Philadelphia Inquirer: Review of Cotton Exhibition

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

Link to original article

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

Link to original article

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.

Opening September! Exhibition of my cotton work at the AAMP

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

African American Museum in Philadelphia
701 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 574-0380

The 35 large-scale photographs, installation and altarpiece featured in Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past explore the dichotomy between the beauty of the plant, and its inexorable link to the horrors of chattel slavery in the U.S. The exhibition also evokes the often overlooked history of slavery in the North, specifically in New York City.  Dowell meticulously documents cotton as a symbol to channel ideas, dreams and fantasies—and as a portal to communicate with ancestors and with the viewer.

Upcoming Exhibition, “Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

A solo exhibition of my cotton work will open in September at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Getting Ready, Cotton, by John Dowell artist photographer

Getting Ready,  Archival Inkjet Print on Photo Rag Paper, 2017

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


Opening: Friday, September 14, 2018
ON VIEW: September 15 – January 22, 2018

African American Museum in Philadelphia
701 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 574-0380

The 35 large-scale photographs, installation and altarpiece featured in Cotton:  The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past explore the dichotomy between the beauty of the plant, and its inexorable link to the horrors of chattel slavery in the U.S. The exhibition also evokes the often overlooked history of slavery in the North, specifically in New York City.  Dowell meticulously documents cotton as a symbol to channel ideas, dreams and fantasies—and as a portal to communicate with ancestors and with the viewer.

John E. Dowell is a Philadelphia based, nationally recognized artist, master-printer and photographer. A professor Emeritus of Tyler School of Art at Temple University, for more than four decades, Dowell’s fine art prints, paintings and photographs have been featured in more than 50 one-person exhibitions and represented in the permanent collections of 70 museums and public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France.

Performance: “Cotton In Motion” at SUNY Oneonta

A collaboration by John Dowell, with choreographer and director Kareem B. Goodwin.

COTTON IN MOTION

A collaboration by John Dowell, with choreographer and director Kareem B. Goodwin. Assisted by Channel Kane, featuring SUNY Oneonta Dancers.
Sound by John Dowell and Kareem B. Goodwin.
Performed in the Martin-Mullen Art Gallery, January 25, 2018, in conjunction with the exhibition COTTON, by John Dowell.
Dancers: Sabrina Noti, Nicole Catapano, Meghan Cassidy, Amanda Murphy, Alexandra Gardner, Abigail Haviland, Jenna Snide, and Sezlyn Petersen.

Upcoming Exhibition, “Problem Solving: Highlights from the Experimental Printmaking Institute” at the University of Delaware

My Lithograph “The Bridge” is part of the upcoming exhibition, “Problem Solving: Highlights from the Experimental Printmaking Institute” at the University of Delaware.

The Bridge, Lithograph, by John Dowell Artist Photographer
22” x 18” Lithograph 2004 Edition of 50

The Bridge, Lithograph, 2004

February 7 – May 11, 2018
Opening Reception: Monday, March 5, 5-7pm

Problem Solving: Highlights from the Experimental Printmaking Institute

“Experimentation in the printmaking studio has a lot to do with problem solving,” Curlee Raven Holton, founder and emeritus director of the Experimental Printmaking Institute (EPI) at Lafayette College, explained in a 2014 interview. This exhibition celebrates a gift of prints from the EPI that Holton presented to the University of Delaware. To showcase the EPI’s role as a leading center for innovative experiments in printmaking across a variety of media and techniques, the exhibition puts selections from the EPI gift in conversation with significant works from the University’s extensive permanent collection of African American art.

Mechanical Hall Gallery
University of Delaware, Mechanical Hall
30 North College Avenue
Newark, DE 19716

302.831.8037

Upcoming Exhibition, “Photographs Are Ideas” at Lehigh University

My photograph “Wacker Drive” is part of the upcoming exhibition, “Photographs Are Ideas: Selections from the LUAG Teaching Museum Collection” at the Zoellner Art Center, Lehigh University.

Wacker Drive (Chicago), Archival Inkjet Print on Photo Rag Paper, 2005

January 24 – May 25, 2018
Opening Reception: Thursday, February 8, 6-8pm

Photographs Are Ideas: Selections from the LUAG Teaching Museum Collection

Curated by Ricard Viera, LUAG Director and Chief Curator

According to Viera, “Today—as we see in the various works of individual artists, from single-plate processes, through analog, conceptual, and photo-based approaches—light and shadow continue to play a mysterious role in the theatrics of digitalization and the photoshop of IDEAS.  Keep in mind that an IDEA is not just a cognitive or conceptual action.  An IDEA could be searching and looking through the lens of a camera, or simply photographing an object as an IDEA of the subject.  An IDEA could be a visual metaphor, a descriptive narrative, a lie, or the act of mismatching a pair as a parallel to discovery.  In short, good photography is good theater.  That’s the IDEA.”

LUAG Main Gallery
Zoellner Arts Center
420 East Packer Avenue
Bethlehem, PA 18015

610.758.3615

Solo Exhibition, “Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past” at the Martin-Mullen Art Gallery, SUNY Oneonta

A solo exhibition of my cotton work is on display now through March at SUNY Oneonta.

