Philadelphia Inquirer: Review of Cotton Exhibition

Artist John Dowell exposes cotton’s terrible beauty at the African American Museum in
Philadelphia

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By Stephan Salisbury, September 25, 2018

Artist John Dowell exposes cotton’s terrible beauty at the African American Museum in PhiladelphiaDAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Artist John Dowell holds a bowl of cotton bolls while standing before the enormous photographic print that welcomes visitors to his show, Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

She was long gone, but she came to him in a dream.

Artist John E. Dowell Jr., 77, Philadelphia born and bred,said it all came down to Big Mommy.

“I had this dream, a series of dreams, three months before I had a show in Savannah back in 2011,” Dowell said the other day while standing in the midst of his extraordinary new exhibition, Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past. 

John E. Dowell Jr.’s “Getting Ready, Virginia Cotton,” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.JOHN E. DOWELL JR.
John E. Dowell Jr.’s “Getting Ready, Virginia Cotton,” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

The exhibition of vivid photographs of cotton plants, cotton fields, and the ghosts of cotton, many collaged and profoundly manipulated, just opened at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Seventh and Arch Streets. It runs through Jan. 21.

“I kept dreaming of my grandmother and so I kept asking my brother and my sister, ‘Did you dream of Big Mommy?’ And they said, ‘No.’ And finally my sister said, ‘You’re in trouble.’ I said, ‘But I haven’t done anything!’

“She said, ‘Big Mommy don’t play! You know that. She never played!'”

Dowell, a slight man with a sparkling laugh, said that, about two or three weeks later,  he had another dream.

“I said, ‘OK, Big Mommy, what did I do? What’s wrong?” he recalled. “And I saw this image of her with cotton and I started remembering the story she told me about cotton.”

Big Mommy, who grew up near Augusta, Ga., told a memorable tale of children — and herself — becoming lost in fields of towering stalks of cotton, cotton looming, cotton everywhere, as thick as any endless, foreboding woods.

“The next morning,” Dowell continued, “I called a farm agent in the Savannah area and I found a farmer and made an appointment for when I was going to go down to the [Savannah] museum.”

So began Dowell’s journey into what was the alien world of cotton, seemingly so antithetical to his urban own world of the Richard Allen Homes and decades of teaching at Temple’s Tyler School of Art. But he felt in his bones the vast power and terrible beauty of this potent plant, and understood that he had to know cotton, as an artist and a photographer — and perhaps most profoundly as a black man.

A hanging installation by John E. Dowell Jr. at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
A hanging installation by John E. Dowell Jr. at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

“Cotton is our symbol,” Dowell said. “That’s black people in this country. You just mention cotton, you know what I mean, and for those of us who are a little aware, all the torture, all of that stuff — it’s there. And it makes you stop and think. That’s why I’m doing the cotton. I couldn’t think of a better symbol.”

In the midst of his first visit shooting near Augusta, the farmer who showed him around proudly told Dowell that the cotton fields had been in his family for seven generations.

“It hit me — I’ve been taken home,” Dowell said. “I didn’t trace it, but I could feel it. I knew somebody in my family worked that property. I didn’t let on. I just went off and tried to photograph. On the second day, I’m photographing in the afternoon, and all of a sudden, I can’t focus. I’m a nut about focus. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ All of a sudden, my eyes started watering and I just cried. I just cried. After a while I got myself back together. … That was my first real experience of cotton.”

Photographing that year, mostly in Virginia and South Carolina, Dowell said things, powerful things “would happen.” Once, driving to an obscure field, he turned a corner, came over a hill, and “all I can see is solid cotton.”

He pulled over.

“I just sat there,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, what are you going to do if you face all of that at 5 in the morning for the rest of your life?’ Things like that I had never thought about before.”

Some things, as his exploration of cotton continued, Dowell had never even heard of, particularly when he began thinking about slavery in the north. The Wall Street slave market, for instance, was one of world’s most active selling blocks for most of the 17th and 18th centuries.

But by the 1820s, freed Africans were able to buy plots of land in what became known as Seneca Village, a largely black community in what is now Central Park. From 1825, blacks and some Irish and German families bought land there and built homes.

The city swept it all away with the power of eminent domain to create Central Park. Nothing remains visible of Seneca Village, not the houses, the three churches, the school, the businesses.

