An Interview With Ginna Dowling

Dowling’s installations explore “the use of symbols, visual references, and layers that convey a literal or symbolic story within a body of visual art.” The layers of meaning are expressed with physical layers of materials, creating a play of lights and shadows that gives the static images a moving, cinematic quality. Dowling’s art examines community, the individual, identity, diversity and unity, but despite being heavy with meaning, the work itself is buoyant, joyous, and visually beautiful. We asked Dowling a few quetions about her art.

Your installations have taken you to France and Ireland among other locations closer to home. How do you find these opportunities? Can you tell us a little about the work you did in Ireland and France?

Being a part of, and staying connected to my arts community as well as my local arts organizations, has played a significant role in my success. Being resilient, pushing the envelope, and keeping my mind open is a mindset that has served me well. It is hard to be rejected from exhibits and opportunities, but the important thing is to always look for learning situations, such as workshops and opportunities, and keep trying things that aren’t comfortable.  I honestly discuss the purposes, details, and ramifications of my projects, and ask for help. My work has a huge community component (I believe all arts do), and aside from hard work in the studio, being a part of the community has been the next important component for my success.

Arts education has played a huge role in my work. I went back to school for my MFA later in life, but prior to that, my art education was through workshops and artful exploration. While I know formal education is not possible for most artists, I believe community classes, workshops, exploring museums and galleries, looking at and reading about all genres of art and artists is fundamental. Many exceptional artists are self-educated.  The more we learn and look, the better our creative brains work.  

Travel is another influence in my work, so I set goals for traveling opportunities. I have been fortunate to travel to other countries and have had several artist-in-residency opportunities.  The first,  in Ireland, I was told about it from another printmaker friend. 

My goal for the residency was to explore storytelling that could translate into visual arts, particularly in relation to my Irish ancestry. Vibrant folklore and ancient history is abundant in Ireland, which also has 45% of Europe’s megalithic art. This rich symbolic culture tremendously influenced the course of my work when I returned home.  My first installation was a visual story about my time spent in Ireland, where I took ancient megalithic symbols, Irish and Gaelic symbols and words, and created some of my own, to create a symbolic language that translated literally.  I carved over 75 individual linocut symbols and printed them as characters on large pages, bound together with Irish linen bookbinding thread, to tell a story that spanned 65 ft in an installation called More than Gaelic: A Printmakers Guide to Her Heritage

See more than More than Gaelic: a Printmakers Guide to Her Heritage

More Than Gaelic: A Printmaker's Guide to Her Heritage

 

Creating my Gaelic installation inspired me to think about what contemporary hieroglyphics would be, how they would be manifested, what they would be made from, where they would be exhibited, and who would create them. This was the beginning of my current work of contemporary hieroglyphs.  I love process, content, and concept driven work that is presented in layers, and with my exploration of symbols, a new direction of work naturally evolved into the concept of storytelling with contemporary hieroglyphics.  

How do you organize the community you work with on each project? Do you have openings or other celebrations to share the work with the larger community?

A large part of my art practice involves openings and other celebrations to share my work and concepts with the larger community. I network and visit with others as often as I can, even if I feel uncomfortable about it.  Word of mouth and introductions from other artists and arts organizations have resulted in many of my opportunities.  I also watch for calls to artists for solo and group exhibits, residencies and funding opportunities. I regularly look at artist opportunities on the internet pages of arts organizations, and belong to artist groups on Facebook that publish open calls.  I keep up with my local arts community newsletters and events.

After I returned from Ireland and had the premiere exhibit at IAO, I reached out to the Norman Arts Council and applied for an exhibit at MAINSITE Contemporary Art based on my Irish installation.  As you learn, each opportunity is a stepping stone to the next, and typically, exhibits are scheduled a year or more in advance, which gives artists time to build on a new body of work. I was delighted to be slated for a solo exhibition.  My “More than Gaelic” installation was the jumping-off piece for my exploration of my new body of work “The Inherent Language of Life” about contemporary hieroglyphics.  As I was creating this work, an open call RFP (Request for Proposal) from Norman Arts Council was announced for a Cultural Connections Artist-in-Residency in Norman’s sister city, Clermont-Ferrand, France.   Since I was scheduled for my solo exhibit several months before the residency, I decided to piggyback my exhibition to relate to the theme of contemporary hieroglyphs for the residency, and applied.  I was accepted, and consequently, I began preparing for the concept of my contemporary hieroglyphs to relate to the two opportunities, and the new direction of my work began.  Since then, my Contemporary Hieroglyph project has taken a life of its own and has grown exponentially. Now, while my body of work all comes under the concept of The Inherent Language of Life, there are many sub categories, including A Tale of Two Cities, The Spirit of the People, and The Language of Hope and Courage.

