(Author’s Note : reading Part One first is recommended.)
After lunch, Joe gave me directions to “The little house.” When I asked what time He’d like to start tomorrow, Joe replied firmly : “Not before eleven.” (My arm twisted again!) “The little house”, a three minute walk, was medium sized in a tower sorta way. Street level was a small, way rustic kitchen with a gasless stove. Next flight up – first bedroom. Medium sized. Cozy. Nighttable/lamp. View out to the ramparts and the countryside beyond. Second floor. Medium large, squarish room. (think small art gallery.) This was another atelier. It’s back door led to a small terrace, enclosed on all sides by the walls of adjoining houses.
Third floor was the pick o’ the litter. Bathroom with a working(as in hot water) shower. And a bedroom, that, while smaller, had a huge, yet inexpliceable dollop of charm. A smaller window revealed the plains past the village walls. Morphing into the Luberon mountains in the distance.
Here – top ‘o the tower. Separate and sequestered. This tiny, perfect oasis of modest, yet grand comfort captured my heart. Like any kind of Love, it matters not if you can explain it. Only that you can recognize and appreciate.
Like many artists of his generation drawn to Paris, Joe needed a day job, until his art took off. Joe’s was weaving the raffia that goes around lampshades and Chianti bottles. This is what he was doing, during his first Paris exhibition. “While I was weaving away, all of a sudden I saw a shadow falling on the floor. I looked up, and, my lord…..it was Picasso! My heart was beating fast..and I carefully looked down until I heard footsteps in the middle of the Gallery. I looked up and nodded to him. He looked at the paintings for quite a long time. Then he came over and said he’d enjoyed the exhibition; and when my work had evolved, He’d like to see it again. He also signed the visitors book. And he did a very dangerous thing. He signed on the right hand side at the bottom. The way he does on his paintings! And – a cat walked on it before the exhibition was over. So I have this Picasso signature as a souvenir.
Well,…then two years went by, and my painting had changed. So I went to a Picasso book signing and got in line. When I got to him, I reminded him that He’d asked me to let him know when my painting had evolved, so he invited me to tea! And this gave me a little boost, because news of it trickled down to Paul Fecchetti, who had one of the best galleries in Paris. And so, from nineteen fifty two until nineteen fifty eight, I worked with him.”
You can take the Gentleman out of the country. But You can’t take the country out of the Gentleman. I discovered this one morning, when I arrived to find Joe at his garden table, cutting up plant leaves. This, as Joe explained, was something I’d heard about – but never seen. Poke Salad. The wild greens that are traditionally “po’ folks food” in the Southern United States. (As in “cookin’ up a mess o’ greens.”) Obviously, Joe hadn’t forgotten his roots. And they have’nt forgotten him either, back in Horsecave.
“I went back home in nineteen fifty seven to visit my family. I was walking down the street,and one of my friends rushed across, grabbed my hand and pumped it up and down, and said : ‘Congratulations!’ And I said : ‘On what?’ And he said : ‘On having a painting in the Louvre!’ I said : ‘My lord!………I don’t have a painting in the Louvre.’ Then, I went a little further; And a Woman, who is also a good friend, motioned to me to come across. And then She threw her arms around me and said : ‘I’m so glad you have a painting in the Louvre!’ And I thought – Lord help me! – What’s happening?
And then I realized. And I ran home to my Mother and said : ‘Mother, what have you done?’ And She said : ‘Well,..what do you mean?’ And I said : ‘The whole town is congratulating me on having a painting in the Louvre. Nobody has a painting there……..What in the world got into you?” And She said : ‘Well honey, I asked everyone what was the best place in the city to have a painting, and everybody said the Louvre, so I just supposed you’d have one there.’
Then, in nineteen seventy five, the Louvre invited the Brest museum to show it’s collection in Paris. And – they had a painting of mine. And so, for three months in nineteen seventy five, I did have a painting in the Louvre. So I said : ’Thank you, Mamma.’
Of course, my Mother was dead by then. But I knew She was the trigger.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, the passing years have’nt retarded Joe’s artistic passion. If anything, they’ve increased it! Each time I visit, I’m careful not to stay too long. Because, as Joe rightly says : “There’s so much to do!”
“The only raw material an artist has, is his or her life. And what He or She has loved or hasn’t loved. As a child, I played in the red clay of Kentucky. And I remember mainly just outdoor living. Running through the fields when I was no taller than the daises, and tasting everything within reach. Our senses were open and welcoming. All of that gets into the painting.
It’s a continuing adventure that renews itself every day. What one can do, and hopefully does, is to take the elements that have been given us, and become part of us, and extract the greatest beauty and the greatest meaning possible. One can go to the studio every day, with something resembling,glee……simply because you don’t know what’s going to happen. The painting leads the artist; more than the artist leads the painting. I’ve found that one does’nt become an artist. One discovers that one is an artist.”
Joe Downing’s contribution to the world of Art may not be as great as Picassos. But his contribution to the lives of the people his art has touched, has been no less important. Those who have seen a Downing exhibition, met Joe, and/or own “a Downing” – have experienced a positive and personal expression of beauty. One that cannot fail to enrich their lives. And widen, however, subtly and imperceptibly, their horizons.
Joe Dudley Downing (1925-2007)
“Art is the greatest expression of individuality the World has known.” – Oscar Wilde –
THROW ME A BONE HERE, PEOPLE!
What are ya thinkin’?