TOAST Magazine

TOAST Portraits | Dawn Worsley


TOAST Portraits is a new series in which journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces – some archive, some new –  have stood the test of time. First up was Katy Brett, then Genevieve Dutton, now Dawn Worsley...

“I like the idea of work-wear,” says Dawn Worsley, half smiling as she looks down at herself. Clearly it’s not just the idea she likes. Standing in her kitchenette, Dawn is a vision in hard- wearing fabric and admits to feeling “under-dressed” if she’s not wearing utility clothes. These are her “tech garbs”; a PhD student, arts writer and teacher at Glasgow School of Art, they are something of a uniform for her when she’s in the studio. 

Dawn’s work usually takes sculpture as its focus and it occurs to me that there is something sculptural about Dawn herself: eternally puckered lips, a vertical wave of dark hair, an energetic stillness. Quietly, she makes a statement. Today she wears an indigo belted kimono jacket and a pair of speckled oatmeal trousers. Both from TOAST.

We visit her at home in a dorm block on West Regent Street. Dawn is a warden here, dealing with the occasional late-night misdemeanours of freshers in return for a cost neutral doctorate. I can’t remember the last time I was in a hall of residence, but find an unlikely comfort in this one’s familiarity, its veneer doors and the proliferation of plug sockets. Its blankness invites customization, which Dawn has done with some curved Sixties armchairs of her grandmother’s, an Ercol dining set collected through persistent visits to a local bric-a- brac shop, and her collection of white Le Creuset pots dating back to the 1980s, bought at intervals on eBay. She admits to being a canny shopper, “I have a good eye and patience – I know what I want, so I wait for it.” 

Noticing the casserole pots, I ask if she likes to cook. “No, food is fuel for me. But if I have to cook – and I do – then I’d rather do it in something that looks nice! I try to give myself every opportunity to take pleasure in the small, daily things.” Looking around her flat – sparsely decked out but for the furniture, books, some dried flowers on the windowsill – I see evidence of someone who eschews clutter and who is conscious about their choice of possessions. “I like functional, utilitarian things, whether its furniture or clothes, but I wouldn’t say my style is stark. I like clean lines and solid, weighty materials; I also like a dark palette – a bit of gloom.” 

Dawn’s accent makes her hard to place, a blend of staccato from her native Wales and the nomadic lilt of someone well travelled. Before Glasgow, she lived in Shanghai, a “topsy turvy” year spent teaching English and doing a lot of karaoke. Then came a stint in Italy, where she worked for Arts Council Wales at the Venice Biennale, before teaching English again near Lago Maggiore. In 2014 she returned to Wales and, in the summer before starting her doctorate, answered an ad in the paper broadcasting auditions for a Welsh language TV show. She got in, and describes the show that transpired – The Court – as something of “a social experiment”. Imagine

Big Brother meets a Lucy Worsley documentary: a group of participants were filmed living as a sixteenth century household in a Welsh manor for six weeks. Dawn was assigned the role of governess/lady in waiting to a family’s daughters, which seems strangely prescient of her life as a teacher and warden in Glasgow now. 

After the show, she moved to Glasgow and started work as a teaching assistant to support her studies. It was January 2015, just seven months after the first devastating fire which stripped the art school’s library – designed by celebrated Glaswegian, Charles Rennie Mackintosh – of its contents. (When I meet Dawn for this interview there has only been one small but devastating fire; four years later, in June 2018, another fire of catastrophic proportions hit the Mackintosh library. Dawn says it has brought “a new poignancy” to her PhD). 

Fire changes the course of things, including Dawn’s doctorate. She learnt that of the 8000 books that had been in the library, just 80 were retrieved and only 11 were conservable. Around the time they were returned, she’d become friends with the librarians, who showed her the burnt books – now artefacts – which would shape her eventual PhD thesis, titled ‘Burnt Books’. For it she has looked at three particular objects – two books and a salvaged bookshelf – which tell their stories through their materiality. 

Dawn sees her role as one of an analyst or an interpreter. She has an initial response to the book’s appearance, then assesses her own reading. “I’m not giving the book a biography, but a voice,” she says, “it’s a co-relationship between me and it – we create our own narrative.” She goes on, “The fire had no human observers and no one was allowed into the library afterwards. Its aftermath became a kind of dream time, a time out of time – the objects were the witnesses – and all they have to show for it is their appearances.” One of the books, for example, has developed bilateral stains due to mould growth – blacks, blues, pinks – which give the impression of bruising, a book quite literally beaten up by the fire. 

Given how cerebral her work is, there is an irony to Dawn’s fondness for work wear – garments originally made for physical labour. But she tells me that what she almost loves most about Glasgow – more than the galleries, the festivals, the art school, even – is its proximity to rural west Scotland, places like Aran. She describes herself as an avid walker, and goes into the Scottish wilds alone, “I love the physicality of walking but it’s also an intellectual exercise. It helps me escape but also to organise – as my feet make a path, so do ideas.” She’ll inevitably gravitate back to the countryside, she says. And when she does, the tech garbs will be just as at home in the fields as they are in the studio. 

Words by Mina Holland. Photography by Elena Heatherwick. 

Dawn's TOAST clothes are from previous seasons but are similar to this indigo jacket, ecru trousers and striped top.

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