Inherent Language of Life

 The Inherent Language of Life focuses on a series with glyphs and symbolic identifiers that create a language representing individuals within our community, in a concept that challenges the current volatile issues of fear, hatred, and intolerance that are rampant throughout the world. A unifying factor about this body of work is that the personal symbols, or “Identity glyphs,” within this installation, are created by the very people it is about - people within our community.  While viewers can explore the installation, and gather the gist of individual stories and interests within our community, it is impossible to tell about the participant’s identities in terms of age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, education, or socio-economic factors that often contribute to pre-judgement or discrimination. This is significant because it challenges the notion of disparity by bringing together the identity of individuals within their communities, and integrates them into an accepting and cohesive collective in the form of art.  Each installation merges identities and creative voices to become a unique and powerful visual story of individuals, within a peaceful context of “what is a community?”  Considering today’s volatile social issues, the meaning behind this work has become particularly poignant, because it highlights unique identities, with all their inherent differences and similarities, and brings them together into a safe and accepting universal community. 

2017 Hieroglyphs 

Significant pieces within The Inherent Language of Life Installation at MAINSITE were The Snug, 2017 Hieroglyphs, Inner City and Homeless Children Stories I-V.   More than 85 participants initially participated for these pieces. I recruited individuals, many who might be uncomfortable with some of the other participants, to small group social settings at my home-based studio.  The project grew to include others, including children whom I taught during an Allied-Arts fall-break art camp for inner-city and homeless elementary aged school children.  Within the entire project, a variety of demographics were represented, ranging in age, gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic factors, and artistic experience.  Participants were of a variety of gender roles and gender identities; ranged from homeless children to wealthy adults; consisted of a wide variety of races and ethnicities; included grade school and high school youth, as well as adults with a full range or lack of education; consisted of a wide variety of blue and white collar occupations; and last but not least, spanned a full range of art experiences, art education, and creative self-described abilities.

Participants gathered, and I would explain my ideas about inherent creativity and identity. We would create symbols and visual representations by hand tearing paper in unguided, spontaneous, quick exercises. This process was simple, yet oddly difficult, and by the very nature of the child-like experience, allowed the participant to dispel any judgement or preconceived ideas of what was acceptable, or what the piece should “look” like.  Tearing paper actually leveled the artistic playing ground for all participants and instilled a naive and spontaneous expression of the creative self.   Whether the participant was an adult or child, an artist or novice, or from different group settings, all the glyphs were amazingly cohesive. 

The identity glyphs were then placed together in pop-up collaborations that represented our community.  From my perspective, it was amazing to see how each individual piece grew or changed in significance upon being placed in their collaboration. They fit together and played off one-another in a unique relationship that only comes from having both similar and different individuals functioning within a cohesive community.  

After the process of collaboration was complete, I photographed and digitally rendered each individual glyph. Then I remastered them in vinyl. My next step was to create a full gallery installation by arranging them into exhibition pieces on multiple surfaces ranging from paper, transparency, translucent polyester paper, windows, Plexiglas, windows, walls ceilings and floors, that would represent my ideas of the concepts I want to stress. This became the blueprint for the entire project.

The Snug is a piece that specifically uses contextual hieroglyphs and transparent media as a content and conceptual element in a feminist message.  The Snug, named for the historical Irish tradition when “Snugs” were sectioned off areas of the pub, separated by doors, and the only place where women were allowed to drink. They gained such popularity, that they remain in use to this day.  At least 22 women participated for this piece. The collaborative context of their individual identity glyphs was strengthened when they were replicated in strong pink and adhered to Plexiglas off-set from the wall, which represented the metaphorical glass ceiling.  The shadows and reflections created extend beyond the glass barrier and vaguely serve as a mirror, depicting the presence and influence of the identities of the women that extend far beyond their designated places. In an interesting note, four of the participants are breast cancer survivors. 

