The Sixties never died, at least not on the palette of Dawn Aquarius. Steeped in the music, lore, visuals, fashions, and vibes of that decade, the 37-year-old Los Angeles artist has been turning heads with her personalized take on that psychedelic epoch. Amy Haben spoke with Dawn Aquarius for PKM. Let the sunshine in, Dawn and Amy…
While I curse the day most influencers were born, there is something magical about Instagram. It’s a safe space for artists and photographers to showcase their work to a mass audience. Underground talent once dormant in the dark, has been thrust into a giant, worldwide spotlight.
This is how I found groovy artist Dawn Aquarius. Her dayglo, psychedelic paintings are reminiscent of the work of ‘60s pop artist Peter Max. The lovely flow of her lines offer the viewer a happy, childlike wonder. These bright images, which Dawn sometimes presents in short animated clips, send us time traveling to an era of beyond beautiful women with big hair and short hemlines dangling on the arm of a velvet-jacketed musician.
The cool as ice suited mods with shag haircuts of the mid-Sixties gave way to mini skirts, sexual liberation, women’s rights and the anti-war movements. An air of freedom and change wafted in the breeze along with the marijuana and patchouli. Freedom from societal repression, mixed with teenage naïveté and a good helping of psychedelic drugs sent the youth packing to another dimension. One their parents would never understand.
This lovely, 37-year-old Los Angeles native isn’t just an artist who throws on blue jeans with paint splotches. She is a fully immersed Sixties doll. From music, art, vintage clothing, hairstyle, ethics, aesthetic…, her soul is a senior citizen. I caught up with Dawn recently to get the scoop on where it’s at.
PKM: The ’60s seem to infiltrate your art. What would you say is your most inspiring part of that era? Music, fashion, visuals, etc.
Dawn Aquarius: The ‘60s definitely seep into everything I make, wear, watch, and listen to. It all sort of melds together, though, in terms of what specifically inspires me. I feel like more than the psychedelic duds, mind-expanding tunes, or avant-garde films, it’s the essence of the moment that created an explosion of experimentation in every facet of culture—I think that’s what gets to me and moves me. There’s this duality of innocence and darkness that I love, like at once you’re a hippie dippy flower child, but you’re into dropping acid and witchcraft, tarot, the occult, astrology. There’s a wide-eyed childlike vision of the world and the future, but it’s laced with something more savage. I’m inspired by whatever that is! Of course, I’m obsessed with music and the transformative power of that medium (I collect both LPs and rare n’ bizarre ‘60s 45s), and I have a closet stuffed full of eye-punishingly bright dresses. It’s all an endless well for me to draw from.
PKM: Take me through your artistic process?
Dawn Aquarius: I usually have some idea fermenting in my brain from either the night or day before, or some fragment of a half-remembered dream is still floating in there, and before I even sit down to draw, the completed piece is in my brain. I know exactly what it’ll look like before I start, down to the palette usually. I draw in bed, almost always watching or rewatching some movie or TV series, usually ‘60s or ‘70s stuff, sometimes 80s D horror, sometimes 20s-50s cartoons, lots of afterschool specials. I use super cheap materials, plain printer paper, a junk clipboard I bought at a thrift store for $1, mechanical pencils, flair felt tip pens, and then I splurge on fancy Microns for fine line work. I sketch everything super tight (it looks identical to the inked version), then I ink it. Most of my pieces (non commission) take me around 2-3 hours from start to finish, and I immediately have the weirdest mix of emotions after I’m done. It’s like relief, grief, anxiety, and pleasure all rolled into one momentous thing, and I’m exhausted on top of it. I’m not sure what most artists feel, but that’s my post-creation dysphoria! And then I do it all over again, because, well, I’m addicted to it.
PKM: Where did you grow up?
Dawn Aquarius: I had a childhood split between the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, and the fairly rural mountains in California. Suburbia was very typical ‘80s California. I grew up in a Quaker town, which if you don’t know anything about that strange offshoot of Christianity– it’s kinda the flower power version of it. I think they were even considered a cult at one point, “The Religious Society of Friends.” They were basically draft dodgers, conscientious war objectors, gentle people. I think growing up with the idea that nonviolence was the very least I could practice in my life really paved the way for my later studies in Tibetan Buddhism, which became a major part of my life from my early 20s up to today. We moved to the Sierra Nevadas when I was in elementary school, and that turned my whole life on its head. Suddenly I could wander into my backyard and be in some magical forest away from all humans. I developed an intense inner fantasy world, almost like an alternate reality, and to this day I half-exist in whatever realm was created in that time. I remember firmly believing I was speaking to plants, trees, the wind, which is something I circled back around to in my years of experimenting with psychedelics in my 20s. It’s wild to think that as a child your mind is so open that you can experience connections that take mind-altering substances in your later years to reawaken! I later moved back to the suburbs of LA with my family and gratefully emerged from my extremely awkward early teen phase to discover that I was an hour’s drive from the Sunset Strip, Canter’s, weirdos, music freaks, people like me.
