by PETER DORFMAN
A pivotal moment in Steve Dawson’s creative journey came in a workshop taught by Indianapolis painter C.W. Mundy. “I had told C.W. I was there because I wanted to be an artist,” Dawson explains. “I painted all that week, and at the end, C.W. pulled me aside and said, ‘Stop saying you want to be an artist; you are an artist. You don’t need any more classes. You just need to get out there and do it.’”
The problem was, Dawson also was actively running Harrell-Fish Inc. (HFI), a Bloomington-based heating, cooling, and ventilation firm with $75 million in annual revenues. And he has a wife, six children, and a farm in Monroe County.
How does it all fit together? The best explanation probably is that Dawson is an engineer, and making it work is what engineers do.
Dawson works in oil, watercolor, and pastel, painting mostly landscapes. Originally inspired by the impressionists, he’s a great admirer of the American master John Singer Sargent.
He has sold paintings to collectors in California and New York, and his work is on display at the Brown County ArtGallery in Nashville. “It’s a gallery you have to be juried into, and I’m very fortunate to be there,” Dawson says. He also participates in the Hoosier Salon, Indiana Heritage Arts, and the Indiana Plein Air Painters Association.
Dawson, 50, is a Bloomington native with a 1991 degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. He started his career at HFI, which he and his business partners eventually bought. At 28, Dawson became HFI’s president.
A lifelong outdoorsman, Dawson injured his arm in a mountain biking accident. “I was four months out of surgery and a little stir crazy, and I saw that Ivy Tech Community College—Bloomington was offering an adult learning course in painting,” he says. “That’s how I fell into art.”
Dawson painted constantly, read a lot, and began teaching painting at Ivy Tech and as a volunteer at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School. “I try to paint every day, sometimes at odd little intervals I manage to fit into my day,” he says.
He admits that his engineer’s eye sometimes affects his painterly vision. “Sometimes I make things symmetrical and balanced, when in nature, they aren’t,” he says. But he takes his best inspiration from nature. “I find truth in the landscape that I can’t see in a photograph,” he says. “I can look at one of my paintings and I still hear the red-winged blackbirds singing in the trees.”