Visitors look at one of John E. Dowell’s ghostly renderings of Seneca Village, a black community obliterated to make way for Central Park.
DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Visitors look at one of John E. Dowell’s ghostly renderings of Seneca Village, a black community obliterated to make way for Central Park.

Dowell photographed the area and in some of his most powerful prints, he drew buildings on their exact sites, ghost houses and cotton haunting the park.

There is the home of Andrew Williams, for instance, the first settler, who bought his land and built his simple house in 1825.

In Dowell’s photograph, he shows the spectral Williams house surrounded by vivid cardinals, “spirits,” Dowell calls them.

Another print shows the house of Williams’ neighbors, levitating. Nearby, the African Union Church sits, cotton laid at its doorstep, bursts of cotton flying from its rooftop, an explosion of hallelujahs.

“I wanted to show the spiritual,” Dowell said. The same idea inspired his interior shot of Trinity Church near Wall Street, which sometimes allowed black people to be buried in its cemetery, and often barred them.

John E. Dowell Jr.’s “Sending the Message” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
JOHN E. DOWELL JR.
John E. Dowell Jr.’s “Sending the Message” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Cotton pokes its way above pews in Dowell’s photographic vision; it comes streaming through the windows like angels in Renaissance paintings.

I superimposed cotton on [the interior],” he said. “But what it’s about is that, OK, we’re just equal like everybody else, you know, nothing special. Just give us a shot like everybody else. The message is: You could bury us. You could. I just want people to remember and to think about what happened there.

“My job is to plant a little seed. But I’m still trying to make pictures. I want the feeling. … People ask me, ‘What are you trying to do?’ I’m trying to show you what you can’t see.”

ART EXHIBIT
Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past
Photographs by John Dowell

On view through Jan. 21, 2019, at the African American Museum in Philadelphia,
701 Arch St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $14 adults, $10 children (4-12 years old), $10 students with I.D., $10 senior citizens. Information: 215- 574-0380 or aampmuseum.org

Article: Review of Cotton Exhibition on WHYY

Cotton as muse at the African American Museum

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Peter Crimmins September 15, 2018

Artist John Dowell moves through his installation,

Artist John Dowell moves through his installation, “Lost in Cotton,” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. The work evokes his grandmother’s experience of being lost in a cotton field as a small child. (Emma Lee/WHYY)


In the summer of 2011, John Dowell started having dreams about his grandmother, Big Mommy. After the second dream, his sister warned him that Big Mommy wanted something.

“I started asking my brothers and sisters, ‘Are you dreaming of Big Mommy?’ They said no. My sister said, ‘Uh-oh, you in trouble,’” said Dowell. “So I had another dream, and I woke up in the middle of the night and said, ‘OK, Big Mommy, what did I do? What’s up?’ And I had this image of her with cotton.”

Dowell remembered that his grandmother, long since passed, had told him that when she was very small – 4 or 5 years old – she got lost in a dense field of cotton.

Dowell is a professor emeritus at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, not far from where he grew up in the Richard Allen housing project in North Philadelphia. He’s a city guy. He knew the history of slavery in cotton plantations in the South, but he had never actually been in a cotton field.

Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” is an exhibition of Dowell’s photography now on view at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. In order to appease the spirit of his grandmother, Dowell – a former Voodoo priest – visited cotton farms in Georgia to take pictures.

As cotton grows, the plants become extremely dense. Dowell’s camera goes deep into the thickly entwined stalks where it is easy to imagine a 5-year-old girl becoming desperately lost. He catches “second-day” cotton when it sprouts a roselike flower, and “perfect” cotton when its hard shell splits into a five-point star.

The exhibition features a shrine to his grandmother, with baskets full of raw cotton still on the stem. Visitors can hold the white puff – surprisingly heavy – and pull its strands into a feathery tuft.

John Dowell’s exhibit at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, “Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past,” includes a tribute to his grandmother, Lucy Dowell, whose appearance in a dream drove him to the cotton fields of the South. (Emma Lee/WHYY)


Cotton also has an ugly history.

“It is beautiful, but if you grab it wrong, you’re bleeding,” said Dowell. “Cotton is a trigger to the past. I never knew how strong an influence it had on our country. It drove the whole economy.”

