We had the good fortune of connecting with Jan Downey and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jan, where are you from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I was a lucky girl to be born in Chicago and have a dad who was happy to take me almost every Sunday to one or another of the fabulous museums in the area. I preferred the Field Museum of Natural History; he preferred the Science and Industry Museum. Once in a while we veered off our usual path to attend the planetarium or the aquarium. All of these Sunday adventures informed me about how big the world was. Big, and infinitely varied! Above all, I learned the benefits of being curious and asking questions. As I got older, I yearned for firsthand knowledge of the vastness of the natural and cultural world that I glimpsed in those institutions. Eventually, I actualized my love of discovery, travel, curiosity, and desire to see all of humanity’s variations by becoming a cultural anthropologist. I had a wonderful career, replete with the best experiences, colleagues, insights, and discoveries. Retirement freed me to travel more and immerse myself in the arts that had always been present as part of my expressive nature. I believe my openness to the patterns of life, to the variety of social norms, and to the importance to all people of material culture has greatly influenced my art. In my career and then for leisure, I’ve traveled to all continents, and lived in places, difficult to navigate, emotionally and physically, places that I related to from some deep sense of recognition, and places I dreamed always of seeing. From those earliest voyages to the institutions that hinted at my future to the other side of my career, I continue to be curious, to love problem-solving, and to instill in my art the wonders of the natural and cultural world.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My art, mostly gourd art and some scratch art, grew from a spontaneous set of circumstances. The first gourd I ever bought was in Ethiopia, where I was living and working at the time. It had been used by women in the hottest desert areas to carry butter, which could be used as a protective and hydrating dressing for skin or hair. It is a wonky little gourd, rather crudely designed with etchings, attached tin pieces, and a leather carrying strap. To me it was beautiful, not in a traditional sense, but as a representation of the innate human drive to modify, beautify, and make our mark on the material culture we create and use. Along with work and travel to other places in the world, I saw gourds still being used for important jobs like water storage, seed storage, dippers, scoops, and containers for other things. I just fell in love with gourds. When I saw they were being used as an art medium, I just jumped right in. My art reflects my travels and anthropological work, an awareness of the myriad of different styles and the social reasons for them, and the cultural elements embedded into patterns, designs, colors. It is important to me, that I do not appropriate sensitive cultural icons, patterns, or design elements. I certainly am influenced by cultural design, but stop short of copying what I might not understand—or do understand!—to be culturally private, sensitive, and restricted. My works are quite varied. I usually have at least one series each year. The last one was “The Village it Takes,” based on mountain villages that exist in all parts of the world. I wood burned, painted, and engraved those villages on gourds of varying sizes and shapes. I love the versatility of gourds as a canvas but wish more people would recognize the work it takes to create on something that is a round, slippery, gold-toned “canvas”! If I open a gourd, the cleaning is highly intensified, often relying on power tools and special equipment to ready the gourd for further work. My studio name, ZolioArts, derives from the base word, “olio,” meaning collection, assemblage, miscellaneous. It’s a word often seen in the crossword puzzles that are staples in our house. When I flirted with the idea of using OlioArts as my brand, my son pointed out the confusion that would occur with “oleo,” or margarine, as well as how the word could be made stronger with a different beginning sound. He suggested putting a strong Z sound in front, and that happily stuck. I want the public to know that I give homage to the gourds I use as both a formerly living vine fruit, and for their importance to humans for thousands of years, all over the world. To that end, I never paint or ink over the “bottom,” which is where the flower lived at one time.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Wow, this is a tough one–too many wonderful sites and experiences in too short of a time, especially for the 5th largest city in the U.S! It’s impossible list all the really great places, so instead, I am listing just a few of my favorites! I believe in the week my friend is here, we would do some of the more typical tourist explorations, but these three additional places might not make most itineraries. I would definitely include in my friend’s tour these highlights: 1. The MIM, for fascinating insights into various cultures, and the music and instruments that have been important to them throughout time. We would have a nice break for a good lunch in the Museum cafe, enjoying the wonderful ambience and desert landscape, before resuming our investigation of music around the world. We would wrap up the day by attending a concert in the beautiful music theater, where there really are no bad seats. 2. Of course, our primary stop would be On the Edge Gallery, where I am a member, and a featured artist on this night. We enjoy refreshments, music, and great art until closing at 9pm. 3. My guest will have to get her walking shoes on for a most unexpected treat–the hidden in plain sight art museum at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport! Right, you have walked past lots of art in cases, in walkways, outside the terminals, and by the gate area, and you never realized these are holdings of a real museum, located in Terminal 3, Terminal 4, and the Rental Car Center.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My fun-loving Dad, who read me adventure stories and took me on excursions to all the Chicago museums, was critical to opening my eyes to the world beyond my home and family. He was an emotional man, and never embarrassed at expressing his enthusiasm, astonishment, or sadness at life’s circumstances. I took his emotional connection to life with me in forging my own way into the future. My parents allowed my experimentation with all things mechanical and artistic, turning over the kitchen table to serve as my makeshift lab. I took the lessons from what I learned at that table about problem solving and rebounding from failure into my future travails of life. My first anthropology instructor at a community college was a warm, yet no-nonsense, blue-book exam kind of teacher, eager to have her students learn respect for all the humanity that came before us. As well, my mentor at the university, served as my role model for respect for all people, everywhere, in all times. I took the reverence each of these individuals held for the variety of human lifeways and made it the backbone of my own classroom teaching. My traveling partner, and partner in life, I credit with outmatching me in wanderlust, planning our many trips. I gratefully appreciated her encouragement to take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself in my career, and that now presents themselves in my life as an artist.
Other: On The Edge Gallery https://www.ontheedgegallery.com/
Jan Downey Jean Anderson