This Octogenarian is Still Creating Meaningful Art in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
By Denise Laitinen
Lots of five-year olds like to draw, but few at that age know they want to be an artist when they grow up. Fewer still grow up to actually become an artist—and a famous one at that, with their work appearing in National Geographic, numerous books, national parks, and even on postage stamps.
Such is the case with Hilo resident John D. Dawson. As a young boy in San Diego, John knew he wanted to be an artist. Growing up, John spent a lot of time outdoors at his grandparents’ cabin in the Laguna Mountains and was active in sports. He’s quick to point out that his parents and teachers were supportive of his passion for art.
“Kids tend to get discouraged [to pursue art careers] by junior high school,” says John. “I had a really good junior high school art teacher and a great high school art teacher. My parents were always supportive too.”
Upon graduating from the Art Center School, Los Angeles in 1960 with a degree in illustration, John left sunny Southern California for Detroit. “A lot of illustrators were moving to Detroit at the time,” explains John. “That was the place to get noticed as an artist because the car industry was using a lot of art to sell cars.”
After about a year John returned to his native San Diego. With the Vietnam War on everyone’s mind, he joined the Army Reserves and applied to be a pilot, only to discover he was colorblind. “It explained why I never did well in my color theory class,” he says with a chuckle. John joined an advertising agency in San Diego where he was the firm’s only illustrator for 16 years, creating artwork for corporate clients, but nature was calling. John found himself spending weekends outside, sketchpad in hand, creating wildlife drawings. He knew he wanted to be outdoors drawing wildlife instead of inside, drawing ads for banks.
Setting out on his own as a freelancer, John had no idea his work would one day be featured in publications such as Time Life Books, Reader’s Digest, Audubon, Field and Stream, among others. Or that his clients would include the US Forest Service, the United Nations, the US State Department, StarKist, Quaker Oats, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Wildlife Federation, just to name a few.
He started out modestly enough, illustrating college textbooks. In 1977, the family relocated to the mountains in Idaho. It was there John and Kathleen became motivated to move the business into more of a national/international market for illustration.
From illustrating textbooks and other publications, John found himself working for National Parks Service publications and Readers Digest Books division. In turn, he also started illustrating for more publications, such as Ranger Rick magazine. “I’ve been working for Ranger Rick since 1978,” says John. “The people I work with now probably weren’t even born when I first started doing art for the magazine.”
When your career has been as long and successful as John’s—spanning nearly six decades—it’s easy to gloss over the hard work involved. John recalls a time when he and his wife Kathleen spent weeks traveling up and down the East Coast cold-calling and meeting with the art directors of different magazines and publications to line up work. This was before portfolio websites and video conferencing, when if you wanted to meet with a publisher to show them your artwork, you had to travel to their offices, usually in New York City, lugging large oversized portfolio cases with you.
John kept in touch with his contacts and in the early 1980s was approached by Howard Paine, at the time the art director of National Geographic, to create illustrations of ants. “He wanted me to do 22 painted illustrations of ants,” says John. “It was the largest art project National Geographic had undertaken at the time.” John spent two years studying ants and sketching ideas in preparation for creating his paintings. As part of his research, National Geographic sent him to Harvard University six times to meet with Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson—renowned scientists who were considered the world’s leading expert on ants. In June 1984, the National Geographic article with John’s artwork was published to rave reviews and three of his paintings from that article were featured in a book, The Art of National Geographic, a Century of Illustration. The project also led to a collaboration between the scientists and illustrator, with Holldobler and Wilson using a number of John’s National Geographic art in their 1991 book, The Ants, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
By the time Holldobler and Wilson’s book, The Ants, was published, John and Kathleen had moved to Hawai‘i. “The kids were grown and moved out,” explains John. “Both of us were tired of Idaho’s cold weather and Kathie had always wanted to live in Hawai‘i. We didn’t know anyone in Hilo, but warm weather beckoned, so we loaded everything into a 40-foot container and moved to Hawai‘i Island in 1989.”
As the couple got settled in their tropical home, John’s work frequently took them back to the mainland. A casual lunch with an old colleague during a trip to Washington, DC, resulted in a highly successful partnership with the US Postal Service.