As a young nation, America needed to establish its own industries to distance itself from British trade. The American cotton textile industry was an important step toward economic independence. It was able to thrive, in large part, because of slave labor.

Dowell’s approach is part history lesson, part personal mythology, and part straight-ahead botanical photography. It adds up to a surreal vision of cotton. He digitally manipulated his large-scale pictures to imagine cotton as ethereal or menacing or subversive.

A set of pictures taken in Manhattan is superimposed with fields of cotton, in reference to Seneca Village, a thriving African-American community that was once in the center of the city. In the 19th century, through eminent domain, the land was seized then razed to make Central Park.

The photos show dense fields of cotton choking the parks, avenues, and storefronts of New York. People caught in Dowell’s photos appear to be drowning.

“Face it, people are struggling,” he said. “You’re still on a plantation. Somebody owns everything, and the rest of us have to work to keep them in power. It’s still the same thing.”

While the cotton industry has a dark past, Dowell regards it as a lovely plant. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “When you’re out there, you can see that.”

He likes to imagine that the plant had a sympathetic feeling for the slaves picking cotton, and proactively – with whatever powers inherent to the plant — tried to aide them in their plight. To illustrate that vision, the exhibition will feature a dance developed by Dowell and choreographer Gary Jeter, personifying cotton. It will be performed in the gallery on Oct. 3 and 5.

Interview with Aubrey Nagle of the PhillyVoice

Five for Friday: Photographer John Dowell

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Artist John Dowell takes photography to new heights — literally. The Philly native has created splendid images for four decades and his works have been featured in exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Art, and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France.

Dowell’s latest exhibit is a compendium of images he’s made of Rittenhouse Square, the city gathering place with a long and storied history, from high above. His lens gives a bird’s eye view of the park, revealing more than just the games of catch and tranquil conversations happening below. The exhibit, “Rittenhouse Square: A View Aloft,” is on display at Griesing Law, LLC until Aug. 31.

Before the show’s private artists’ reception April 28, we caught up with Dowell to chat about where he’s aiming his lens next.

What is it about Rittenhouse Square that fascinates you as a subject?

I have spent years exploring techniques that capture depth- of-space. In Rittenhouse Square, observing from above and through the seasons gave me entirely different perspectives to reveal.

The park is a meeting place for people to engage in conversation on a bench, hang out on the grass for a picnic, kids to play, dogs to fetch, simply just walk through for a break from the hustle and bustle, or to enjoy a nearby café. From above trees in full bloom created a canopy to frame the interactions below. The changing of the seasons left the trees bare revealing more details of human interactions and interesting shapes created by grassy areas in contrast to cement walkways and statues. Natural light created glittering windows and translucent shadows.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen through your lens, looking at Rittenhouse?

Discovering the extraordinary images of reflections in antique glass of the buildings in the square. When the light reflects on the windows of surrounding buildings you can see unusual images that create textural abstractions. Photographing through the layers of tree branches captures the light and enhances depth-of-space.

Much of your photography work places you very high up, with almost a bird’s eye view. What do you like about that point of view, artistically?

The audience normally experiences the world at ground level. Some are fortunate to have access to elevated apartments or offices. I see the natural light creating a dramatic view at dusk, when the level of both interior and exterior illuminations are equal.

Is there another spot in Philadelphia – or in the world – that you’d like to focus a similar project on in the future? If so, where and why?

Based on accessibility, there are some areas of Philadelphia I would love to explore. If anyone reading has an interesting view from an elevated location I would be open to taking a look.

What new projects are you currently working on?

I will be photographing from Griesing Law offices located on the 36th floor of 1717 Arch Street. Through the floor to ceiling, windows there are clear views north and east in the city.

Influenced by my project in Rittenhouse Square, I am now shooting in Manhattan specifically in Midtown and Harlem. Extraordinary views and visual stories of human interaction is what I want to capture. I’m also working on a series in Georgia and Virginia about cotton growing from individual plants into sprawling fields in bloom.

“Rittenhouse Square: A View Aloft” is open now through August 31, Monday through Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at Griesing Law, 1717 Arch Street, Suite 3630. Anyone can attend for free by appointment by contacting Griesing Law at griesinglaw.com.
AUBREY NAGLE
aubrey@phillyvoice.com