PKM: Who are your favorite artists?
Dawn Aquarius: I love Aquirax Uno, Martin Sharp, Hapshash, David Palladini, Elizabeth Sonrel, Victor Moscoso, Wally Wood, John Alcorn, Milton Glaser, Keiichi Tanaami, Esteban Maroto, Tadanori Yokoo, Basil Wolverton, Marijke Koger, Heinz Edelmann… I also love Medieval tapestries, 16th-century Flemish paintings, illuminated manuscripts, Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s weird kids in ecstasy with dead animals, Ralph Bakshi cartoons, fairytale books from all over the world, pop up books with mushrooms and mythology, gilt French Rococo furniture, trashy ‘80s sci-fi and horror VHS boxes…
PKM: Do you believe in the positive effect of bright colors on mood?
Dawn Aquarius: Oh, definitely. I’m endlessly curious about color’s ability to transform emotions. Wassily Kandinsky had theories about artistic expression and the mood of specific colors and color combinations. He was a student of the occult, and made all these connections between color, sound and vibrations that really melted my brain. For me, a palette in a piece is as visceral as music, and color has mystical properties. It’s probably part of the reason I only wear super-saturated clothing, and surround myself with bright prints in my home. I have a kind of synesthesia with colors, so I’m probably on the extreme end of the spectrum. It’s like color empathy.
PKM: Who are some of your favorite musicians?
Dawn Aquarius: Music Emporium, Pretty Things, Catherine Ribeiro, Broselmaschine, Mark Fry, New Tweedy Brothers, Group 1850, Pussy, Mort Garson, Bonniwell Music Machine, Harmonia, Ultimate Spinach, Chamaeleon Church, Magic Carpet, Pearls Before Swine, Harumi, Incredible String Band, Gandalf, Nirvana (U.K.), Kaleidoscope (UK), Cosmic Jokers, Gong, Damon, Twink, Trader Horne, Silver Apples, Soft Machine, Brainticket, Robbie Basho, Chrysalis, Bruce Haack, JK & Co, Deviants, C.A. Quintet, Fifty Foot Hose, Peter Walker, Amon Duul II, Terry Riley, Goblin… way way more. I also listen to a lot of Baroque harpsichord and English Renaissance lute music. And ragas.
PKM: How old are you?
Dawn Aquarius: 37! It still blows my mind whenever people ask me. I don’t know any 37-year-olds who have as large a collection of unicorn needlepoints as I do. I’m immature in a lot of ways, and expect to continue being so for as long as humanly possible.
PKM: How do you think artists should be using their talents during times of social uprising and political unrest?
Dawn Aquarius: It’s hard to say how people should be doing anything. I know that personally everything I make is highly sensitive to my feelings about the world, and there is always a seed in every piece I make. An idea that I’m aware I’m transmitting to other people for germination in their own mind. My art is very simple, but sometimes simplicity is the best way to communicate complicated ideas. I think that an artist should always be compassionate, but often that translates into different things. Art is mercurial, and expression can’t really be told how it should be made, either as a reaction or as an action, or call to action. I do think the worst disservice an artist can do both to their own work and to themselves is to tune out and be deaf to the injustices of our world. We aren’t living in a fairytale, and being conscious is important to our own personal growth and our metamorphosis as creators. I’ve been grateful and inspired to see the myriad of ways my fellow illustrators have been taking this moment on.
PKM: Ideally, where will you be in 2030?
Dawn Aquarius: In a rainbow painted cabin in the woods in California somewhere, wearing a velvet robe, lighting a fire in my fireplace, with my robot dog fetching my hand-whittled cane. Maybe on a distant planet, since I’m not sure this one’ll make it that long. Maybe I’ll be cruising the Bardo for a new incarnation by that point!
PKM: What song would you want played at your funeral?
Dawn Aquarius: Hands-down, “Glass Top Coffin” by Ramases. Weirdo morbid glam rock from a British guy who thought he was the reincarnation of the Pharaoh Ramesses. Does it get any better? I don’t want a burial though. I want a sky funeral!