NEWS

Cotton: A Lecture with John E. Dowell in Philly

Cotton: A Lecture with John E. Dowell
African American Museum Philadelphia
Thursday, December 13, 6 – 8 p.m.

Free with RSVP
Register
here

On Thursday, December 13, the African American Museum in Philadelphia invites to you join us for the special lecture and conversation with Philadelphia-based photographer, master-printer and visual artist, John E. Dowell. For this free public lecture, Dowell expounds on the historical and contemporary themes found within his exhibition, Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past.

Doors open at 6 p.m. for an opening wine and cheese reception. The lecture will begin promptly at 6:30 p.m., and will be followed by an audience Q&A.

Sending the Message, Cotton, by John Dowell artist photographer

More on Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past

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, Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France.

Honoring my mentor, Romas Viesulas

Honoring a printmaker who fled Lithuania and had a profound influence on black artists in Philly

Link to original article

By Stephan Salisbury, Posted: November 13, 2018

Romas Viesulas, world-renowned master printmaker, has never exactly been hailed in his adopted home of Philadelphia.

It’s not that Viesulas was ignored during his lifetime. When he died suddenly in Rome of a heart attack in 1986, he was a professor of printmaking at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and director of Temple Abroad in Rome.

He had received three fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. He represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1970. His work is in museum collections around the world (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

But Allan L. Edmunds, founder and president of the Brandywine Workshop and Archives, has long felt Viesulas has never been properly recognized here, in the city where he finally settled after fleeing Lithuania ahead of the Nazis and the Russians in the 1940s.

So this year, the centenary of Viesulas’ birth, Edmunds has helped put together a yearlong celebration of the man who, he says, “changed my life.”

At 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, a panel will be held at Temple to discuss the impact of the immigrant on art and culture in the United States. The ambassador of Lithuania, Rolandas Krisciuna, will be on hand. Scholars, artists, and Viesulas family members will also be there.

“Romas Viesulas: Master Artist-Printmaker,” a survey of the artist’s work, is now on view at the Brandywine Workshop, 730-32 S. Broad St. It runs through Dec. 29. (An exhibition of Viesulas’ work recently closed at the Lithuanian embassy in Washington, where it served to celebrate the artist and the centennial of modern Lithuania).

Virtues to celebrate

As far as Edmunds is concerned, such recognition has been a long time coming, and the virtues it celebrates are in short supply these days.

“In a global society, we’re all citizens of the world, but we all are looking at our differences,” Edmunds said.  “I came to Tyler in ’67. He was a teacher, and I fell in love with printmaking. He was very encouraging of everything I did. I would not be a printmaker were it not for Romas.”

Artist John Dowell, whose manipulated photographs exploring cotton are currently on view at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, studied with Viesulas at Tyler in the 1960s.

“There was complete acceptance of me by Romas,” Dowell said.

Significantly, Viesulas helped pave the way for Dowell to become the second person to earn a printmaking residence and certificate from the famed Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles (and the first African America to do so). In 1970, on Viesulas’ recommendation, Dowell became the first African American to become printmaker-in-residence at the Venice Biennale.

“I had never been out of the country before!” said Dowell, who grew up in the Richard Allen homes of North Philadelphia.

It’s not that Romas sought out young African American artists. He sought out talent and embraced it, Dowell and Edmunds agreed. He was an immigrant, devoid of ethnic and racial prejudice and sympathetic to excellence.

“He was very, very, very encouraging,” Dowell recalled. “Who you were was irrelevant. If the work was good, it was good. If the work was bad, it was bad.”

Viesulas arrived in Philadelphia at a low point in his life. He had escaped from Europe and eventually made his way here, initially as a temporary replacement at Tyler. But the teacher he replaced never returned and Viesulas stayed on, becoming chair of the printmaking department.

In his work and in his life, he dismissed the superficial.

“The human drama, the human condition — that element has always permeated my art, and in my life I have completed only a couple of complete abstractions,” Viesulas said in an interview in the 1970s.

“It’s interesting that behind my work there’s always some human concern. As an artist, I can function only this way. I cannot perceive unless there is something in human terms that bothers me, nags me, or depresses me. The reaction or comment to this has probably been the motor which has driven me the last 20 years.”

ART TALK & SHOW
Romas Viesulas

  • Panel discussion “Romas Viesus and the Impact of Immigration on Art and Culture,” 4:30 p.m. Weds., Nov. 14, Temple University Science Education and Research Center, 1925 N. 12th St., Room 110A/B. Art exhibit “Romas Viesulas: Master Artist-Printmaker,” through Dec. 29, Brandywine Workshop, 730-32 S. Broad St., brandywineworkshopandarchives.org, 215-546-3675.

Biennial at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral

CURRENT CATHEDRAL ART: THEMES AND VARIATIONS

Biennial Cathedral Artists Exhibition

Link to original article

The Cathedral has been blessed by the presence of a growing number of visual artists who have shared their creative journeys as members of the congregation.   To celebrate these gifts of the spirit, the Cathedral Arts program devotes an exhibition every two years to their work.

