Latasha Dunston

Illustrator & Painter

Interview By Leslie Carvitto

Portrait of Latasha Dunston, photo by Alycia LovellI met Latasha at Lodged Out, a 3-day unplugged retreat for creators and makers. One of the first things I noticed about Latasha was her art supplies were always within reach. A small black bag carried her pens, pencils, and brushes. A sketchbook was glued to her hands as she drew and painted in between workshops and cross-country skiing.

Sometimes she was by herself, resting in the freshly fallen snow, absorbed in her surroundings. Other times she was surrounded by retreat attendees asking questions, voicing encouragement, and watching her replicate the scene on a large white paper resting on her lap.

When the day came to part ways, we made Latasha promise she would take the pieces she created and turn them into something that could easily be shared, a memento of our unplugged, creative time together. (She kept her promise and created a series of framed paintings for purchase in her shop.)

Learn more about her illustrations, influences, and how she plants to evoke conversation about outdoor recreation through her art. Interview below!


Find out more, in Latasha’s words:

Your focus in art school was Scientific and Preparatory Medical Illustration. What did that study entail and how did you choose it?

I have always felt extremely comfortable in the subjects of art and science. Even as a little girl, they were the subjects I excelled in naturally. In high school, I had a really cool art teacher that showed me a lot of tough love, which is all I would accept because I was pretty stubborn. He helped me gain confidence in my artistic abilities and convinced me I was good enough to apply to his alma mater (which happens to be the best public art school in the country), Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. After some research, I became obsessed with this school.

The following summer during my junior year, I attended the VCU Arts summer intensive program. Back then, I had every intention of becoming a graphic designer. After taking a project class in the program, I found out I hated graphic design! So I started to explore the other departments and that’s when I found my holy grail. Scientific and Preparatory Illustration takes my two loves and merges them into one.

Photo by Alycia Lovell

I studied Illustration with a minor in biology. It was a right brain versus left brain tug of war for five years but I managed to make it through to the end. It entailed me spending long nights in the cadaver labs with my textbook and my sketchbook, followed by even longer nights meeting peers in the art studio for group projects. It was almost like living a double life and it was quite a challenge.

In some ways, I believe that my creativity helped me advance in science, and the focus and discipline I learned from studying science helped me in my art. Scientific and Preparatory Medical Illustration is a subject I am still very interested in, but my focus has shifted into the natural science realm and less in the medical field.

You recently moved from your college town, Richmond Virginia, to Denver Colorado. What inspired the move and how has it influenced your art?

It was very hard for me to leave Richmond. I’m originally from Baltimore city and was eager to see what life would be like outside of the violence and filth of my community. On my 18th birthday, I moved into my dorm and started my life as a young adult. I soon learned that Richmond is a young and fun city filled with charm, history and a lot of good food and art! It’s where I got my first tastes of outdoor recreation outside of the city.

Richmond is only a couple hours away from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley. The area quickly became my playground. My (now) partner of five years took me on my first hike, my first camping trip, taught me how to build a fire, pitch a tent, all the fixings! I remember how scared I was my first-night camping. I didn’t sleep at all. I am way more confident in the wild now because of him.

I had been a graduate for about a year when he and I decided it was time to see something new. We were starting to feel very comfortable and since he was born and raised in Richmond, he really had an itch for a new landscape. Denver stood out to me because it had awesome job opportunities for him, and also a thriving art scene and beautiful landscapes for me. Within six months we packed up our home, pets, and plants, and drove three days across the country. We have loved living here so far.

I love that you work in multiple mediums (watercolor, ink, and digital) and have a wide variety of subjects you like to paint. Do you gravitate towards one? And if so, why?

I definitely have a sweet spot for natural science illustration. I love painting landscapes, botanicals, animals, and bugs. It’s very meditative to me. I get a feeling of euphoria when I experience a new landscape for the first time and that is the emotion I try and capture in my artwork now. I draw inspiration from the colors and textures in the landscapes I visit and bring them back to my studio to influence my art. 

Lately watercolor has been my weapon of choice. I love the way the paint gives to the paper and makes such expressive patterns. I also love how versatile it is, and how I am able to achieve multiple styles.

