Donna Backues has a BA in Studio Art and Graphic Design from Southern Illinois University, an MFA from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and an MA in Urban Studies & Community Arts, from Eastern University.
Donna began as a graphic designer and then moved to Indonesia in 1989 and for 18 years integrated her visual art skills with grassroots development work. She founded a village community health and community arts program and co-founded a handicraft non-profit supporting local artisans as well as designing batik textiles for export. She also created illustrations, manuals, and teaching aids for development projects including materials used in relief efforts during the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami.
After returning to the US and finishing her MFA in 2010, Donna taught at the Village of Arts and Humanities, Mural Arts Philadelphia and Fleisher Art Memorial. She has been awarded numerous artist residencies including the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Delphi Art Futures and Art Partners program, Spiral Q and Rutgers Camden Center for the Arts. In 2013 Donna won first prize in the American Batik Design Competition, in 2014 she was awarded the Art & Change Grant by the Leeway foundation and in 2017, the NewCourtland Fellowship.
In 2018, Donna received an MA in Urban Studies & Community Arts. She currently works at SEAMAAC, Inc. as the Coordinator of Community & Family Wellness serving the immigrant and refugee population in South Philadelphia where her years of cross-cultural experience, Indonesian language ability and community arts experience is regularly put to use.
Along with her community/social work, Donna continues to work as a studio artist and teaching artist. Four of her paintings are in the Philadelphia Convention Center’s permanent collection. Her public murals can be seen in Philadelphia, Camden New Jersey and in Leeds, England. Her paintings have been collected and exhibited internationally in Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
The original inspiration for my landscape work was inspired by my 18 years of living in Southeast Asia doing grass-roots development work and raising a family in village settings. There are references to maps and aerial landscapes, volcano craters, bodies of water and land-based forms as I attempt to capture the atmosphere and feeling of being among people whose lives are lived out in the shadow of unseen spirits living in volcanoes, jungles, rivers and oceans. I want to highlight the vulnerability of living symbiotically with the dangerous beauty of the surrounding landscape where life giving oceans turn into destructive waves, volcanoes explode and the fertile earth shakes. After returning to the US and living in South Philadelphia working as a teaching artist and social worker with under-served populations, my work continues to be inspired by feelings of vulnerability but also beauty.
Donna’s creative process
I have a strong background in design. Strong composition is important to me as the foundation for all my work. My practice is a combination of spontaneous washes plus hours of meditative mark-making while I “mold” my image as if it were clay. My abstract mix-media works all begin with an idea of something concrete and then I drop watery ink or paint onto wet paper until I feel there is something that emerges. After the paper is dry, I begin my mark making process until I am satisfied with what emerges. I like the fact that my final result is almost always a surprise and different from my original idea. It’s very important that my work evokes feelings within myself and the viewer. Like most artists, I am trying to communicate what cannot be said with words.
Recent work on Donna’s #Heartlist
I have been inspired by Julie Mehretu’s giant abstracts for a long time
I love David Hockney’ landscapes and find myself looking at them often – I wonder if my work might be inspired by his use of color one day.
I find Peter Doig’s work interesting as he always works from photographs. I have been thinking about using my photos of South Philly to inspire some new work.
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