Artists  

Won Choi
John Dowell
Marie Elcin
Virginia Maksymowicz
Anne Minich
Gerard DiFalco
Suzanne DuPlantis
Liddy Lindsay
Deann Mills
Blaise Tobia

On view from November 3 to December 15, 2018
Monday through Friday: 11 am to 1 pm or by appointment
Saturday showing: December 8   1-4 pm
Complete catalog available here.

There is a common tendency among artists to return to certain subjects again and again, even as their artistic approaches change and develop over time. These subjects, or “themes” can be figures either real or symbolic, or visual ideas having to do with color, texture, line, or form. This exhibit prompts us to ask:  Why do artists keep returning to these ideas as if there is something they haven’t completely worked out for themselves? What do they see in our world that we might be missing?

We hope this exhibition will open our eyes to a few of the infinite ‘variations’ of the abundantly diverse elements of the divinely created world we share.

For further information, contact:  Thomas Lloyd, Cathedral Director of Music and Arts tlloyd@philadelphiacathedral.org

Exhibition at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute

RACE, MYTH, ART, AND JUSTICE EXHIBITION

Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute
120 East 125th Street
New York, NY 10035

FREE

Exhibition Description

The exhibition explores intersecting ideas of race, myth, art, and justice through the lens and unique interpretations of twelve inter-generational photographers. Via innovative contemporary art practices, the photographers engage with the premise of “race” as a social construct rooted in myth, while simultaneously interrogating its profound implications and indignities on our 21st-century lives.

With roots in the United States and throughout Africa and the Caribbean—including Guyana, Jamaica, Nevis, Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and Sierra Leone—the photographers draw from an African Diasporic worldview steeped in their personal experiences as well as larger geographical political histories. Collectively, their images offer a poignant and provocative portrait of the ways the mythology of race and the pursuit of justice continue to permeate the global African experience.

Race, Myth, Art, and Justice celebrates a community of voices who illuminate how art continues to serve as a powerful tool for justice. As part of CCCADI’s commitment to public engagement and collaboration, the curators invited thirteen dynamic scholars, activists, artists, and writers to reflect on the exhibition’s works. Through their thoughtful framing, we witness how the images transcend limiting labels of “political,” “radical,” or “protest” art. These photographs are not merely gestures or symbolic meditations on race and justice. Instead, they reflect exclusion, erasure, and invisibility as the lived realities we wrestle and resist every day.

Featured Artists:

Kwesi Abbensetts, Faisal Abdu’Allah, Terry Boddie, Jonathan Gardenhire, John E. Dowell, Jr. Adama Delphine Fawundu, Deborah Jack, Zoraida Lopez-Diago, Radcliffe Roye, Stan Squirewell, Ming Smith, Deborah Willis.

RMAJ

Curators: Grace Aneiza Ali and C. Daniel Dawson | Project Coordinator: Marta Moreno Vega, President of the Creative Justice Initiative

RMAJ

The opening reception will debut the exhibition and will feature remarks by our new Melody Capote, Executive Director, curators, artists, and a festive reception.

To learn more about the exhibition click here: https://cccadi.org/racemythartandjustice


WHEN: November 15, 2018 – June 15th, 2019

WHERE: Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute

ADMISSION: Free with RSVP | Optional Suggestion Donation $5.00


The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI)preserves and presents African Diaspora cultures; trains the next generation of cultural leaders; and unites Diaspora communities. We leverage arts and culture as tools for personal transformation, community-building, and social justice.


Major support for the exhibition has been provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The Ford Foundation, with additional support from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Art Blog: Review of Cotton Exhibition

John Dowell spins redemption from cotton’s painful history at the African American Museum of Philadelphia

Janyce Glasper offers a poetic reflection of John Dowell’s current exhibition at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past. On view through January 21, 2019, this installation of large-scale prints and medium-format digital collages explores slavery, not as a particularly southern phenomenon, but as an institution that haunts our nation from Alabama from Wall Street. What’s more, Dowell uses the symbolic force of cotton to carve out a space for personal reflection and collective celebration.

John Dowell’s Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past on view at the African American Museum of Philadelphia is a multi-sensory experience that pulls visitors in through strong visuals and attentive listening.

John Dowell, "Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past" at AAMP, Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper
John Dowell, “Lost in Cotton”, print on Taffeta. From “Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” at AAMP. Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper.

North and South

One cannot dismiss the unhealed wounds that slavery has burned into the fabrics of America and other countries around the world. Dowell articulately combines two mediums — photography and printmaking — to develop complex dialogue on cotton and its role in history. Cotton occupies either the pinnacle focus or relegates into the background as a secondary element, collaged alongside digital drawings and strategic bold text. The most intriguing compositions superimpose cloud-like cotton over images of young black Harlem residents reading and dreaming. Dowell’s research on Seneca Village — a 19th century settlement of free blacks upon which Central Park was built — provides a significant parallel to the current turmoil of Harlem’s gentrification. In The Poet, a child holds a white paged book and a microphone. Rows and rows of sunlit cotton around him suggest spiritual reverence and emotional homage. The abundant, personified cotton serves as audience, attentive and affectionate to the orator.