The Snug

See The Snug  
Another significant piece at the MAINSITE exhibition that has contributed over and over to my hieroglyphic story was the Community and Identity Project. This piece had over 1000 participants who hand tore and contributed to the pop-up collaborative part of the installation. The piece symbolically identified a representation of the individual identities in our community and became a major piece in my installation for the sister city exhibition during the Cultural Connections residency in Clermont-Ferrand, France.  I photographed, hand catalogued and packed all the individual hand-torn pieces and re-created this piece as part of my installation to introduce the sister city of Norman to the city of Clermont-Ferrand, France during the Les Arts en Ballade city wide Arts Festival.  I also created other pieces for the exhibition site in a 1600’s Chapel La’Oratoire, called The Spirit of Jumulage, also based on community hieroglyphs.  This piece was a series of opaque vinyl hieroglyphs on transparent vinyl panels that cast colorful reflections and shadows to represent the spirit of the people, reminiscent of the stain glass windows that once graced the chapel. I spent much of my time there submersed in the community, and the people of Clermont-Ferrand answered with their own version of a torn-paper piece, Community and Identity.  Their contributions to my collection of hieroglyphs. transcended a language barrier, and have since lived on in other installations.

See Inherent Language of Life at MAINSITE Contemporary Art 

See A Tale of Two People: The Spirit of Jumulage

My next major installation was a result of my networking and the exhibition at MAINSITE.  In an Exhibition titled 2017 Hieroglyphics: Spirit of Our People. Building an immersive exhibition within the container pod structure, and covering windows, walls, and ceilings, harkened back to my experience in the contained passage temples in Ireland, and being amazed by all the megalithic art engraved into the stone.  I believe that by creating art in the passage temples was their way of telling personal and community stories, just as this installation was ours. 

See 2017 Hieroglyphics:  Spirit of Our People  

From Collaborative Tear to Window Installation

You recieved an NEA grant to continue your work. Can you tell us more about that?

The work and connections at Oklahoma Contemporary led to my current and most significant hieroglyphic installation project yet, The Language of Hope and Courage at the Oklahoma City Children’s Hospital.  The manager of the Showcase:Showroom was a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital, knew my background and philosophy, and felt we would be a good match. He introduced us, and since then, a year-long project has ensued.  For this project, I applied for and received The Mid-America Arts Alliance Artistic Innovations Grant funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. This project is also funded by the Kirkpatrick Family Fund and The Children’s Hospital Volunteers charity.

The newest evolution of my collaborative interactive installation projects, “The Language of Hope and Courage,” will empower critically ill children as they experience the power of creative expression as part of the healing process.  It will culminate in a creative installation that will exhibit at in the Children’s Hospital Atrium, and will hopefully tour. It will weave together the stories and unique identities of these precious children, their families and the medical teams. The symbolic identities and creative representations will be merged into a life-sized visual story installation about the amazing and indomitable inherent spirit of these children battling illness and disease. 

The power of this project will be with the children.  There are so many stories to tell. The hieroglyphic symbols will serve as representations of their identities. Each symbol, otherwise known as an identity glyph, will introduce you to a child, their family members or their medical team.  It will tell something about their own personal story; and it will represent a powerful story about the Children’s Hospital.

The symbols will range in meaning from character traits and tags, emotions, beliefs, aspirations, ideologies, and philosophies, to concepts, tools, and favorite objects. It will tell you about the children at The Children’s Hospital by giving you a creative visual guide to what is important to them, who and what they love, their favorite things and activities, and their hopes and dreams. This project is the first of its kind at the Children’s Hospital and is spearheading a drive to begin an Art Therapy Program in the Child Life Department.

Do you find that the process of working together to create art is therapeutic to the people you work with?

Consider the impact and importance the process of creating visual expressions of hope and a healthy identity will have to the inherent well-being of these children and their ability to combat illness. Will it serve to maintain a sense of strength, worth, and courage? Will it improve the child’s outlook in their battle for life? Will it affect their ability to combat disease? Will it reinforce the power of art and creativity?  These are the questions I hope to answer with this project.