When I am not recreating the beauty of nature I tend to fall into portraiture, specifically women of color, like myself. I love the complexity of faces and just like in my landscapes, I try and capture the emotions that person is feeling. There is so much beauty in shades of brown skin that is overlooked, and I want to highlight that in my paintings. Basically, I paint what I love and that is how I stay passionate about my artwork.

Can you speak about your recent experience at the Lodged Out Retreat, and what it was like being outdoors, unplugged and surrounded by creatives? What was your biggest takeaway from the event?

Lodged Out was unreal. The experience checked off a lot of firsts for me. It was my first trip to Washington and I never thought I would find myself in the mountains, surrounded by strangers, and be so eager to hear everyone’s story. I had never seen a landscape as magical as the snowy mountain valley that Tall Timbers Range calls home. The air was so crisp and the trees were unbelievably tall and thin. I had never seen anything like it, or experience the feeling of speechlessness for my dear life. I want to feel that sense of awe and wonder as many times in my life as possible.

The lack of distraction allowed me to be present and take in all that was happening around me. When I wasn’t painting, I found myself just sitting, watching, and smiling at all these strangers laughing and smiling with one another. It was really beautiful to see that all these different characters find a common joy in the outdoors and were able to use that common ground to open important discussions and learn more about each other.

 

Latasha painting at Lodged Out Retreat. Photo by Alycia Lovell

I fully embraced the unplugged aspect of the retreat. I was so excited to finally be forced to keep my cell phone in my bag because, like a lot of you, I have my phone in my hand way too often. It has become such a bad habit! To be in a situation where I could not use it was so refreshing. The lack of distraction allowed me to be present and take in all that was happening around me.

When I wasn’t painting, I found myself just sitting, watching, and smiling at all these strangers laughing and smiling with one another. It was really beautiful to see that all these different characters find a common joy in the outdoors and were able to use that common ground to open important discussions and learn more about each other.

Watercolor of Tall Timber Ranch in Leavenworth, WA

My time there was extremely valuable and I have made connections I would’ve never had the chance to otherwise. I also had my first taste of winter “plein air” painting and I fell in love. You notice so many more details about a landscape when you are sitting in it at the moment. I love that you grow more connected to the land as you study its textures and colors. It was wonderful! I thought I would be totally out of my element, but somehow fell in love with cross-country skiing and fluffy mounds of snow! Who would’ve thought?!

What are you passionate about, and how does your art serve those interests?

I didn’t know how to label it before, but I have a strong passion for the outdoors and its relation to mental health.  I hope my art inspires peoples own curiosity about landscapes they haven’t seen.

I grew up in a place that was not very supportive of being different or seeing new places. Even to this day a lot of my family finds it weird that I enjoy sleeping outside, and they couldn’t imagine why I would want to. I want to help change that perspective and make new experiences more approachable and interesting.

I strongly believe that spending time outside in fresh air and away from daily stressors is extremely healing for the mind. It gives you the mental space to think without boundaries.

Photo by Alycia Lovell

I strongly believe that spending time outside in fresh air and away from daily stressors is extremely healing for the mind. It gives you the mental space to think without boundaries.

The best part about stepping outside of your comfort zone, in order to expand your experiences, is that you can take those experiences back home to share and inspire others. That is really what drives me and those interests are infused into my artwork. I try and capture those moments of exploration in my landscapes and scenes that I paint. I also take field notes and photos of greenery and shrubs when I am hiking in order to use and references in other artwork. I hope my artwork inspires people to go out and enjoy nature and appreciate its beauty.

What creative projects are you most excited about this year?

I am really excited to start a series of illustrations to evoke conversation about outdoor recreation. From listening to Katie Boué talk at Lodged Out and chatting with her and a group of passionate outdoor enthusiasts, I was able to see that outdoor recreation is something I am already passionate about. Even as a city girl I have always found joy in my local parks and can sniff out a green space in any city!

I think it is important to highlight the different levels of outdoor recreation and know that you don’t have to do extreme sports or venture out into the wilderness to reap the benefits of the outdoors. I want to use my art to open that discussion. I am excited to draw from these new experiences and conversations and dive deeper into nature and public land issues to incorporate into my artwork!


Photos courtesy of Latasha Dunston & Alycia Lovell 

Latasha Dunston is an artist based in Denver, Colorado. Find more of her work on Instagram, see her portfolio at Jitterbug Art.