Selima Dawson

Sponsored by The Pittsburgh Foundation and Opportunity Fund, the Exposure Artists Program (EAP) is guided by a shared belief in the need to support creative practice, to cultivate and fund diversity, and to advocate for racial justice in the arts community. EAP aims to elevate the work of artists through activities that create/generate/enhance visibility for the creative process, artwork and social issues of our time. Selima Dawson is a 2022 EAP honoree.

In February 2022, The Pittsburgh Foundation awarded over $200,000 in funding to recipients of its inaugural Exposure Artists Program. This award is designed to support creative practice, and promote diversity and racial justice within the arts community. TABLE contributor Jasmine Zavala sat down with four awardees, each awe-inspiring and tenacious, who shared the impact that this grant has had on their lives and their artistry. One common theme: space. Whether physical, emotional or aspirational, each artist discussed how this award granted them more room to continue expanding their craft. Jasmine hopes that their stories inspire you to save a little art in your heart by attending one of their upcoming events, lingering at that mural a little longer, or even whipping up a sketch of your own. After all, as artist Clara Kent says, “Art is for all of us.”

As she lifts up a piece of gilded wire mesh and runs her fingers along the carefully placed wood and shell beads, I feel in awe of the task that visual artist Selima Dawson has ahead of her. Dawson is owner and metalsmith of Blakbird Jewelry, a line comprised of sleek, hand-cut bronze accessories. With pieces like bean pod hoops and ginkgo leaf dangle earrings, it’s hard to imagine how Dawson manages to make such a strong material look and feel so light.

“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever worked with, and I think I really like that. There’s a certain amount of strength you have to put into working with metal,” she says.

Selima’s smithing is well-known in Pittsburgh, but she has recently felt the call to shift to something that hits a little closer to home. Her current project involves using genetic memory to study African ancestry, by combing through her old family photos, conducting research at the Schomburg Center in New York, and having conversations with newly found loved ones. The end result? Pieces that share her family’s complex story, preserve their memories, and deepen her connection with her late parents.

“My dad [a painter] had a show in Paris and I found a self-portrait that he took at Notre Dame. I showed my nephew that photograph and it turned out that nobody in the family had seen it before. It’s interesting because it seems like this is something that’s meant to be. You know? That my dad wanted me to have this picture so I can share it with my family,” says Selima.

Embarking on this artistic journey has allowed Selima to connect with her father’s relatives, share stories about his life, and make new memories together. “I was actually able to give my nephew one of my dad’s prints because he didn’t have any of his work and it really, really means a lot,” she says.

 As the daughter of two artists, Selima learned early on to listen to her intuition and to start creating with what she had. “My mother was a seamstress, she was a quilter. She was just always doing things with her hands. There’s a lot of things that I actually didn’t see my dad do, but my mom would tell me about the way that he worked. He definitely used everything that he had. He would make something out of nothing,” she says.

Selima’s father passed away when she was 10 years old, but she still finds a way to connect with him through her artistry. “Art was a way that we connected before he passed away, but that’s also a connection that I’ve maintained with him because as I’ve grown up. I’ve learned more about him as an artist and have taken things from that,” she says.

With the grant from the Exposure Artists Program, Selima has pivoted from producing new jewelry for Blakbird. Her current project, The Memoranda Project, has prodded her to expand her artistry through the utilization of new techniques, and to meld her metal craftsmanship with her visual art background.

“It’s a very intuitive process that I’m still figuring out how to do, but I know that I’m supposed to be doing it,” she says.

I scroll through her social media page and find handwritten letters worn at the edges, a lovingly framed photo of her mother whose eyes she shares, and small metallic paintings that depict snapshots of what is to come. Each post provides a heartfelt reflection of the complex emotions that she unravels at this stage in the process. I ask Selima what receiving this award means to her. “It’s just very validating. It is confirmation of being on the right path and it’s nice that somebody was interested in my story. They thought it was something that they wanted to see more of.”

To witness what Selima refers to as “An Artistic Tribute to [Her] Ancestors,” follow her Instagram @thememoranda. The vignettes that she provides into her creative process are just as awe-inspiring as the story that she is unfolding about her family.

Read about other 2022 Exposure Artist Program honorees:

LaVerne Kemp

Winston Bell

Clara Kent

STORY BY Jasmine Zavala/PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jeff swensen


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