I spoke with Dowell adjacent to Lost in Cotton, a constructed maze of digital prints on hanging strips of taffeta. “When my grandmother was a little girl, she got lost in a field of cotton,” he explained. “Down outside Augusta, technically South Carolina, cotton grows five feet tall, which is very rare.” A sign asks the spectator to enter the maze between the strips and move clockwise towards the open center. Once inside, splendorous high cotton portraits surround and confound the tight space, resonating with the psychological plight of Dowell’s lost and petrified ancestor.

A celebration of survival

“I’m using cotton as a symbol for the black body and the actual places [black bodies occupied].” Dowell uses cotton — one of the most humiliating symbols of slavery — to uphold and celebrate black survival. Fertility, strength, and healing are united in jarring closeups of plump cotton bolls that leap from saturated archival prints while soft, haunting hymns and work songs drift in the background.

Dowell’s digital prints range in scale from framed mid-sized pieces to massive panoramic shots on unstretched canvas. These compelling cotton landscapes eulogize the forgotten, the voiceless. He has captured and bestowed new meanings, redefining the cause of tremendous, generational pain. For example, Up Close is a sophisticated compilation, a sequential medley of images combining striking saturated colors and intense shots of cotton thriving in nature. Butterflies situate atop the snowy whiteness, marigold and black wings enhancing the stark, ordinary cotton.

John Dowell, "Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past" at AAMP. Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper
John Dowell, From “Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” at AAMP. Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper

Space for reflection

In a nook on the third floor, there is an area to rest and draw breath, to reminisce, to hold and feel the weightlessness of cotton and its brittle leaves. Viewers are also allowed to bring in old photographs and place them on the altar framed by tall cotton plants, to honor their families in a collective embrace.

Dowell’s Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past is awe and sustenance, a reflection on a fluffy plant and its grisly impact on past and present black lives. The whole breadth of this sincere and educational show is a love letter addressed to the wonders of the human condition — a love letter that confesses yearning, compassion, and victory.

“Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” is on view September 15, 2018 — January 21, 2019 at The African American Museum of Philadelphia, 701 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA, 19106. Museum hours are Wednesday thru Saturday 10-5pm and Sunday 12-5pm. Contact AAMP at (215) 574-0380.

Philadelphia Tribune: Review of Cotton Exhibition

Hardness of cotton field work on display in new exhibit

Link to original article

It’s Just Cotton, Cotton, by John Dowell artist photographer
JOHN E. DOWELL JR.
“It’s Just Cotton,” Georgia Cotton, 2012

Photographer John E. Dowell Jr.’s latest exhibition, “Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past”, takes viewers into the cotton fields to explore its beauty and the role it played in the U.S. slave trade.

“Cotton is a part of the experience of every American. Cotton ran the engine of our economy,” said Dowell, 77, professor emeritus of printmaking at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University.

The 35 large-scale photographs, installation and altarpiece also evokes the often overlooked history of slavery in the North, specifically in New York City. Dowell has built photographic images placing cotton on and around forgotten slave auction sites Wall and Pearl Streets in New York City, and Central Park, where Seneca Village, the first U.S. middle-class Black community existed.

“I really found out another startling fact that in 1730 or so, 40 percent of all inhabitants of New York City owned slaves,” Dowell says. “The biggest slave market was at Pearl and Wall Street and a Black community called Seneca Village was where Central Park now is. It was the first area where Blacks owned their property so that they could have the right to vote. So, this cotton has caused me to stumble into all this stuff about history that just blows my mind.”

Dowell’s meticulous documentation of cotton began in 2011, when after several dreams he awoke and asked his grandmother: “What did I do and what do you want me to do?”

In response to his middle-of-the-night spiritual consult: “I assumed that my grandmother was all over me. I know about possessions, and I felt it was a real bona fide possession.” So he called several Savannah, Ga., cotton farmers and began shooting fields of cotton, similar to ones his grandmother traversed as a girl in South Carolina.

“Every time that I’ve gone photographing cotton, I’ve had some kind of emotional experience,” notes Dowell. “One time in particular, I was coming over this hill in Virginia and drove into the dead end of a cotton field. As far as I could see from my left to my extreme right was solid cotton. It just blew my mind and I just stopped the car. I thought, ‘What would I have done if I had to get up to that at five o’clock in the morning for the rest of my life?’”

Dowell, a Philadelphia native and descendant of the Great Migration, said his project revealed just how little he knew about cotton.

“The more I photographed, the more images started coming to me. In ’15, I started having dreams again,” Dowell says. “It was time to go again because Big Mommy was calling. I went to Virginia, North and South Carolina and in the middle of this started looking for tall cotton. Most cotton is waist-high, and my grandmother talked to me about being lost in a cotton field when she was 3 or 4. I wanted to do this piece and wanted to find tall cotton. Last year, I found it.”

His discovery allowed him to create a maze of huge curtains printed with images of cotton, much like the field his toddler grandmother was once lost in.

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

Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” exhibits from Sept. 15, 2018 to Jan. 21, 2019, at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), 701 Arch St., Philadelphia. For more information, call (215) 574-0380.

bbooker@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5749

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.