“We were at lunch with Howard, who was the National Geographic art director we had worked with on the ant article. He was also serving as one of the art directors for the US Postal Service. “We told Howard Paine the story about meeting Morris the Cat and doing art of Morris for a revised version of the 9 Lives cat food label,” said John. This gave Howard an idea.
He gave us the job doing a set of postage stamps on cats,” recalls John. Thus began several decades of working for the United States Postal Service. John did a handful of stamp series, including American Cats (1988), Idaho Statehood (1990), and Flowering Trees (1998), in the beginning.
While working on those postage stamp series, John illustrated another book, The Grand Canyon: An Artist’s View in collaboration with long-time friend, writer and naturalist Charles Craighead, based on their travels along the Colorado River. Juggling all these projects, John and Kathleen still found the time to explore the natural environment of their Hawaiian home, spending many hours outside. John sketched trees, plants, and animals while Kathleen took reference photographs and notes for John to refer to later as he painted.
John had spent years working on different projects for the National Park Service when Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) contacted him shortly after moving to the island, asking if he was interested in creating a mural depicting the ecosystems found within HVNP. In preparing to paint the mural art, John and Kathleen spent one day a week for several months out in the field, exploring with USGS botanist Linda Pratt, who showed them plants and animals that HVNP requested for the art.
“We learned so much,” says John of those hikes. “The mural art never would have been as accurate without the help and input of the park staff who went out of their way to support us in our research.” In 2005, the Kīlauea Visitor Center within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park reopened after extensive renovations, with the remodeled center featuring John’s mural in six, two-foot by four-foot art panels. Kīlauea Visitor Center also houses other supporting art by John included in their display. His illustrations can also be seen on 64 plant signs dotting trails within the park as well as several other waysides displays. By the time the Kīlauea Visitor Center reopened featuring his art murals, John was in the midst of a 12-year project for the US Postal Service.
In the late 1990s, the USPS had another new art director who had seen John’s work in National Geographic. John was asked to create paintings for a stamp sheet on the American desert. That, in turn, led to him receiving the contracts to illustrate the Nature of America stamp series featuring 12 stamp sheets, each depicting a different American ecosystem from the Sonora desert to the Hawaiian Rain Forest. From 1999 to 2010, one stamp sheet was released annually. During the same time period, John also illustrated more than a half dozen guidebooks on dinosaurs, reptiles, birds, and poisonous animals. But it was the Nature of America stamp series that drew the most acclaim.
The stamp series was so popular that when the USPS released the stamps each year, they held large unveiling ceremonies. John recalls one unveiling during a stamp convention in Madison Square Garden where he autographed stamps eight hours a day for two days straight. Such was the success of the stamps that John had his own personal bodyguard and had to be escorted even to use the restroom during the stamp signings.
For the final stamp in the Nature of America Series, the Hawaiian Rainforest, the unveiling ceremony was held at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park in September 2010, with the late Senator Daniel Inouye unveiling the stamp amidst much fanfare.
At a time when many might consider taking it easy, John is gearing up for his third one-man show at Volcano Art Center, which happens to coincide with his 80th birthday. The show will feature 20 new paintings of ‘ōhia that John created in honor of the tree that’s now imperiled by Rapid ‘Ōhia Death.
After 41 years of marriage, John and Kathleen still work as a team, and spent hours outdoors hiking, roaming, and studying the flora and fauna in preparation for this upcoming show and future art projects.
“We wander these trails and areas looking for special trees, plants, scenes. Kathie takes reference pictures, makes notes of them while I sketch, study, absorb. When we get home, we review the images on the computer and I choose the image(s) or a combination of them that serve as my inspiration for a painting,” explains John.
“I’ve had a great time going out in the field, not just seeing all the different varieties of ‘ōhia, but how it comes together with the rest of the nature within the Park. I’m excited about the show because I have a special fondness for the ‘ohia, but also because it is coinciding with my 80th birthday, which falls in the middle of the show.”
John Dawson’s paintings of ‘ōhia will be featured in his one-man show at the Volcano Art Center within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park from August 26 though October 8. The art exhibit is free; park entrance fees may apply. For more information, contact Volcano Art Center at 808.967.7565. ❖
Contact John Dawson at: jdawsonillustration.com.