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John E. Dowell stood at the edge of a cotton field ready for picking. As the evening sky turned pink, he peered into the thicket of soft puffs encased in knife-sharp bolls, and heard this question: “Would you have had the courage, the wisdom, the strength to break for freedom?” The Philadelphia photographer and master printer’s response is now on view at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery.
Dreams of ancestors
Dowell, 81, had been summoned to the field by dreams. “I have a grandmother, Big Mommy,” he told WHYY in 2021. “She’s been dead 45 years, and all of a sudden I started dreaming about her. She used to talk to me about cotton and things that happened to her.” When Dowell’s exhibition schedule took him south, he sought out cotton farmers and asked to photograph their crops. One farmer in North Carolina, whose land had been in the family for seven generations, was particularly welcoming, and in 2019, Dowell, accompanied by his wife Frances, spent several evenings photographing his fields. The process touched Dowell deeply: “I got emotional … On the second day, I just broke down and cried.”
His tears were for the beauty of what he saw through the lens and its terrible cost to his ancestors and country. The exquisite exhibition of 26 large images and a walk-through installation, curated by Arthur Ross director Lynn Marsden-Atlass, do justice to both emotions.
Simultaneously contemplative and frightening, Dowell’s prints are complex and very dark. Eyes have to adapt and this worries the artist. “This is the slowest show I’ve ever done,” he said to Brittany Webb of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, author of the exhibit’s catalog essay. “You have to really look at it, and I don’t know if people will take the time.”
Dowell chose to shoot at night because that was when escapes took place. Though more technically difficult, nighttime allowed him to capture the authentic experience. “At night, you’re straining your eyes and you’re trying to focus and you think you’re seeing things,” Dowell told Webb. True for runaways, as well as photographers.
Glancing at the work will not do. Move closer, keep looking, and wait. Things begin to appear. Are all the white blurs ripened cotton? Stare, scan for clues, look for tells, and dig into the image with your eyes. Dowell doesn’t show the cotton field, he lures us into it. And then transports us into the existence of a runaway.
Reading their thoughts
Night Before the Run (2020) is a 17-foot-long stream of consciousness. Spanning an entire wall, it depicts scattered thoughts and expectations of an enslaved person almost ready to go: a nose-close view of moss on a tree, pointing the way. A rushing stream, good for slaking thirst, soothing blisters, and foiling trackers. A tiny brick house without windows or doors, a stone arch, and an important guidepost. Three praying women in aprons—conductors, guardians, ancestors. Night Before the Run sums up everything Dowell experienced at the cotton fields and epitomizes the exhibition.
Dowell captured night’s visual ambivalence with long exposures and on-the-spot invention. When darkness flattened out dimensions, he dug into a pocket and found a laser pointer, which he lashed over Hurry (2020), making red tracings from foreground to horizon. The simple lines make it impossible not to imagine scrambling through the tangled thicket of branches, feeling the pricks and cuts, choking off reactions so that you can keep moving, wondering if you’d been missed yet and if anyone is in pursuit. “The biggest thing on a shot like that is that you’re trying to create a feeling,” Dowell told Webb.
Looking into empty fields, he sensed things he couldn’t photograph. Even in the daytime, he said, “I felt I wasn’t alone.” Calling on decades of experience, Dowell, professor emeritus of printmaking at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, made the visible convey the tangible. Viewers with patient eyes can see what he felt, as silhouettes emerge from almost total darkness in Do You See Them (2020), and in Keep Together (2020), an impenetrable field of blossoms reveals the skirts, bundles, and headwraps of people, crawling to freedom.
The present past
“Death to the African mind was just a journey back into the spirit world, not a break with life or earthly beings,” Dowell explains in a gallery introduction. This is particularly true in Gullah beliefs held by a segment of African Americans who settled in coastal North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Dowell incorporated mystical elements, beings, and symbols to represent the permeability of life and death, offering encouragement and direction to those on their way.
In Praying (2021), a barefoot traveler sits beside a stream, knees pulled up to their chest, head on forearms, dwarfed by the surrounding forest just before dawn. Next to the tired runner, a small creature with glowing eyes stands guard. And in the upper corners are scrolled, compass-like markings—one red, one purple. In Following the Sound (2020), a field dims as the sunset approaches, except for eight blossoms, which have picked up a rosy glow.
In the center of the gallery, Dowell changes medium with Ancestral Visions of a Runaway (2022), nine seven-foot-long taffeta banners that set viewers in the steps of escaping slaves. Positioned in a serpentine pattern, the cloths depict what escapees might see, hear, and imagine. A soundscape suggests the forest at night, soft singing of an ally, and maybe internal thoughts. The work conjures the fear and confusion of a flight in the dark over uncertain terrain, aware of otherworldly presences urging you on.
In a work that began in a dream, Dowell transports viewers into another existence. With one foot in reality and the other in the spiritual realm, he shows that art, like faith, requires equal parts seeing and believing.
What, When, Where
John E. Dowell: Paths to Freedom. Through December 18, 2022, at Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania Fisher Fine Arts Building, 220 South 34th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-2083 or arthurrossgallery.org.
Masks are optional in Fisher Fine Arts Building and Arthur Ross Gallery.
The accessible entrance to Arthur Ross Gallery and Fisher Fine Arts Library is through the Duhring Wing, on the building’s south side opposite Irvine Auditorium. To access the entrance, call (215) 898-2083 in advance or (215) 898-1479 (guard’s desk) when on site.
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