Final Transition, Archival Inkjet Print on Photo Rag Paper, 2016

January 22 – March 16, 2018
Opening Reception: Thursday, January 25, 5-7pm

Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past

Martin Mullen Art Gallery
SUNY Oneonta Fine Arts Center
Oneonta, NY 13820

607.436.3456

NEWS RELEASE
January 20, 2018

ONEONTA, N.Y. — A new exhibit, titled Cotton: The soft dangerous beauty of the past, explores both the beauty of cotton and how it prolonged slavery in the U.S., and is being featured from January 22 to March 16 at SUNY Oneonta’s Martin-Mullen Art Gallery.

Photographer John E. Dowell, Jr., delivered a gallery talk during a public reception from 5-to-7 p.m. on Thursday Jan. 25, at the gallery, which was followed by a dance performance, “Cotton in Motion,” by choreographer Kareem Goodwin and SUNY students.

The cotton exhibit will allow visitors to experience how a four-year-old could get lost in a field of cotton, as the grandmother of Dowell did in South Carolina. They will be able to step inside what appears to be a cotton field. A maze of huge curtains printed with images of cotton hang from the ceiling. On nearby walls are seven monumental photographs of cotton, which range from the eight-foot long, “Breaking Away,” to the 13 foot-long, “Feeling the Pain.” Smaller photos from 27 inches to 34 inches high hang nearby.

“With this project, I want the viewer to feel, remember, wonder, think and examine their consciousness,” Dowell said, “and still see the beauty of this plant that changed the world.”

The second largest number of slaves in the United States were auctioned off in New York City. The official slave market opened in 1711 and was located on Wall Street between Pearl and Waters Streets. By 1730, 42 percent of New York city population owned slaves. Much of this history has been forgotten.

Dowell has built photographic images placing cotton on and around Wall and Pearl Streets in New York City, and Central Park, where Seneca Village, the first U.S. middle-class black community existed. The housing community was leveled by use of eminent domain to make way for Central Park.   I have put images cotton in Harlem as a symbolic reminder of our forgotten past and our responsibility to remember how our country was built.

Dowell collaborated with Philadelphia choreographer Kareem Goodwin to create “Cotton in Motion,” a dance that introduces human movement and interaction with the cotton installation. SUNY Oneonta dance instructor, Shannah Kane, worked with Goodwin and the university’s dance students to stage the performance for the reception.

As a performing artist, Goodwin has worked with such choreographers as Christopher L. Huggins, Louis Johnson, Ronen Koresh, Gary W. Jeter II, Zane Booker and Arthur Mitchell. He also has been a member of Eleone Connection, the Pre-Professional Company of Eleone Dance Theatre. He is on the faculty at Eleone Dance Unlimited and the Dance Institute of Philadelphia, and he serves as a guest faculty member at the Rock School of Dance Education.

In early 2017, Goodwin was selected as the inaugural recipient of the New Voices of Dance Award presented by Dissonance Dance Theater in Washington, D.C.   He is also an NAACP ACT-SO Local and Regional Gold Medalist, as well as a National Finalist.

Dowell is a nationally recognized artist, master-printer and photographer. For more than four decades, Dowell’s fine art prints, paintings and photographs have been featured in more than 50 one-person exhibitions and represented in the permanent collections of 70 museums and public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France.

Dowell’s photographs are in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and have been added to his work in the collections of the Fogg Museum of Harvard University, the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design and the Lehigh University Museum. He captures the pulse of cities and agricultural landscapes of America in his large-scale photographs. Working primarily from sunset until dawn, he focuses on the surface of buildings, the reflections of their exteriors and, quietly, their interior spaces. By illuminating the unseen, he brings awareness to a single moment.

This exhibit and dance performance are funded, in part, through the estate gift of Jean Parish, faculty emerita, Art, to the College at Oneonta Foundation, and, in part, by the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

 

Upcoming Exhibition, “The Expanded Caribbean: Contemporary Photography at the Crossroads” at Drexel University

Several of my pieces will be included in an upcoming exhibition at Drexel University’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery. See details below.

Peering Through, Archival Inkjet Print on Canvas, 2013

September 19 – December 10
Opening Reception: Thursday, September 28, 5-7pm

The Expanded Caribbean: Contemporary Photography at the Crossroads features work by 16 artists with projects based in several different nations and communities neighboring the Caribbean Sea.  The exhibition brings together images that document, interrogate, challenge, and otherwise engage the meaning of place in an area with a rich history as a target of exploration and conquest, voluntary and forced migration, trade, travel, and tourism. Responding variously to cultural, historical, mythological, and personal aspects the region, artists initiate dialogues about how events of the past inform contemporary experience in a continually shifting and evolving environment.

The exhibition is accompanied by a quality print and electronic catalog that includes images of all works as well as contextual scholarly essays by Dr. Mimi Sheller, Professor of Sociology at Drexel University, and Dr. Susanna W. Gold, Curator.

For a link to purchase the catalog, please visit Dr. Susanna W. Gold’s website.

Leonard Pearlstein Gallery
3401 Filbert Street
URBN Annex
Philadelphia, PA 19104

215.895.2548

Upcoming: “Approaching Abstraction” at the LaSalle University Art Museum

One of my pieces, “Dream Cleansing,”  will be included in LaSalle University’s upcoming exhibition. See details below.

Dream Cleansing, IRIS print on lithograph, 1989

 

Approaching Abstraction: African American Art from the Permanent Collection
March 15, 2016 – June 15, 2017

Poetry reading by Yolanda Wisher, April 6 at 12:30

Special Exhibitions Gallery
Lower Level, Olney Hall
215-951-1221