John Dowell

John Dowell
John E. Dowell’s printmaking, photography, and drawings all have common elements which make him an astonishing artist: he loves to integrate Afro-American jazz and other compositional styles into his pieces.  Additionally, he focuses on religious symbolism and has recurring images throughout his pieces, the most prominent of which is the heart. Dowell’s religious imagery, in addition to his music and cultural-related compositions, make this artist a unique inspiration for those interested in artwork depicting the intangible.
John Dowell, born in the 1940s in Pittsburgh, developed his sense of style and love for the arts during a time when such jazz musicians as Miles Davis and John Coltrane began performing.  Dowell felt a connection with these musicians (Bio).  The African American roots of the style appealed to him, and as a result he created artwork involving few brushstrokes and contrasting colors arranged against a large amount of white negative space which paralleled the cutting, distinct, and vivid notes in the compositions played against an otherwise soundless background.  His music-related pieces typically develop through use of lines and distinct colors.  From curved to abrupt and jagged, the lines are representative of the musical cacophony which fuels part of his vision.  One such example of these music-related pieces is Make it Short, a printed watercolor piece that contains two intersecting lines at the top of the work (Make It Short).  In addition to those two lines, which seem to cast a shadow made entirely of a color gradient that includes all shades from purple to blue to green, there are other colorful segments dotting the lower section.  All of these line segments are composed upon a white background.  He employs these musical cuts in both his lithographs and paintings.  Dowell even started the Visual Music Ensemble in 1976, performing selections based on of his visual art.
On a trip to Brazil in 1988, Dowell was initiated in a Condomble ceremony, during which he had a vision of a burning heart (John Dowell).  Condomble is an Afro-Brazilian religion, whose practices include plant and animal offerings, healing, music, and dance.  Having seen the heart, which is a crucial symbol in the Condomble faith, during his initiation, Dowell considers it to be very important that he saw this vision and therefore integrates the heart into his art.  Dowell says of this image in relation to his artwork, “In using the heart, I am attempting to stop, look, listen and feel the layers of love, respect, and just being. The heart’s spiritual overtones generate reflections on life, bringing me closer to my internal world, my humanity, my peace. These forms and objects, along with light and sounds, act as stimuli to unleash and provoke my inner discovery” (John Dowell). Dowell’s hearts are all painted with vivid color, and they all seem to be presented to the viewer on a platter.  Each heart sits atop an acutely different background and is itself the focus of the piece.  Alongside the hearts, other objects – such as fruit, flowers, and other natural items – seem to be offered up to the viewer.  An example of this can be seen in his Cycle of Abundance, in which a heart seems to be seated upon rainbow waves condensed into a clearly outlined platter (Cycle of Abundance).  The heart stands upright, and with its massive proportion in relation to the platter, it lies as the focal point.  As the viewer continues towards the top of the work, the heart seems to paint a picture itself.  From the distinct blue at the bottom, the rusty color of the top is highly noticeable, peppered with images of pineapples, oranges, flowers, bowls, and candles.  In the middle of the heart lies a hole that contains bright objects surrounded by a sea of forest green.  Dowell’s consistency in employing his recurring themes does not falter.  He stays consistently dedicated to getting his messages out to the public, regardless of the abundance of heart symbols in art.
In addition to painting, Dowell also focuses on photography.  He is a naïve photographer, having never been classically trained.  The theme of music once again influences how he approaches his photographs. In an interview with Philadelphia Tribune staff writer Bobbi Booker, who writes for the Brandywine Workshop, a Philadelphia-based company which strives to “be a major force in the creation, documentation and preservation of culturally diverse American art” and purports to “insure the participation of multi-ethnic artists in the field of fine art printmaking and related media technologies” (Mission of the Brandywine Workshop), Dowell says of his own photography: “In my head, I’m thinking about music. I want to shoot where you see a reflection from the outside and wonder – is that real or not real? But then, I’m shooting inside the building and you see people inside. But it’s all caught in an instant. I hear one guy blowing the saxophone and all of a sudden the drummer comes in with a solo. See, that’s what I hear, and I’m looking for that and I see that in my images” (Reviews).  His photographs depict urban life by combining an elevated perspective with surrounding skyscrapers and buildings of various sizes.  Sections of the streets can be seen under the massive buildings, and the artist has the ability to capture both light and movement with his cityscape photography.  Lights present in the buildings and on the street-level show living, bustling urban areas, and movement not only on the street level, but also in the buildings.  In his photographs, Dowell seemingly removes himself from the city, as he stands on high and at a significant distance.  The clarity of the images comes through, as Dowell is able to capture large portions of urban activity with one photograph.  One such example is Dowell’s Chicago Lightning, in which he captures a bolt coming down from the sky and simultaneously managed to catch a glimpse of Chicago’s night life (Chicago Lightning).  He stands removed from a river and the enveloping buildings and captures the flash and the surrounding lights, from the reflections illuminating the water to the electrical lights dotting each building.
Dowell strives to put his heart and inspirations into every piece, which is apparent by the frequent use of his religious vision and musical symbols, making him an intriguing and evocative artist.   His synesthesia makes him an inspiring figure for other synesthetes; Dowell is able to achieve unique feats by combining his musical inclinations with his visual art.  As a result, his work combines these two disciplines, allowing his pieces to contain both his visual influences and his musical aspirations.
Sources: Booker, Bobbi. “Reviews.” John Dowell. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. Brandywine Workshop. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. Dowell, John E. “Bio.” John Dowell. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. Dowell, John E. Cycle of Abundance. 1988. John Dowell. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. Dowell, John E. Make It Short. 1973. Art of the Print. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. “John Dowell.” Art Jaz Gallery. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.
Researched and written by Kayla Chappelle.
Biography from G.R. N’Namdi Gallery:
“There’s a kind of strength and power which is part of our existence. I want people to pay attention to their hearts. We pay too much attention to our heads and our pocketbooks and the political situation and not enough to our hearts. And it doesn’t have to be mushy!”
John Dowell’s prints, paintings, sculptures, music, and text are rich with spirituality and symbolism; they attempt to capture the true human spirit. Dowell, developed his artistic identity early on. Much of his earlier work is a synergy of European modernism, black culture, jazz, and the African American experience of the 60’s and 70’s.
After graduating from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art, in 1963, Dowell accepted a two-month residency studying advanced lithography with Garo Antreasian, began a senior printing fellowship at Tamarind Lithography Workshop, and subsequently, was accepted to University of Washington MFA program. In 1976, he started Visual Music Ensemble. Printing during this time, he sought to create fluid art works that expressed a spontaneous joy for the creative act, visual and auditory. Influences during this time included John Coltrane, Ornette Colman, and Duke Ellington.
Charles Pridgen, both a friend and teacher, inspired Dowell’s artist-teacher career. Enabling his students to tap and tune their own creativities and skills is more than simply part of Dowell’s life as an artist, rather it is truly a part of his artwork itself. This is truly creating art with heart foremost and is literally translated in his most recent series. On a trip to Brazil, in 1988, Dowell received a Condomble ceremonial initiation. During this rite, he had a vision of a burning heart, which has since become the focus of his newest body of work. Dowell says of this symbol:
“In using the heart, I am attempting to stop, look, listen and feel the layers of love, respect, and just being. The heart’s spiritual overtones generate reflections on life, bringing me closer to my internal world, my humanity, my peace. These forms and objects, along with light and sounds, act as stimuli to unleash and provoke my inner discovery.”