an image and sending it to the other to elicit a visual response. Combined with the poems it is a very compelling and moving choice.

In addition to the beautiful photographs, they chose a unique way to present the images. They are printed on a Japanese paper and mounted on the wall without matting or framing. The poems are printed on thin silk and attached to the wall with pins used to mount insect specimens in museums. Consequently, the poems become ethereal living things — moving as the viewer passes, slightly fluttering in the breeze created by the gallery visitor or the heating system fan.

Each day walking through the exhibit I tried to come up with a single word that best defined the work. The word that finally came to me was Elegiac. It seemed to me that there was something of an elegy in the quiet exchange between the poems and photographs. Not sure that I absolutely knew the true definition of elegy, I went to google and found:  elegy; a poem of serious reflection.

Reading their bios and statement about the work explains more of the feeling I got from the words and photographs — Sal speaks of memory and Dawn tells of her experience as a social worker in a Hospice setting. The genesis of the project was the time we have all spent in isolation over the past two years. Walking amongst the work there is little question that the collaboration is about empathy, connection and loss.

I have a question I would like to ask them: So, are the poems and images elegies or are they omens, harbingers or antecedents of elegies or something completely different?

Sal:  I have to admit I was not spurred by creativity at the onset of the pandemic. Like many of us I felt like a deer in the headlights, uncertain and overwhelmed, not knowing which way to go. Working on Touchstones was a real lifeline. It gave me a goal each week as well as something to look forward to at a time it felt that was really missing. When I look back on the poems written during that time, they were all, in one way or another, returning to themes I explore in my work as a whole, family, legacy, memory, love. My response to the pandemic and the ongoing threat of the climate crisis did surface now and then, but it was more that this unique time allowed me to explore my recurring themes on a deeper level. An elegy implies a mourning, in that sense my poems aren’t elegies for something lost, I see them rather as songs that keen in the night, calling for the dawn.

Dawn:  The poems I wrote were direct reflections of the range of emotional responses I had to the changing world around me. Because the world has been so volatile in the last couple of years, the poems may seem more like elegies, but they were not consciously written as such. At the time of their writing, I had not yet experienced a loss of a family member due to the pandemic. I am quite certain that if I were writing poems for the project now, my poems would feel differently. My hope is that there is always a balance in the messages of the poems that reflects the wide range of feelings that I experienced while moving through change and transformation.

Kevin:  Tragedies and upheavals always instigate change. You both have mentioned how current events have had an impact on your art. How or will having lived and worked through the pandemic change your art practice going forward?  I have experienced and read conversations with artists questioning the relevance of art in our troubled world – facing climate change, etc. Thoughts? 

Dawn:  I remember an amazing video that was made during the pandemic of a string quartet that played to an auditorium filled to the brim with plants instead of people because people were not allowed. The yearning to creatively connect with others was so strong and so powerfully depicted in this video that it moved me to tears. It made me reflect about my own relationship with my art and gain a deeper understanding about how much the arts are needed and valued. How they connect us and educate us and move us. That when we are stripped bare and the noise of the world quiets around us, that love, connection and beauty are the only things that matter.

Sal:  That is such an interesting question and one I think we all can relate to. In the face of such crises, it is the natural and important task of the artist to question and test our relevance, to ask the hard questions about why we are making the work that we do.  In the end though I believe we can only make the work we can make. There is social justice documentary work that really helps push society forward and creates real change and thank goodness we have that, it’s a necessary conversation and engagement. My work does not operate on that level, it is not documentary, but in my interrogation of ideas around the reliability of memory, how we preserve and reframe our memories in forming our identity, that’s a universal theme and one I hope people can connect to on a variety of levels. In the same way in Touchstones, we were each exploring ideas around isolation and the need for connection – I think everyone can relate to that and hopefully find some solace and connection there. That for me is ultimately why I make the work that I do, to connect with other people through the work.

Kevin:  You both speak of connection. Having placed the work on the wall and lived with it in the gallery I can say there is a seamlessness to the images and the poetry. It is impossible to know which of you was the creator. What did each of you see in the other and how did the collaboration come about?

Dawn:  I had been a great admirer of Sal’s work for quite some time before I finally had the chance to meet her in 2019 when we were in a show together in Savannah, GA.  We had several days together to get to know each other better and bounce the idea of a project around. We had a loose idea and the commitment of a collaboration by the end of that visit and then we firmed up the project after we both returned home. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from Sal and how much I appreciate her vision, her wisdom and her humor. Working on this project with her has been an absolute god send for me during some challenging times, but the gift of her friendship has been the best treasure of all.

Sal:  I echo Dawn’s sentiments completely! Dawn was my artist-crush on Instagram for some time before we met and working together in person only cemented my admiration for her work and respect for her as an artist. We called the project Touchstones, as each exchange of words and images provided a place to land, to feel anchored and connected as the turbulent waters of the pandemic and world news swirled around us. When the work is done, and the prints come down from the walls, our friendship will endure as a lasting testament to an inspirational creative journey.


Kevin:  Thank y’all for allowing us to exhibit the work and for your thoughtful answers to my questions.


To see more of their work :

Dawn Surratt
Sal Taylor Kydd

To preorder a copy of their book featuring Touchstones A Passing Song