Artist Dail Chambers crafts di erent multimedia works of art, like the piece Timeless, in her St. Louis studio.
By Tina Casagrand
It was a cool Thursday morning, and Dail Chambers was nowhere to be found. Her art studio in north St. Louis was empty. The streets were still, and only Dail’s backyard chickens clucked quietly. Searching for Dail is a winding journey. As an artist, mother, sister, world-traveler, and one of the founders of the local Yeyo Arts Collective, Dail leaves tracks everywhere.
Her neighborhood is a mosaic: Narrow brick buildings line her street. The crossroad is home to some abandoned buildings. Office and folding chairs sit around a coffee table in an abandoned lot; bottles and snack wrappers lie on the ground. A factory stands empty. Another—the former Falstaff Brewing factory—has been remodeled to apartments. Dail fell in love with this neighborhood in 2001 when she began studying art at St. Louis Community College - Florissant Valley.
“Something kept drawing me back,” Dail says.
In her time here, she’s connected with residents, community leaders, and most of all, with the area’s rich history. Her Nineteenth Street studio sits just two blocks from the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing complex—a thirty-three-building public housing project that was demolished in the mid-1970s. It has since become a central talking point in the conversation of urban housing. The grounds still stand empty. Dail has her own personal ties to St. Louis’s past. Her mother’s mother lived in the city and, in 1967, was buried at Washington Park Cemetery, which was the largest black cemetery in the region for nearly seventy years. Today, Dail is researching that period of St. Louis history at the Missouri Historical Society.
“I’ve been revisiting things I’ve found out about her life,” Dail says.
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Mountain Scene is one of Dail Chamber’s more abstract pieces. It is featured in the book Itshanapa about her work.
Both her family history and St. Louis’s broader social history have become integral to her work. Dail is preparing to show her sculptures alongside documentary footage at an upcoming exhibition at the Sheldon Concert Hall in 2017.
Although her family has deep ties to St. Louis, Dail’s journey has taken her far from the Gateway City. She lived in St. Louis through elementary school, but she also had two parents in the military and moved often after that. As an adult, she worked with the Memphis-based NIA Arts Collective and lived in Pearl City, Hawaii, before moving back to Missouri.
Returning was hard, but she has since had the opportunity to strengthen the city’s art scene and its community at large.
On any given night, Dail might be helping organize an exhibition for the Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates (MIRA) while contributing homemade candles to a poetry slam down the street. She helps organize group studies and other classes at the Yeyo Arts Collective, and she loves working with children.
Joan Suarez, a MIRA Chair, runs a children’s arts initiative with Dail called Bread and Roses. Their classes have made quilts from activist T-shirts, collages, and larger-than-life puppets based on reading the book Extraordinary Black Missourians.
“You have to see her with the kids,” Joan says. “Dail is great at bringing in art books that are so evocative, getting them talking about what they see and how they connect to it.”
Outside of her work with children, Dail frequently shows her art with MIRA. Her work often addresses the African Diaspora. A striking example is her painting Ancestral Seas. In it, a dark blue ocean roils under a gilded gold sun. The whole canvas surface is so fragile that it breaks open in some spots, exposing wood slats behind it. Human gures bob in the water, faceless and without detail.
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Gemstones and photographs, among other things, populate the mantel in Dail’s studio.
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Dail Chambers is often inspired by famous Missourians, such as Maya Angelou, of whom she painted this portrait.
Quiet and sturdy, Dail’s work is always mindful of historical oppression but hopeful in its execution. Perfect lines seem second to free, expressive gestures, and it’s clear she finds joy in the opportunity to share stories. She changes media regularly, sometimes working with metal in sculptures, sometimes with soft fabric in quilting.
When speaking about her art, Dail gets intellectual. She references things like “social sculpturing” and “legacy art,” and she preaches an ethos of self-empowerment. It’s big-picture stuff that matters, and Dail is no armchair intellectual.
“We want people to see their own potential,” she says, sitting at a table in Yeyo, where members hold readings and discussions on how to push each other’s creativity and self- development further. “Let’s take that observation and turn it into something active.”