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Capturing the Energy of Place in Paint

by Casey Smithling

February 18, 2014

If you’re familiar with the Merry Oaks neighborhood stretch of Central Avenue in Charlotte, you’re probably familiar with the bold, 20-foot long mural that contrasts layers of red and black architectural elements with the portrait of a ghostly female that serves as the subject of the mural.

That’s the work of 33-year-old artist, teacher, and gallery coordinator Sharon Dowell, who has recently been commissioned to create another large-format, site-specific piece in Charlotte, this time by CATS Transit at its new 25th Street light rail station in North Davidson.

Local artist, local energy

Dowell is the ideal candidate for the project. Her work, like the Central Avenue mural, is known for capturing the energy of a place through layers of figurative and architectural subjects – and who better to represent the people and energy of NoDa than a local artist and NoDa frequenter? Perhaps just as importantly, the murals serve as notice of Dowell’s achievements and growing profile in the local arts scene.

Although the artistic gene runs on her mother’s side, she says, Dowell is the first in her family to make a career out of the arts. From the age of 3, her parents noticed how taken their daughter was by the magic of crayons on paper. Despite her father being a logic-oriented safety engineer, he and his wife encouraged their daughter’s artistic inclination, even if it meant she ran the risk of becoming a "starving artist." Looking back, Dowell laughs at the way her parents accepted her interest in art as a career. “Maybe they thought I would marry well or something, be a trophy wife,” she jokes.

Luckily, Dowell was able to pursue her interests and make her passion a way of life. Normally lighthearted and joking in conversation, she turns into an equally energetic but more serious and passionate conversationalist when talking about the arts.

Originally from Texas, the model-esque, fashion-forward redhead graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a BFA in painting after moving here in 2000. Since graduation, she has worked as director at Center of the Earth Art Gallery in Charlotte, an arts editor for Seen Uptown Magazine, worked in corporate sales and social media for RedSky Gallery, and now serves as gallery coordinator and professor at UNC-Charlotte.

Layers, textures, and architecture

Her preferred medium hasn’t changed since those college days when she first discovered she loved acrylics. Dowell’s ability to capture the energy of a place comes in part from using acrylics to create a dynamic scene of layers and textures, mirroring a city’s cultural fabric or political issues. She typically begins with an under painting taken from a de-saturated photograph.

“I can build it up physically, I can dig into it, paint back over it, see what that does, see where the paint gets caught up in the crevices,” she says.

Dowell has long had a fascination with figurative pieces, and the feelings and stories associated with people. She bashfully admits that back in her earlier days she painted candid street scene people. After graduating in 2003, the budding artist moved to the art capital of America, New York City, where she was inspired by the hustle and bustle of New Yorkers. Her concept of capturing the energy of place took a turn when she began thinking about architecture as a way to convey that.

“Architecture is a great way to capture that, especially with older buildings,” she says. “You think of all these windows and you think, well, ‘who’s lived there and what stories are held within the walls of those spaces?’”

Since her time in New York, architectural facades and streetscapes have been the primary subjects of Dowell's work, abstracted and layered to reinforce the dynamism of our environments.

Travel, and returning home

After spending a year in New York City, Dowell moved back to North Carolina where she was hired as assistant director in 2004 at the Center of the Earth Art Gallery owned by Ruth Ava Lyons. While the NoDa gallery is no more, Lyons says she admired Dowell’s “professionalism and friendly disposition.” Throughout Dowell’s Center of the Earth tenure, she managed to gain public recognition through exhibitions and awards, including Best New Artist and Best Local Artist issued by Creative Loafing.

Travel opportunities soon began to open up for Dowell, beginning in 2009 when she received an arts grant to travel to Iceland, a pristine landscape that she returned to in 2010 under the NES Art Residency. There, in paintings like Color Shift, she explored the idea of juxtaposing landscape and architecture, creating “a commentary on man’s relationship to nature,” she says.

The following year, Dowell received a residency in Charlotte’s McColl Center. She was now able to work on projects that for a long time she’d been unable to. Charlotte Magazine awarded Dowell Best Visual Artist in 2012. That same year, she received the Tyrone Guthrie Center Residency in Ireland, and more recently returned from a trip to San Jose, Costa Rica, where she observed beautiful landscapes amidst difficult third world conditions.

Those trips have ignited Dowell’s interest in struggling societies, which she translates into vibrant yet combative compositions. She says one piece, titled Usurpation, is about the Irish surviving famine, political divides, civil unrest, invasions, and the British Monarchy’s harsh imprint on the Irish.

New themes, new direction

In a recent exhibition at CPCC called "Forged Landscapes," one large diptych titled They Never Saw the Ocean was inspired by a Netflix documentary on the history of gang violence in Los Angeles. At first glance They Never Saw the Ocean is clearly different from Dowell’s other works. The color pallet is limited and the white space is used to show separation between the painted objects. The use of black is uncommon in Dowell’s vibrant palette and seems to speak to the violence and self-destructive areas of L.A. Orange cubes are painted in groups, signifying the segmented ownership of gang territories.

The new direction didn’t come without some trepidation, though. “I pulled back,” she says of the painting. “When you do something new and you put it out there you wonder what people think.”

Gallery coordinator at CPCC Grace Cote certainly liked it. She says Dowell’s paintings are a “bright, organic, vivid contrast, which, through their visual components of maps, streets, and buildings, provide a wonderful visual echo.”

As much as her travels inspire her, Dowell loves Charlotte and sees herself staying here in the future. In addition to introducing UNC-Charlotte students to art through Rowe Gallery, Dowell also partners with other departments at the university to arouse public interest. One of her initiatives has been to set up several gallery openings alongside other departments, like the architecture department, in order to help diversify and promote cross-disciplinary learning.

“There are still so many students within other departments and other majors that don’t even realize that we have an art gallery and don’t even know where the Rowe Arts Building is,” she says.

Giving back

Outside the school environment, Dowell has worked with various public organizations including the YMCA, Freedom Partners, and the Shelter for Battered Women.

“I’ve started to get more involved in different ways,” she says, “like giving back by donating pieces for auction or charities or being a mentor to younger artists.”

Her work on the 2009 Arts & Science Council/City of Charlotte commissioned mural has been the most impactful piece because it was designed alongside the community and people in the neighborhood, she said. The people got to voice what was important to their area, an idea that would intimidate a lot of artists but was welcomed by Dowell. 

“The goal is to reflect the place where you’re creating the work and I really tend to enjoy that and the community interaction,” she said.

The next project

As for her next public mural, Dowell is one of 16 artists (from 383 proposals submitted to the LYNX Blue Line Extension) selected to create art for the new 9.3-mile transit line, which broke ground July 18, 2013. The projects submitted range from walls, bridges, parks, to the actual stations themselves. Despite the expected completion date being spring 2017, Dowell’s mosaic mural is already well underway. Her role entails making a series of ceramic tile mosaic murals, designs for glass windscreens, column cladding for canopies, as well as railings and benches.

Normally a solo designer, Dowell is partnering with contractors, engineers, and architects to sort out budget, materiality, and specifications. But her favorite part of the process is working with the public to learn how it will resonate with the riders.

“Over the past three years, we have already had several public meetings to show and discuss our early stage designs for the stations,” she said, and “making a partnership” between the arts and the public is one of her goals.

Breaking the stereotype of a starving artist, Dowell has made a life and career out of creating art that reflects a place’s energy. Charlotte is a vibrant, growing canvas for Dowell, a canvas that over time will reflect the energy of its artists, too.

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Tags: Sharon Dowell, LYNX Blue line, NoDa, Charlotte

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