Artist’s Palette is a column that connects with the artists, designers and creative innovators in the music and outdoor worlds who drive the visual art we connect with.
As someone who grew up in relatively open space surrounded by Maryland farmland, I forget how there is plenty of agriculture to be found within the concrete jungle. As someone who is now experiencing growing their first peppers, tomatoes, flowers on pots perched on a third floor apartment balcony I now understand how special it is and I’m humbled by the art and dedication that goes into being able to reap what you’ve sown by the street corner.
It’s why I was very excited that artist Latasha Dunston (and her little dog Leelo) wanted to meet up at the West Washington Park Community Garden, only a couple minutes walk from her home. She has a couple beds full of kohlrabi, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, all sorts of things really, and on this particular cool Saturday morning her garden looked so vibrantly alive against the grey, black and reds of the city around it.
I coulda asked her questions all morning about her vegetables and flowers and how she got them so big and bountiful but I needed to get to other things. Talk about being humbled by the art; Dunston is a Maryland native like myself, from Baltimore, who has taken a varied approach to her art that has helped express the outdoorsist life she’s been living.
Her skillset is rooted in the meticulous and scholarly pursuit of scientific preparatory medical illustration (think lifelike drawings of skeletons and organs), where technique is critical and observation key. It’s served her well as she’s led plein air paintings for outdoor groups like AdventurUS Women this past spring. She’s also done the logo for local BIPOC climbing club Cruxing in Color, created the poster for Boulder’s Bands on the Bricks music series and will be featured in the upcoming guide book How to Suffer Outside by Diana Helmuth due in September (preorder here).
The recent pinnacle was collaborating with Merrell on their Outdoors for All collection, which prominently featured a raised fist categorized and colored by different environments. Her work is featured on shoes, hats, shirts and tote bags, massive exposure for someone who’s proud her art is being used by others to feel more seen, heard and supported in an outdoor community and culture that doesn’t usually feel made in their image.
“I had a buddy from college who sent me a picture while he was househuniting in Sacramento of a framed print of the fist. People will see it in shop windows and stuff and I’m glad other people can use it to express themselves because that’s what art is for, expressing yourself,” said Dunston.
After we finished our conversation, Dunston was kind enough to pick some vegetables from her garden for me to take home, including a cute bouquet of marigolds and sunflowers for my fiance. As I was leaving I thought it might be nice to take one of her plein air painting classes in her garden, surrounded by the literal fruits of her labor. I found it quite serene in Dunston’s little grove of green and she was able to show me that I might need to take a trip to the city next time I want to get outside into nature. That’s what a good artist can do, give us a whole new perspective on something we thought we already knew about.
The following is a conversation with Latasha Dunston. It has been edited for length and clarity.
You studied scientific preparatory medical illustration at college? How did you connect with that and what kind of foundation did it give you?
Scientific illustration is a very specific niche of people who study like doctors and think like artists. It’s really hard but a lot of fun if you are that type of person. I was inspired to get into that because I was a huge fan of the show Bones and in the show there is a character called Angela Montenegro who does art to help solve crimes, bone things and facial reconstruction, stuff like that. But she still expressed herself with her own art and had that balance. I was swooning over that.
I knew I wanted to be an artist but I thought I wanted to do graphic design. As a teen I knew that’s what I wanted to do and I went to VCU’s (Virginia Commonwealth University) summer intensive program for high school students in the tenth grade. I got some grants to go and went to do graphic design. That’s when I discovered I hated it, it was soooo boring.
I also didn’t like how much they didn’t use the traditional mediums. I ended up looking for other programs within the art school and that’s where I found Communications Art. This sounds exactly like what I want in my life. It felt so divine.
I really liked the educational component of it, it was like an art medium that taught people stuff. To create art where it looks like you can pick it off of the paper, It felt elite. In art history you learn of artists as scholars. Da Vinci created things and drew, they used math, grids and perspective to communicate and it felt like I was a part of the greats. To be an artist that was smart and knowledgeable I found a lot of pride in that. They take away the scholarly part of being an artist and I think that’s really important.
I know you believe that nature and the outside world can be important to your mental health. In what specific ways do you think you use the outside world to deal with your mental health?
To me, nature proves to me I am boundless. When you go out into nature for the first time there are a lot of unknowns. Facing that fear is really empowering and as someone who is an intermediate outdoorist I am still facing those fears and learning stuff. It’s this ever changing experience where you feel like you grow every time.
Solitude also gives me space to think without distraction. Living in the city and having a partner that lives with you can be really distracting and keeps you from focusing on yourself. Nature allows me to self-reflect and check-in with myself. You have to step away in order to have the space to digest things that are going on.
You’ve said you hope your art can push boundaries. Is there anyone in your personal life who you think might have benefitted from your art pushing boundaries or the way you’ve directed your life?
I think I’m a pretty good role model to my cousins I have, I’m from a really big Caribbean family. In my immediate family are my little sisters. I’ve felt the freedom you get when you leave home and where I grew up it’s pretty oppressive. Baltimore city has this tunnel vision and everyone does the same thing, there’s generational poverty and people aren’t encouraged to leave. There’s been people for generations that don’t leave their neighborhood, they’ve never left the west side of Baltimore.
Luckily my uncles lived kind of far away and my grandmother loves to travel and would take me on little trips. I always knew traveling and leaving is possible because I came from an immigrant family, my grandmother came over in the 60’s from Jamaica.
Plein air painting was one of the first things that drew me to your work and you both paint for yourself and teach others. What are some of the principles of plein air painting from your perspective?
Having patience (laughs). Watercolor is hard enough and then you have elements changing or wind can blow up a bunch of dust that gets in your painting. To get the best experience out of it and not feel defeated is to go with the flow. Dirt blows onto the paper, dirt is now a part of the piece (laughs). Maybe it adds a cool effect or when it dries you can move it out of the way and it leaves speckles.
There are times where I’ll be teaching and doing my demo and I’ll be talking about how you have to make mental notes of clouds and things that change and I’ll turn around the sky is completely different. Sometimes the painting is changing and the landscaping is changing at the same time.
There’s so much to think about from color to shadow. You paint a clear sky and it was sunny, but then clouds came in and now your landscape is shadowed. You have to keep making sure everything is consistent and you have to be a good observer.
What type of satisfaction does your partnership with Merrell bring and where does the view from that one commercial art peak inspire you to move next?
I’m really proud of that collection with Merrell. It’s another accolade to keep in the box in my head where I know I deserve cool experiences. I’ve worked extremely hard for it and I’m one of those people that I knew I wanted to be an artist at an early age. I don’t have imposter syndrome even though I come from humble beginnings, I’ve been working for this since preschool (laughs). It feels right. Essence Magazine did a write up on it and I was like, ahhhhhhhhh! That was so cool, it was even better than the shoe (laughs).
What’s next is continuing my relationship with them and pushing this kind of imagery and conversation forward within this industry. I’m really proud of the community it’s built because people have so much pride when they wear it out on the trail and they feel seen.
What is something that’s caught your curiosity in terms of you playing with art?
I really want to get into this artist residency at the Botanical Gardens. I really want to dive into my roots with medical illustration and doing studies and resharpening those skills. I went against it so hard when I graduated because I felt like it stripped me of my creativity. I needed time to find my illustrative style and now that I’ve found my style I miss that part of my creativity. That’s what’s cool about art, I never want to be put into one box and do one type of thing. I find so much joy in that because my art is always going to be changing.