The Language of Hope and Courage is a very natural progression of work.  Each of my installations is a peaceful examination of the strength and character of the people, their cultures, and communities, with no prejudice or intolerance. Viewers cannot tell whether the participants are poor and homeless, or wealthy; young or old; persons of color or white; male or female, straight or gay; Christian or Muslim; able bodied or disabled. People of great diversity and from all walks of life are represented. They all fit, work, and play together to create a visual rendering of a cohesive community. Identities and creative voices merge to become a unique and powerful story of individuals thriving within a diverse, dynamic, and colorful community.

I believe the innovative power of creativity resonates in this project, and will benefit many. With its longevity, it will continue to tell about the identities and stories of these brave children, long after they have left the hospital. It will also bring hope, inspiration, and the power of art, to different types of people - many of whom would never have this opportunity otherwise. The impact and reach of this project is immense, and I am honored to work with the Oklahoma Children’s Hospital.

You’ve worked with a variety of communities, from senior citizens to homeless children. Do you approach the community/organization or do they find you?

In the work I do with the community, sometimes I reach out to the participants, and sometimes organizations reach out to me.  Sometimes it is a combination of both.  Other times I teach workshops, and I teach creativity classes at the Firehouse Art Center in Norman, OK where I conduct a paper tearing session but apply the results to class activities, and with more detail. For example, I have participated in several “Please Touch The Art” Exhibitions in Tulsa.  The first one, the curator contacted me.  Now, however, the organization does an open call, and so I submit for the exhibit, and additionally, they ask me to do workshops.  With many of my exhibitions, I have an interactive component for personal hieroglyphs, and with others, such as a recent exhibition at, JRB Art at the Elms, the gallery that represents me, I did an artist talk and interactive project. However, when I write a grant for a specific project, I reach out to the organizations that fit the scope and conditions of the grant I am writing.

What sort of instructions do you give to the people you work with to specify the type of form or symbol you’re asking them to make? Do you give them guidelines concerning subject or form? Do you find that you’re teaching techniques to the participants?

When I work with community participants with the hieroglyphic tear project, I don’t teach technique.  I tell them the guidelines and parameters of the project, toss them some paper or give them a wide selection to choose from, and turn them loose.  It is a totally spontaneous, inherent form of creativity, with a wide, open community canvas.  When I conduct a session, as opposed to an interactive collaboration at an exhibition or event, I do have the participants engage in more steps to building the collaboration, but it is still a very free, intuitive, and spontaneous process. 

In my work with the Children’s Hospital, I help facilitate according to their developmental abilities and particular needs.  Many of the children’s work is abstract because of their ages or abilities.  Sometimes I give them simple instruction, or ideas how to start when they are unsure of what to tear; like to perhaps start with a shape, or a color, or tear and glue random scraps to get ideas.  However, most times, after we visit about the project and what it means, they have their own definite ideas about what they want to work on.  My kids at the hospital thus far have ranged from under two and up to 19.  They have a lot to say, but they never dwell on their illness.  Their illnesses do not define them.

Can you tell us about the materials you work with? I notice that the layers often include transparent elements, which add to the movement and meaning. Can you tell us a little about the process of working with these materials?

Detail of color, shadows, and reflection

I am a contemporary printmaker, installation artist, and storyteller, with a fascination in the idea of symbols and visual references that can convey a literal or symbolic story within a body of visual art. My work focuses on visual narratives told by stacking and floating form, transparent mediums, vinyl, color, light, shadows, and reflections onto the windows, walls, floors and ceilings of site-specific installations.  Infusions of light fluctuate within the environment and create shadows and reflections that enhance the interpretation of the elements by bringing a visible integration of meaning that transcends flat surfaces and traditional storytelling.  The transparent nature of each installation, along with the shadows and reflections, creates depth, adding context and content not otherwise obtainable. 

I love working with transparent surfaces, such as windows, and I am always interested in finding ways to improve on the process. My earliest installations included window surfaces.  The stained-glass quality of the colors, reflections and shadows, and use of transparent layers fascinates me, and I find it enhances and pushes the context of a story beyond what can be seen on traditional surfaces.  I choose the surfaces I work on to match the message and tone of my story.  I love discovering the unplanned delights of the play of transparent color, shadows and reflections.

Flloyd's Daughter-in-Law

 

See 2017 Hieroglyphs 

See The Battle 

See Floyd’s Daughter-In-Law  

Do you label each symbol with the name or other identifying information about the maker of it? Or do you maintain a sense of anonymity?

