The story Dawnell Smith tells about playing in her first scrimmage as a Rage City Rollergirl is one of determination. After doing time as "fresh meat"—the term for a new derby recruit—she got her chance to play jammer, the skater who threads her way through walls of wheeling flesh and elbows for a chance to break out in front of the pack and earn points for her team. It's physical. Concussions-and-lost-teeth physical. "I don't think I made it through once," she says. "I just remember getting knocked down over and over again, and getting right back up.
A lifelong athlete, her endurance level was beyond question. "When it comes to sport, I am like my 15-year-old—I'm going to kick the soccer ball 100 billion times until I can do the thing right." After the bout, she remembers some of the veteran skaters telling her, "That's really good that you didn't quit!" And she thought, "Of course it was good." As in, "Quit? Why would I quit?"
These are the kind of off-the-resume credentials that made it possible for Dawnell to take the reins as the executive director of Out North Contemporary Art House last year after serving as their interim director and director of development. "I knew about Out North as an arts writer. Really, the best shows I've ever seen have been here," she says. An organization with a proud and rocky history, Out North has weathered 28 seasons and nine funding cuts related to the content of its art. This year, Out North is presenting or producing a new show virtually every weekend. "It's cutting-edge progressive work. It's not really theater; it's performance work, performance art."
Before her position with Out North, Dawnell took on graduate school and worked crazy hours as an arts correspondent for the Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage Press while also caring for two young sons. "I didn't sleep a lot. I have an essay called 'The Hibernator' that had to do with sleep deprivation and constantly churning out work."
Dawnell's completed thesis, a collection of essays entitled "Feral Mother," is something she still draws inspiration from, revisiting and reworking essays when she's able. "It was a really rewarding process. When you have a lot going on—you're working and you have kids, all that daily stuff—honestly, the best thing about doing a graduate program was that it forced me to complete those essays. It was really pivotal. I didn't go into the program because I wanted to teach, I just wanted my writing to improve and to be able to focus on my writing."
As an adult, "writer" has frequently been a compound word: writer-mother, arts advocate-writer, writer-graduate student. In her role as executive director of Out North, she is a grant-writer-arts-programmer and sometimes visiting-artist-shuttle-driver.
The good news for Out North in 2012 was a Creative Placemaking grant from ArtPlace that allowed them to fill much-needed positions. But that doesn't mean rest for their busy director. "Actually workload has gone up in many ways," says Dawnell. "Your ability to execute means your workload goes up." As the only Alaska member of the National Performance Network, Out North is able to commission new work and exciting national touring shows to Anchorage. These shows coupled with vibrant productions from Alaska artists makes Out North a hive of creative activity.
What would excite Dawnell even more is a full house for all the performances. Alaska is home to some wonderful art patrons, but we, as a state, are not known for being particularly comfortable with cutting-edge art and performance. How do we change that? Maybe it starts with a new generation.
"If we're the kind of people who are willing to take our children out hiking where there are wild animals and raging rivers, lots of ways to hurt yourself and learn something about yourself and become yourself, then we should be willing to do that intellectually and emotionally," Dawnell says. "That's what art does. It's risky, it makes people nervous." But the rewards are worth it—kids who ask questions, kids who make art, kids who teach us to look at the world differently.
"My kids have amazing thoughts and comments about what they see," she adds, speaking of her 13- and 15-year-old sons who spend a lot of time at Out North. "They actually help me see things in a new way."
As for Dawnell's future, she's looking forward to more art, more derby and more writing. "The truth is, I write every day," she says. She writes for F Magazine when able. She writes Facebook postings, grant applications, policies, press materials and more for Out North. That kind of literary exercise, much like the running or skating drills that keep her bout-ready, keeps her craft in shape. "In Alaska, we don't have a local publication that's welcoming of long form, particularly nonfiction. Everything is flash," she says, referring to short-form writing. "It would be really cool if we had a publication locally that was into that." After a brief pause for introspection, she says, "Maybe that's something I could personally try to make happen."
To that, we say, "Of course it will be good."
ON CAMPUS THIS WEEK
>>> Jan. 23 5:30-7:30 p.m. Kimura Gallery, Fine Arts Bldg. Opening Reception for 'jabberwocking: the drawings of karen bondarchuki
>>> Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m. Wendy Williamson Auditorium. Kenji Yoshino from New York University is the MLK Keynote speaker. His lecture is free. He is on the cutting edge of corporate America's civil rights advances. Find out more about him at his website.
>>> Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m. UAA/APU Consortium Library, Room 307. Polaris Lecture by Talis Colberg on "frontier exceptionalism."
>>> Jan. 25, 6:30 and 7:15 p.m. UAA Planetarium presents a one-day-only, two showings of "Coral."
>>> Jan. 25, 8-9 p.m. UAA Planetarium and KRUA present 'AudioDome: Cold War Antics with DJ Blind Bat.'
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