CHAR DOWNS became one of my favorite people the very moment we made eye contact. We met at her studio, Pinecone Studio, in
Paducah Kentucky. When she swung the door open and said hello, I was met with a rush of energy from her smile.
It is a unique life that is able to hold joy on its own, a unique energy that meets strangers with an open heart. In a world so gaurded, I knew immediately that I had met someone special.
Char and I spent a few minutes going over the details of the project she was puttiing together that would include an effort from me, if I chose to accept the challenge. My stress at that time in my life was high. I was experiencing great uncertainty and disappointment, sitting across from Char that day reminded me that eventually my current struggle would eventually become just another aspect of having lived a very human life.
I apprecaited Char’s energy so much, I decided to make my contributuion performative and was able to spend the evening of Halloween 2014 in the company of Char and her wonderful husband Jay.
Let us all consider the truth that we do not always know what effect we are having on others. I’m positive neither Char nor Jay was aware that the quality of their spirits were, in fact, leveraging my own and giving me a simple kind of hope. But they were, because they are rather like that.
Char Downs has created a new installation: One Community, One Life. The feel of this installation is difficult to explain. I was fortunate, in a strange way, to experience the installation under the guidance of Jay rather than Char. I say this because, Jay has no trouble bragging about Char and because the palpable sense of his love for both Char and her vision I find tremendously touching.
Jay took me around the room which is filled with plaster casts of faces, several hundred faces from around the world. Each of these are faces that Char has touched and casted, each of these are connected by, at the least, Char Downs herself. Jay told me stories of Char’s adventures in life and of how she sees the world, and how she managed all the personalities that came to get plastered.
One Community, One Life is an installation about human connection, it is about death as represented by piles of dust beneath the rows of faces. It is about a life of vision as represented by the notes and papers Char has collected to inform her projects over the years. Most importantly, this installation is about the effects we have on each other, it is about life itself as a connection that each of us holds within the mystery of ourselves. When we choose to share that mystery in a generosity, we touch others and become more than the sum of our parts.
One Community, One Life is up at Pinecone Studio through the second weekend of May 2016. Don’t miss this if you are in or near Paducah, Kentucky. This is a very special experience that simply can not be captured by words or photos. You will FEEL it as you move around the room.
The installation itself will move through time and space this summer as it tours a number of places and changes again and again. Find Char Downs on Facebook and follow the adventures of this most unique and emotional statement of the value of being human.
I’ll let Char Downs tell you about it herself . . .
MICHELLE: Tell me about creating when you were a kid. When did you start making art and what were you making it with, what were your materials?
CHAR DOWNS: We always lived out in the country up until 2nd grade. I remember chewing my pink bubble gum when I got it and making all kinds of miniature sculptures when I would finish with the chewing. These little sculptures would then be put in the refrigerator for safekeeping.
I drew and painted so much when I was little that my Mom had to find me a pane of glass to paint on because she couldn’t afford to keep me in paper. I could paint a picture on the glass, enjoy it for a while, then wash it off and do another one.
Sculpture was my first memory of creating, with mud then gum. Then I went 2D and didn’t look back for years.
After the mud and gum I started going to school and of course was introduced to finger painting and such. That was it for outside Art exposure for the next 11 1/2 years of school. I illustrated a lot of my school papers, essays, book reports just because I wanted to. There were NO art programs in schools. But I made shoeboxes full of my own personal paper dolls with my personally designed clothes to go with them. I wish I could see all those designs now! I loved drawing and painting horses, made a whole book of them with stories. Oh yes, sometimes I wrote, but mostly in my head as I was actually creating with my hands.
As a poor country kid, my materials and exposure to art and materials was minimal. But I didn’t know that. I didn’t have an example. Didn’t see a TV until I was 10 years old. I had never seen anyone create a sculpture. I didn’t know people did that. I just loved doing it! Struggling with the medium and then seeing the results. I grew up playing on my own, running around free to do whatever I wanted until we moved to the “city” when i was in 2nd grade.
I don’t remember anyone ever “teaching” me to do these things. I know now that my Mother drew things, but I don’t remember seeing those drawings until I was much, much older. And in a conversation with her when she was in her 80s, I asked “Mom, how come you don’t draw things like you used to?” she said something that really floored me, “I only do that when I’m really sad.”
I didn’t know the definition (or become aware of) ART – ARTIST until my senior year, last semester of High School. I took my only art class. It was there I discovered (and by the way, English class) the deep emotions associated with art and art making. And I discovered that there were actually people called artists that made things. as a baby growing up, I was encouraged to do art by my mother, but not overtly. She provided me things to work with when she could. When I started school teachers would mention my ability to do these things, sort of as an afterthought.
MICHELLE: Your mother sounds like someone with the sort of depth you put into your work. My grandmother was a secret artist, too. Well, a musician. We keep those things hidden or give them away too often when we are working from backgrounds, from places that found art either suspicious or useless or both.
You had a fire, though, that delivered you beyond those limits. In my imagination I see you without any real way around it– you were going to create. That was that. Let’s skip way ahead and tell us about Pinecone Gallery— how did it come about and what were your intentions when you started with it?
CHAR: The Artist Relocation program brought me here. My intention in moving here was to be with and among like-minded people. I was starved for that kind of association. and I found them here. and it is still exciting because I am still finding them. These are people who collect the same things i collect, speak my language, are open minded and are in some way, part of the creative process. The gallery part left me open to bring these people to me and share with them everything that is here. That has always been my focus. To share things that are not quite understandable, but are powerful in our lives, and sometimes so easy to ignore.
