At only 25 years old, Dina Peone, a writer, artist, actress, and photographer, has an intriguing biography and enough material to begin compiling her memoirs.
I began with an obvious question, and asked if she was exposing herself as a symbol in her art; whether there is power in using her body for symbolic exposure. She answered like a true poet: “Yes and yes. But a symbol is powerful insofar as a riddle can be guessed.”
When she was 16 years old, 68% of her body was burned in a house fire and she lost several fingers on her dominant hand. Despite the difficulties she faced in the following years, her artwork improved and thrived. The central themes in her work are autobiographical reflections of her most valued experiences, both painful and euphoric. Although her work has been described as “something you’d see in your nightmares,” Peone embraces catharsis-through-creation. She believes that in order to fully appreciate bliss and beauty, one must first be witness to tragedy and the grotesque.
I ask her whether she fears financial problems as an artist. She says, “I’m not worried about money. I know that studying writing, it’s not a surefire way to be successful. But what I feel like is that—I almost died. So at this point I just want to get the most out of life. I want to do what I love. And even if I end up in the gutter, that’s rich material for my art.”
Before the fire, Peone began keeping journals, writing poetry, and practicing fine arts. “I got into art when I was in high school, especially painting,” she says. “I would say I was fueled by my typical teenage angst. A lot of what I focused on was autobiographical and it was definitely cathartic back then before I had any real worries.
“But you know what’s really weird? I have very few belongings that survived the house fire, and my most prized possession is the collection of journals I had. In these journals that are kind of stained at the edges but readable, you read these typical teenage-angsty statements but they’re about . . . fire? It’s so weird to go back and read this stuff.”
As she tells me the story of the night of the fire, there are blips of laughter between her words, as if she’s mentally noting the absurdity that she survived at all.
“My sister was about 14 and I was 16 at the time. We had separate bedrooms, but that night I happened to fall asleep in her room. And this happened during the night. From a candle. And . . . I woke up and realized I could barely breathe, and I couldn’t see anything but a lot of smoke and fire. It took so much to wake [Angie, her sister] up, like I could barely speak. And she got up, which surprised the both of us because we’re really deep sleepers. We made our way across the room, and the door was stuck.
“Okay, so we’re past the fire now but we can’t get out.” She laughs a little. “It was about 3:30 in the morning. What happened was, the smoke alarm that my grandfather had recently changed the batteries for, which woke him up, and he woke up my mom, who broke down the door and rescued us. My sister ran out when my mom opened the door, but I was passed out in the room from smoke inhalation. A lot of the story I couldn’t tell you because I don’t remember.”
“My mom went in the room looking for me but she couldn’t find me. When she went to call 911, the phone line was dead. She was like, ‘Okay, I’m dreaming, this is not happening.’ She went back to my room and I was laying in the doorway face-down, not breathing. She doesn’t know how I got there—she had just gone in looking for me and suddenly I showed up. So she threw me down the stairs, threw me out the back door, and I became conscious again because of the impact.
“So she saved us, and the fire trucks took forever to come. I remember waiting for the ambulance and I was just in shock. All of my clothes were missing, and my flesh was like, hanging from my body. ‘I’m cold,’ was all I could think. And I kept thinking about my journals.”
It was only the second floor of the house that burned down, but Peone lost all of her early artwork except for her journals. Her younger sister lost everything. Peone was put into a drug-induced coma for three months, battling infection, and eventually had several fingers amputated from her dominant hand.
She was determined to regain function and begin writing and drawing again. “When I woke up I had to wear bandages and splints, like a plaster mold that keeps your hand in a certain position. I was in that for a long time, and I was in restraints for the initial month. But then I was able to strap a pen to my hand, and I tried painting, too, with this stuff called CoBand, like this velcro stuff that wraps around everything, and was able to sort of hold a pen. It took me months to figure how to hold it without the CoBand. But as soon as I could, I did it, because that was my passion before.”
Dina’s work is often haunting and deliberately disturbing. Top: “Front Page Headline.” Bottom: “Ringel, Ringel, Rosen.”
Her family wasn’t particularly well-off and could not have afforded the medical bills and housing after the fire but for the compassion of their neighbors. With one exception. “We ended up hiring a contractor for the house, and he forged checks for fire insurance money and stole $75,000 from us,” she says. “Since my mom fought to get the money back, he went to prison. And she’s still trying to get restitution for it. But the reason we had the finances to persist afterward is that the town of Saugerties came together and had a fundraiser, and raised thousands of dollars for us that we were able to live off.
“My mom stayed at hotels for a long time. We lived near Shriner’s Burn Hospital for a year, where I was able to get reconstructive surgeries, and the only reason we were able to do that was because of the town coming together. It was quite beautiful, the support that we got from everybody.”
Peone’s photography and paintings were hung in local Hudson Valley galleries and shops. She found that getting exposure wasn’t that difficult. I asked her about the challenges new artists face trying to get exposure. She says her only problem is not having enough time to create artwork as a full-time student, but she puts aside one hour each day to write and draw.
“I feel like the opportunities are there if you look for them. I’ve had a few art shows, like when I was a featured artist at the Catskill Art Supply store—I just walked by one day and saw they had somebody’s work in the window, and so I went in and I inquired. I don’t think there are limitations for getting your work out there—I think you need to really look for it.”
Peone is studying writing at Sarah Lawrence college and is currently helping other writers and artists publish their work. She is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of the experimental pocket-sized zine, The Cliffhanger, a space for black & white art and ‘fragmentary’ literature.
She reads the mission statement for her publication. “We embrace the incomplete . . . The Cliffhanger designates a space for the so-called in-between. This experimental pocket-sized zine is the parenthetical limbo of creativity. Finally there is a home for the underdeveloped, those rootless shards of verse, sketches-in-progress. The interlude of consciousness, so to half-speak. Simplicity. Brevity. Here the fleeting or still-born ideas may retreat. (Mid-sneeze!) Submit your bits of dialogue, micro fiction, run-on sentences that cling to suspense or nonsense, and fragments of poetry. You get it. Postcard riddles. Broken refrains that end far too… “
“Ode to Charlotte Perkins-Gilman”
Dina Peone is graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 2015 and enrolling in one of the top most respected writing programs in the country at the University of Iowa.