Dahlia Al-Habieli is a scenic designer, visual designer and instructor currently based in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Born and raised in Abu-Dhabi, Dahlia has credited the city for fostering her love of storytelling and focused her work on building connections between languages, cultures and genders. She has won numerous awards for her work including the Independent Reviewers of New England Award for Best Scenic Design, and the George Kimberly Award for Scenic Design.
Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of work/study?
I was born and raised in the Emirates; although I had always loved art and making art, I had virtually no exposure to theater before I arrived at Wellesley in 2003. I saw my first play that Fall, and – this is absolutely true – called my mother immediately afterwards and announced that I had found my career path. I am amazed she responded as calmly as she did, especially because I had entered college planning on majoring in Economics with a minor in Art History. Looking back, I think I owe much of my academic and professional success to my naivete; I didn’t know what a huge risk I was taking, so I dove in head first with a confidence and single-mindedness that pushed me through some tough times.
Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?
I currently teach in the Theatre and Dance Department at Wake Forest University while continuing to design scenery for professional companies across the US. After graduating from Wellesley in 2007, I worked as a designer and artisan in the Boston area for several years. I juggled part-time employment with every theater gig I could manage- EVERY one, no matter how small the show, low the pay, or tough the working conditions were. Scenic designers in the US are almost all independent contractors- I was my own business, and I hustled. I found work through online postings, word of mouth, and through Wellesley mentors.
I got my MFA in Scenic Design from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama last Spring, and moved to North Carolina to teach at Wake Forest shortly afterwards. I believe in the value of theater as part of a liberal arts, regardless of whether or not students choose to pursue careers in the field.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?
When I was beginning my professional career, the hours were long and hard. I was paid very little and asked to do a tremendous amount of work. While I learned a huge amount from those experiences, I would be lying if I claimed it didn’t take a physical and emotional toll.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
I was the type of child who just wanted to be left alone with her crayons in the corner, and am pretty much the same as an adult! However, the collaborative process of theatermaking is far more fulfilling for me than any solo artistic endeavor. It is my way of connecting with my communities- not just the people I work with, but the audiences we share our work with. It’s funny, but I feel most connected to the world and grounded in reality when I am helping craft elaborate games of pretend.
“Fool for Love”, Pittsburgh PA. Photo credit: Louis Stein
Q: What advice would you give to young art historians just starting in the field?
The same advice my long-suffering, incredibly supportive saint of a mother gave me: “If you are going to do this, you need to be f***ing good at it. Not just good, the best. Do you hear me? The BEST. Without being an a**hole.” She was right. You have to go above and beyond, especially when you are just starting out in a highly competitive and undervalued field. And you have to be kind.
Q: What is one contentious issue in the art world/your field that you are very passionate about?
The United States has abysmal support for the arts. We are pretty much dead last among developed countries when it comes to the amount of government arts funding relative to GDP. I would venture to say that some of the negative perceptions of Americans- that we are complacent in our isolation from the rest of the world and are unmotivated to critically engage ourselves with the present either globally or domestically- are connected to this.
Q: As you probably know, the new proposed federal budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as many other cultural/educational organizations. If you had to address the general public, why is arts/art history education important for the average American?
Art History is one of many ways to engage with history as a whole, from a uniquely visceral and human perspective. Just as your experiences in childhood and young adulthood inform how you function in the world, society only moves forward with a nuanced understanding of where it has already been. Imagine if you suddenly lost your memory- how would you know who you are, what is important to you, what your belief systems are? You could read your diaries- or you could look at your childhood drawings, and at the books and poems and films that shaped you. Documentation of our human experiences take many forms, art being a critical one.
Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general American public to know about your field of work/study or art history in general?
While I sometimes joke that my job is to create elaborate games of pretend for large groups of people, what I am actually doing is telling stories. While film and television bring us wonderful stories, we tend to treat them as consumers. A live piece of theater is sometimes like this- a delicious meal we create for our audience. The difference is that ours is a meal around a table, in our home, and not just a takeout container left on your doorstep.
And just for fun…
Q: Can you recommend a wine (any alcohol) and cheese (any drunk food) to us?
I am a beer woman, with a particular fondness for IPAs. Sam Adams came out with a nitro IPA that was delicious but I can’t find it anywhere now! My favorite drunk food is blue corn chips nachos covered in cheese with fresh guacamole (the Alton Brown guac recipe is king, everybody else go home.)