MICHELLE: I met you last summer and became part of your Halloween Phantasmagoria. Your gallery filled up with pieces by artists in town and I was doing single card readings in the darkened space. It was such a wonderful night, such good feeling and beautiful, worthwhile presentation. I was so interested in how you had incorporated community into that night, that installation of its own. It was shortly after that why you said, “Do wanna get plastered?” Tell us a little about the installation you have in the studio right now– tell us about getting the faces, first. There is much to say, I know.
CHAR: Mask-making was a method I used to share with others a tiny taste of the experience I have when I am creating. Acceptance. Joy. Trust. Openness. That feeling of leaving the earth behind to connect with something outside myself. The immediate goal of collecting was the intimate face to face exchange between just artist and individual. A single small physical experience representing part of the whole creative art making process. Sharing that process with people and taking them along in the journey towards becoming part of something larger. No one, in reality, allows ANYONE to touch their face, outside of very intimate or family based relationships. Here was, at times, a stranger touching a face, intimately and nothing was threatening dangerous or suggestive. The couple engaged in the creation of something outside themselves, but together. Isn’t that what we do everyday with each human we meet?? Isn’t that the crux of our existence.
MICHELLE: Yes. Very much so. When you speak of creating something outside ourselves, I feel a true swell of emotion in my chest. It is visceral as is the performance. Is that the way you perceive this work– as a performance? How many faces did you gather in total and how far away did you travel to gather.
CHAR: The sharing of each performance was the way stop. Leading me towards the completion of the whole installation. I needed these faces, minimum 300, each one necessary, for my final piece in the gallery. In the end, right before the opening I had 342 face masks. (I’m still collecting – just not as urgently). Many community members, like you, participated. Most traveled far, visiting me in my studio. I have faces from Italy, Argentina, United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Russia….and across the street. Friends and of course family (OK, NJ, VA, FL) also participated. I have faces from my Nephews, Nieces, Grand Nieces, Sisters-in-Law, Brother-in-Law, Sister, etc. What surprised me the most? People from out of state knowing nothing except they were coming in to Paducah, visiting a gallery in Lower Town. They walked in, and after I told them and they saw what I was doing, many volunteered happily. Isn’t that incredible!!??? People also saw the posts by myself and others on FB and made appointments!!! Looking at all the masks hung in the gallery now, I’m still… amazed!! Still makes my heart glad.
MICHELLE: It is an experience in that room. Truly full of feeling. The layers. The layers. All the layers! Can you take us around the room a bit. What are some of the sections dedicated to, and what do the strings between the faces mean to you? What do the chin pieces add to the presentation?
CHAR: First Layer: humans are hard wired to respond to the face. Evolution has done that to us. The face is beautiful. Here in this piece, it is stripped of all colors, eyes, hair (and in some instances, expression). Undeniably, here we see our shared ancestry. There are no “others” only us. No red, brown or black, no republican, no democrats, blue collar, white collar, disabled, etc… The divisions we hear and experience every day, “labels” are not evident.
Second Layer: here we are allowed to see, unencumbered by those labels, with shadows and light, how beautiful EVERYONE is. But the irony? These are masks after all, masks are by their nature, not ourselves, they can also represent illusions, that package we present (each one possibly different) to others. The faces we put on and remove according to who we are with.
Third Layer: the under the chin personal ID’s; I found as I collected these faces and hung them all up on the wall together, people would come back later to the studio looking for themselves to deliver their ID. They could find others they knew, but found it difficult to actually find their own face. We never really see ourselves, except in mirrors, and here there is nothing but light and shadow, colorless structure! I knew from the beginning, this active ID request was very necessary, as well as the passive participation (face mask). So as I made the masks, I requested that an item, (found, made, bought, but not bigger than a closed fist) was required for hanging under the chin of their mask. At the opening it made it much easier to “find themselves”.
Fourth Layer: the gold and black dotted thread webbing is symbolic of the connections we have to each other. Seen and unseen. Known and unrealized. As you move through the space, the light catches the webbing or makes it disappear. The webbing in the gallery originates from one point up on the back wall making up a three letter word utilizing white lines and white masks (BINARY CODE WORD Art) in the gallery ands extend out towards all the other walls of grouped masks and white lines creating more connections.
Fifth Layer: Binary Code, a system of mechanical communication we use extensively today, (phones, computers, etc..) making personal face to face searching out of true meanings of words almost irrelevant. ZEROS here are the faces = meaning OFF. Here or Not. communicating or not. ONES are the white stripes = ON. Intermittent within the placed faces, they were felt to be voids by most people. And to me they also represent “the missing” in our lives. But those who are missing are still ON, they still influence us personally (say, perpetuating labels …) and in our communities the legacy of their history with us. The masks and lines are arranged in rows of 8 positions. Each of these rows represent a letter from the alphabet. Rows are stacked atop each other to create words. Words are separated by placement on a black paper void. A message behind the message for those appreciating codes and puzzles. Because isn’t all Art a different language? a different code? Another way of communicating?
CHAR: ONE COMMUNITY, ONE LIFE Art Installation: (theme was specifically symbolic about myself as an artist celebrating connections within a rich wonderful 10 years in this community) I will move it to other venues to be reshaped into that institutions available space and the theme or message they wish to emphasize. It may be a larger room or a much smaller space. For example, lets say the theme is gun violence. Using the same BINARY CODE base, I would choose words related to that subject for the arrangement of the faces and lines. I might choose to leave mask personal ID’s as they are, or I might remove them and collect various other theme related items placed in all small plastic bags to hang under each face. In that institutions region, during set times, I intend to collect more faces to include in other venues as the performance continues. This Paducah piece is about KINDNESS & CONNECTIONS.
MICHELLE: Char, thank you for taking time with me to talk about your work and for including me in your wonderful projects. I am always healed and humbled by your light. THAT is no joke. xxo