Dawn Van Ness uses her art to protect nature

By on May 27, 2023

Dawn Van Ness with acrylic self portrait.
(Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle)

Dawn Van Ness is often wonderstruck while walking the wooded paths on the north end of Roanoke Island. The drifting fragrance of honeysuckle and ligustrum, red-winged black birds flying overhead and butterflies swirling around the trees enthrall the 48-year-old Roanoke Island resident during daily treks. The twice-a-day jaunts with her rescue dog Harris feed Van Ness’ passion for art, animals and advocacy.

“By finding those moments of awe, it drives me to want to create more and to protect nature and animals and the environment because it’s the source of great inspiration and great connection,” she says.

With Harris, one of three rescue animals her family adopted, she not only walks seeking wonder but to collect litter. Harris roots out trash, which protects Van Ness from reaching in and getting bitten or stung. He enjoys retrieving plastic bottles, thinking of it as a game. Van Ness returns home with trash for her husband Gordon to take to the recycler and with inspiration to create.

As a child growing up in Virginia Beach, Van Ness felt art was about aesthetics—what was pretty or not pretty. But when she got older and took an art history class, she started realizing that you could communicate with art. Through art she’s found a way to message her mission to appreciate and protect nature.

This spring an acrylic painting she created was published in “Estuaries,” College of the Albemarle’s annual visual arts and literary review. Calling the painting ugly, she says it is about litter and was created to bring more awareness to community cleanup. Upon close inspection, the colorful abstract work reveals detritus she retrieved from the environment. The chosen entries were exhibited at COA, where Van Ness works as a library services specialist.

Acrylic Painting: Collateral Damage by Dawn Van Ness.
(Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle)

Last year, Van Ness won an honorable mention for a painting she entered in the Nags Head’s Ghost Fleet Gallery’s annual Artist’s Self Portrait Show. The self-portrait included vignettes from her walks or kayaking around the Outer Banks, where she retrieves trash—including at the skate park in Manteo, at Jockey’s Ridge, the beach, and Roanoke, and Croatan sounds.

Van Ness started intentionally creating art two years ago. She paints a wide variety of subjects, including mermaids, flowers, land and seascapes, and self-portraits. She also illustrated two children’s books “Willie the Red Wolf” and “Crystal the Crab” by Adrienne Palma and is currently working on “Oliver the Otter.”

She remembered art as being her favorite class as a child. “I was terrible at school, and this was one place I got a little ribbon once in a while,” she says. Coming from a practical family, it was important to seek education that would pay the bills. So instead of getting an art degree, she graduated from Longwood University with a B.A. in English Literature and from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Mass Communications with a concentration in journalism.

Having education in mass media serves her well. Van Ness uses social media to share her passion as an environmental and animal advocate and artist. She has a website that is connected to all her social media pages. Through http://www.adawneverydayartist.com, visitors can view a wide variety of posts including those about rescue pets, art, and nature.

To make her environmental efforts feel more real, she chronicles them in her “Trash Diaries,” writing down items she’s collected as well as things that inspired her advocacy. “I’m keeping the Trash Diaries to become more conscientious,” she shared. “Marred beauty is frustrating. I don’t want our children to normalize litter in the landscape. I want it removed and to set that as the standard.”

Van Ness works as an executive assistant for Trash Fairies, a trash valet and recycling company. It helped her become more aware of the challenges in the recycling industry, such as people mistakenly trying to recycle things that are not recyclable.

Plastics especially worry her. “What I realize is that plastic breaks down smaller and smaller and goes into the water and starts to enter the food chain, and they call it microplastics,” she says. “Well, now they’re starting to say, ‘Hey, we’re finding it in people.”’ She’s also concerned about the metal cans that storms push onto the beaches where they rust and can harm animals.

Van Ness grew up in a family where compassion for animals was on full display. “My mom was very tender hearted and would rescue anything, and my dad was the same way,” she says. The household of six children was surrounded by a menagerie of critters including rabbits, horses, pigs, goats, cats and dogs.

Van Ness passes this love on to her daughter Brooke, 14, and son Dylan, 9.

They have gone with her to PetSmart in Nags Head where she regularly freshens the cats’ environment and brushes them. Van Ness has been going once a week with Dylan. While cleaning, she explains to him why she does it. “And when the kitty cats are all clean, all calm, and I can tell which ones like interaction, I will bring him in so he can either play with the kittens or [pet] the older cats,” she says. “I am hoping that [her children] will build up a connection and maybe when they are older, they will want to do that sort of thing.”

Van Ness spent a year going to the SPCA on Roanoke Island where she would foster a dog for a day. Once or twice a week, she walked dogs and took them to the beach. She would stop at one of several places where they could get what is called a “pup cup”— usually a small or half serving of ice cream with whipped cream. Van Ness sees how the walks—and the pup cups—help Harris who has anxiety in new places and around new people. The treats help rewire him from fear to happiness, she says.

Dawn and Harris in her art studio.
(Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle)

Harris even gets home cooked meals. Van Ness has learned from neighbors who are nutritionists what not to feed dogs and there are unhealthy dyes and preservatives in some over the counter dog food. She’s researched what foods she can prepare that are good for Harris. His meals include beans, beets, carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin, broccoli stems, and apples with no seeds. Onions and garlic are a no no for dogs. “They say that dogs’ lives have been cut almost in half by what is in over-the-shelf stuff,” she says. The commercial food that is healthy is expensive, but by preparing Harris’ meals from scratch, she has cut what she was paying for food significantly.

“I see other people that are passionate about rescues,” says Van Ness. “I like that bumper sticker ‘Who Rescued Who?’ a lot because they give you so much.”



  • Glenn

    Thanks for this article & thanks for highlighting Ms. Van Ness’s art work & commitment to leaving our paths & walkways in better shape that she finds them. Our family is also committed to picking up trash EVERY single day in the OBX. Disgusting that so many (by all means not all) of our locals, 2nd home owners, contractors & visitors could care less about our beautiful coastal area by repeatedly throwing trash out their car windows. I picked up several pieces of trash this morning on a local bike path, I picked more up on my 2nd walk of the day &, guarantee I’ll pick some up this evening. Time to start imposing hefty fines on those caught littering. Ms. Van Ness…thanks for all you do!

    Saturday, May 27 @ 1:36 pm
  • Nancy Griffin

    I love this article! Thanks so much for sharing your passions with the community and for helping to make the world a better place. Every little bit makes a difference!

    Saturday, May 27 @ 2:18 pm