Theater & Arts

Bullard High School graduate Rae Dunn fires up new book project

Fresno’s Rae Dunn has made her dog, Wilma, the star of a new book.
Fresno’s Rae Dunn has made her dog, Wilma, the star of a new book. Special to The Bee

Rae Dunn’s life is filled with serendipitous events, including how she found her career in ceramics and as a writer.

“I was in Golden Gate Park and I saw this beautiful cobblestone building,” say Dunn, a Bullard High School gradate. She was drawn inside and found a community art center where she started taking clay and ceramics classes 23 years ago.

Although she’d studied industrial design at Fresno State and worked in fashion and graphics design for many years, Dunn had never worked with clay. As soon as she took her first class, she fell in love with the medium.

Today, not only does she produce a line of home decor products for Magenta, a Berkeley manufacturing and distribution company, but she also creates one-of-a-kind pieces that she sells through her Berkeley studio.

Clay’s not the only form of artistic expression that Dunn found without really trying. For the past decade, she’s been taking thousands of pictures of her dog, Wilma. The photos, originally just for her, have now been turned into a collection for a book, “Wilma’s World: Good Advice from a Good Dog” (Chronicle books, $15.95).

Dunn will be at Fresno’s Barnes & Noble, 7849 North Blackstone Ave., as part of the local bookstore’s “Valley Author Showcase,” which runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m Saturday, July 25. Her part of the event is noon to 2 p.m.

Authors scheduled to be at the event include: Margarita Engle, Linda Lee Kane, 10 a.m. to noon; Dave Gutierrez, Dunn, noon to 2 p.m.; Benzena Brown, Doc Lewis, 2-4 p.m.; Regana McKinney-McGee, 4-6 p.m.; and Olivia Ostergaard, Louie Garcia, 6-8 p.m.

It’s not a stretch that Dunn’s venture into the literary world would be inspired by her dog. Her clay products are inspired by simple shapes and natural forms around her that show the influence of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi that teaches the acceptance of imperfection.

Even her book is a reminder to slow down and see the beauty in simple things.

“The book wrote itself and ended up being the easiest thing I have ever done,” Dunn says. “It was easy, natural book about our lives. A true depiction of life.”

Living in an apartment in San Francisco, Dunn never had any intentions of having a dog. But a friend took her to get a dog as a birthday gift. She immediately fell in love with the Jack Russell terrier who on the first day was called Stella.

“The next day, Wilma came out of my mouth and I decided she would be called Wilma,” Dunn says.

Because Dunn didn’t start out to make a picture book about her dog, none of the photographs are posed. She would just take pictures of Wilma in interesting settings or with odd objects. Anything could be used in the photos.

That’s been a trait of Dunn’s work since she was a child. The Fresno native, one of five children, worked in the Leilani and Luau restaurants her parents owned for 30 years. When she was young, she would sit in her family’s restaurant writing perfect calligraphy messages — such as warnings about the ills of smoking — in the matchbooks. Later on, those tiny canvases would give way to sketchbooks.

Her next book will be a collection of sketches she did during annual trips to France for a residency.

“I never saw myself as a good painter or a drawer. I went to Europe one year and my camera was stolen,” Dunn says. “I always have a journal with me, and I started to make quick sketches of what I saw.”

Dunn’s found that her memories of those trips is more vivid because of the drawings. Instead of just pointing a camera and hitting a button, she had to concentrate on details.

Her eye for details was a necessity in her desire to be a graphic designer. Her embracing of a more naturalistic style didn’t quite fit in the graphic design world where computers have become a primary tool. Dunn finds that clay gives her options of being very specific in her designs or being as untethered by conventional thinking as she wants.

“You can make something out of a lump of dirt. You are making something from nothing. You are touching it. It’s very tactile. You think you are forming it, but it really has control over you. Clay is very organic,” Dunn says. “Clay is very meditative. Working in clay teaches you lessons about life. It shaped my life.”

Dunn’s big piece of advice: Be open and try anything.

Rick Bentley: 559-441-6355, @RickBentley1


Meet Rae Dunn

  • noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 25, Fresno’s Barnes & Noble, 7849 North Blackstone Ave. Details: (559) 437-0484