This is a good question! I have done both. I do not divulge identities unless it is approved. And most of the time, I only tell what the symbol represents, without giving names.  I usually maintain a sense of anonymity, but I have printed thank yous in artist statements, with approval, for people and organizations who have participated. I do have a legend, but it is for my own purposes, (This may be another exhibit). I will give an in-depth description about the body of work, itself.  But then beyond that I leave it to the viewer to identify with the hieroglyphs.  Usually my explanations of the hieroglyphs are in artist talks or during exhibitions when people ask what things mean. As is with the case of the Children at the Children’s Hospital, I have to have written releases to give any information, other than the meaning of the hierloglyph, that could possibly identify them.  With the homeless and inner city children’s pieces, I never divulged information, but I did label the meaning of the pieces.

For example, I may tell the story of a young inner-city school child whose working, single mother takes the time to braid her hair every morning: She tore a braid.  Or, I may tell why I have several cell-phones: At the homeless school, the parents will call the bus driver every morning to tell them their location, perhaps at a shelter, where they couch-surfed, or where they slept in their car.  That cell phone is the child’s link to the world that is ever important.  I may tell the story about the teacher who is a breast cancer survivor and started a non-profit school in Haiti teaching women how to sew the required school uniforms so they can always have a job:  She tore a spool of thread.  I may tell the story about the aging artist who was frustrated with the way our country is treating immigrants, minorities, and education policies:  She tore a paint brush and red, white and blue paint squares to represent her wish to repaint our current political system. I could tell the story about the homeless child who tore tiny pieces to represent her family members: her mama, papa, abuela, tia, sisters, and brothers – She put them in a cluster on the collaborative board, where she could reach.  For other remaining family members, she had me put them way beyond her reach to represent her family that is “way far away.” I can tell you about the disabled woman who adopted a disabled child who later died:  she tore the symbol with the hand that means I love you, because that is how they told this to one another. I literally am the keeper of the stories.  I have hundreds.

The content, depth, identities, and stories contained within each of these pieces is unbelievably powerful.  As I work with each glyph, I think about that person and have a strong connection to them and their unique and personal story.  Some tell about a concept, a characteristic, a struggle, a character tag, a goal, a loved one, a hobby, an occupation, a tool, or even a dream or aspiration. The glyphs represent excerpts of a life.  As I worked with each one, I was able to fill in gaps of what lies beneath their surface with my own knowledge, ideas or imaginings, such as the untold variables and stories, how their lives are unfolding, and what further information will or won’t ever be shared.  For each symbol, there is so much more than the intended meaning.  There is also what intent, experience, synchronicity, emotions, struggles, or chaos transpired to make it relevant, both within the creative process and within the life or identity it represents.  Some of this is profoundly sad, some is uplifting and joyful, but with each comes great hope.  This hope is for those unique individuals, as well as their forthcoming story lines, that are left wide open. 

I believe in the therapeutic value of this project. It is a proven fact that art is good for the well-being of individuals. Art is also being looked at more and more in the role of healing and preventative medicine. With my Children’s Hospital project, we plan to work with Dr. Chan Hellman from the Ann and Charles Zarrow at the Hope Research Center to scientifically measure the hope created by the creative process.  This raises the bar on its significance by adding a scientific examination of art within the realm of medicine. This is an extraordinary prospect for the dialogue about the science of hope and healing in creativity. I am sincerely excited to work with a project that can quantify the power of art. I am also tremendously grateful to all the participants who have joined me in creating this body of work.

For more information, in addition to my website, my Instagram and facebook page will follow the progress of the project.  My Instagram is ginnadowling.artist, and my facebook page is Ginna Dowling, Artist (which has a link to my website).

 Links of Interest:

Go Fund Me for the Children's Hospital Project.

https://www.oumedicine.com/oumedicine/adult-services/what-is-ou-medicine/news/2019/10/03/the-children's-hospital-launches-art-program

https://www.oumedicine.com/oumedicine/the-children's-hospital/2019-art-project?fbclid=IwAR3urE_--ChVymoWPpQhG6A22q_1mIDZQJJpQLn5azPcsQPKbUZhiS1cL9U

https://www.maaa.org/measuring-hope/