His grandmother spoke to him in his dreams. And artist John E. Dowell listened.
Those dreams led him to photograph cotton fields, imagining the lives of enslaved ancestors and their attempted escapes. But those breaks for freedom didn’t happen in the daylight, so he went into the fields at night, shooting long exposures in the dark.
Dowell used the digital photographs to create the artworks in the new exhibition, “Paths to Freedom,” through Dec. 18 at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery, including an installation of fabric panels accompanied by a soundscape.
“It’s one thing to have an idea and to mull it and have it haunt you, play with you, but to finally see it here, wow,” Dowell says. About 100 people attended the exhibition’s Sept. 9 opening, including many members of Penn’s faculty.
Now 81, Dowell has been taking photos in the same North Carolina cotton fields nearly every fall for more than a decade. It was in 2017 that he decided to take the photos at night, using a Nikon D-850, with no flash and no lights beyond the beam of a flashlight.
“You can’t imagine how difficult it was to photograph cotton in the dark,” Dowell says.
“I focus with the flashlight first and pray for the wind to die down, because if the wind’s blowing all you’ve got is blur. And then I shoot my 35-second exposures, my 42-second exposures. That was easy,” he continues. “But I do a lot of the shots where I take and move the camera, and when you go to do the moving in the dark that becomes a little difficult. I’m trying to make an interesting picture. I see it out there in a certain way.”
Dowell was on the faculty of the Temple University Tyler School of Art for 42 years, from 1971 to 2013, including a stint at the campus in Rome. He grew up in the “Richard Allen projects” in Philadelphia, attending Central High School and then Temple, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1963. An artist and master printer, 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 museum and public collections.
“He puts a lot of time and inspiration into what he does,” says Arthur Ross Gallery Executive Director Lynn Marsden-Atlass, curator of the “Paths to Freedom” exhibition. “He knows what he wants, and he works hard to achieve it.”
Dowell and Marsden-Atlass have known each other for years, catching up on Sundays at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia. The two of them started talking about a possible exhibition just before the pandemic hit in 2020, and in 2021 she was finally able to visit his North Philadelphia studio. Marsden-Atlass says she knew about his cotton series, which had been exhibited at Philadelphia’s African American Museum.
“We started talking about the night cotton,” she says. “When I saw the work, I was very moved by it. It is incredibly compelling to think about a person photographing cotton in the middle of the night.”
One of the works she saw in the studio was “Night Before the Run” which now stretches across the back wall of the Arthur Ross Gallery. “I was trying to imagine what a slave would be dreaming the night before they ran away. What would they be thinking?” Dowell says. “I’ve read about them hearing what the ancestors would be telling them.”
The images in the artwork allude to symbols of the Underground Railroad: a tree with moss on the north side, a river to hide scent from tracking dogs, a safehouse.
“How can somebody run some place in the dark and not know where they’re going? How can somebody survive that?” he asks. “And I’m saying that it is someone who’s connected to their ancestors, who has a certain kind of intuition, a knowing.”
Dowell’s grandmother, Lucy, picked cotton while growing up outside Augusta, Georgia, he says. The family moved north to Philadelphia in the 1920s, Dowell says, but “Big Mommy,” as she was affectionately called, told stories of her childhood to her children and grandchildren.
His family, he says, is “very spiritual.” The dreams of his grandmother started about three months before his exhibition at the Telfair Museum, which has slave quarters, in Savannah, Georgia. “I started talking and reading about more slaves, and then my grandmother got in my ear,” says Dowell.
The taffeta-fabric panels with his images hanging in the middle of the Arthur Ross Gallery are meant to be an immersive experience for visitors to move through, listening to the soundscape that he wrote, performed, and recorded. That soundscape also is inspired by his grandmother and the songs she used to sing, songs that come to him when he’s in the cotton fields.
“The experience for me of having been in a cotton field, it was very, very emotional. I felt my family, my personal family in that field, more than once,” he says. “It’s definitely a little spooky.”
Safety is a concern when he is out there, he says, not from the spirits, but from those who might not understand what he is doing, especially at night, which is why he goes back to the same farm, owned by David Mayer, who supports his work.
“Paths to Freedom” is the first exhibition at the Arthur Ross Gallery, Marsden-Atlass says, that combines all three elements at the same time: artwork, installation, soundscape. It’s also the first that is presented unframed, the prints held on the walls with magnets, making it possible to see symbols in the works that would be lost even behind non-glare plexiglass, she says.
“I think that he creates a journey for us through the visual imagery, and the installation, and the sound, that as he says, honors the ancestors and honors a tradition,” she says. “It’s very powerful.”
There are several programs and events planned related to the exhibition. Penn faculty are incorporating it in their courses, and Philadelphia school children will be visiting on tours.
“I would hope that especially the students who encounter the work would begin to think and reflect,” Dowell says, “to think about their relationship to understanding what the ancestors had to go through to survive.”