Master Artist Series

John E. Dowell Jr.

John E. Dowell Jr. is an artist of many talents. Nationally recognized, Dowell has worked as an artist and master printmaker for over four decades. Many know Dowell as a photographer—though he would aptly amend that statement to “an artist with a camera”—but over the course of his impressive artistic career, Dowell has explored a wide variety of mediums ranging from painting to ceramics to musical composition. Dowell’s expansive body of work, housed in his studio in North Philadelphia, is one of great dimension. Though diverse in medium, his works reflect a continuity of formal concerns and a unified goal: to provide the viewer with a transportive, real experience that “leads them to themselves.”

“Capture the spirit of the moment. All things may not be related, but they are connected.”

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Left to right: John Dowell, Hat and Beard, 1966. Etching, 22 x 18 inches; John Dowell, Shepp's Hambone, 1966. Etching, 28 x 20 inches; John Dowell, On That Day If It Should Come, 1966. Etching, 30 x 22 inches.

Left to right: John Dowell, Untitled #3, 1967. Graphite and paint on paper, 35 x 46 inches; John Dowell, Karma, 1967. Graphite and paint on paper, 46 x 35 inches.

From his early work in printmaking to his current photographic work, time, texture, and space have been guiding principles in John Dowell’s creative process. In each work, he employs an intuitive sense of space to create structure for the viewer—using visual information, Dowell creates transportive and often confrontational works that form an immersive experience for the viewer, requiring their engagement and response.

 

Of his work, Dowell reflects; “my goal has always been to provide a stimulus for the viewer to have a real experience that would lead them to themselves, not to me, to themselves… if I could do something that would trigger something that [the viewer] would think about, or feel something they hadn’t felt before, or place them in another place that they haven’t been before, that was my job.”

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Left to right: John Dowell, A Waltz for Three, 1973. China ink on paper, 27.5 x 19.75 inches; John Dowell, Percussion Dream, 1973. China ink on paper, 27.5 x 19.75 inches.

Music has served as a connecting thread throughout John Dowell’s practice. As a graduate student at the University of Washington, Dowell became interested in the correspondence across artistic disciplines, particularly the relationship between visual arts, music, dance, and poetry. Finding that the structure of most creative expressions is similar, Dowell began his own multidisciplinary explorations which he described as “look at music,” and “listening to painting.” Using works on paper, prints, and watercolors as musical scores, Dowell began collaborating with musicians to perform his “painted scores.” Music and dance continue to be relevant to John Dowell’s practice, evidenced in the immersive environments he creates—photography and sound came together in a 2012 performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and again at the African American Museum in 2018—as well as in the evolution of his career.

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Left to right: John Dowell, Toy Chorus #3, 1984. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 22 inches; John Dowell, To Fish In Stone, 1987. Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches.

Dowell’s White Paintings, completed in the 1980s and 90s, represent that evolution in influence. Inspired first by themes of movement and dancing, these works demonstrate Dowell’s endeavor to create structure and space on a 2-dimensional plane. As he progressed through the series, the paintings began to represent a greater sense of movement, passage, and direction—they came to relate to the movement from life to death, presenting a visual interpretation of that liminal space. The abstraction and surrealism of these works can again be seen in Dowell’s more recent photographic work, which concerns itself with the concepts of space, liminal space, ancestry, and the overlapping imprint of history on specific sites.  

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Left to right: John Dowell, To Move From Infinity, 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 58 inches; John Dowell, Past, Present, Future, 1990. Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 32 inches.

Focusing on large-scale photography, John Dowell’s current work captures both urban and agricultural environments, imbuing them with historic context and poetic content through digital processes of image manipulation. Dowell’s artistic creations often feature layer upon layer of photographic images and hand-drawn elements, meticulously composed to communicate a storied past to their viewer. With an image inventory full of stories, Dowell investigates themes of spirituality, time and memory, rhythm and movement, and the relationship between the land and the history of our nation.

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John Dowell, African Union Church, 2018. Archival pigment print on photo rag paper, 27 x 34 inches.

John Dowell was born in 1941 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a young boy growing up in the city, he explored art with his older brother, who copied Lone Ranger comic books. In second grade, Dowell volunteered to create the backdrop for the Christmas play, garnering him praise from his teacher. In sixth grade, he was introduced to the Philadelphia School Art League, marking the beginning of Dowell’s exploration of the arts, and ultimately setting him on the path to where he is now. In his teens, Dowell began taking classes on Saturday mornings at the Fleisher Art Memorial, eventually taking night classes on Friday evenings as well. By the time he entered high school, he had already cast a life-size sculpture and embarked on stone carving. 

 

In 1959, John Dowell began his studies at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. Though he initially planned to pursue sculpture, Dowell developed a passion for printmaking and ceramics. Dowell received his BFA in 1963, graduating with honors. Following Tyler School of Art, Dowell completed a two-month apprenticeship with Garo Antreasian at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, in preparation for his fellowship at the Tamarind Lithographic Workshop in Los Angeles, California. There he honed his collaborative lithographic printing technique and printed for the likes of Josef Albers, Sam Frances, Nathan Oliveira, and Louise Nevelson amongst others. He continued his studies in printmaking and drawing at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA, earning an MFA in 1966.

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Left to right: John Dowell, She Sings, 2003. Lithograph, 22 x 22 inches; John Dowell, Did You Know It?, 2005. Lithograph, 22 x 22 inches.

Dowell began his career as an arts educator in 1966 as an Instructor of Art, Printmaking and Drawing at Indian State University. In 1971, Dowell traveled to Rome, Italy, as an Associate Professor of Art in the Printmaking Department at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, where he taught for three years. He served as Chairman of the Printmaking Department from 1988-2003, and became a Professor Emeritus of Printmaking at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 2013.

 

John Dowell has been featured in more than fifty solo exhibitions and is represented in the permanent collections of over seventy museums and public collections, notably including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France.