Spotlight: Donna Lee Dowdney, Fabric Artist
Bringing as much meticulous attention to her work as an artist as she brought to her technical career, Donna Lee Dowdney creates nature-inspired visual art with fabric and mixed media. An explorer at heart, Donna’s work reflects her curiosity and appreciation of the world around her, whether observed with the naked eye or through a microscope.
What are your earliest memories of your creative expression?
As a child living in Chicago’s western suburbs, I created an art hangout in my basement. I filled floor-to-ceiling shelves with papers, paints, puppet-making supplies, fabrics, and everything else my imagination desired.
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Then, one day, an explorer, wearing adventure clothing, with a pith helmet on his head, and carrying a spear, came to my elementary school. Immediately my focus enlarged beyond art! I knew I wanted to be both an explorer and an artist when I grew up. Adventure beckoned me. Thus, my two creative childhood interests became creating artistic projects and traveling internationally. I pinned National Geographic maps to my bedroom walls and read everything I could about other cultures and exotic foreign lands.
Over the years, I traveled in over 40 countries, participated in an archaeological dig in the Middle East and visited numerous archaeological sites in Mexico. Along the way, I earned a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature. Then, for several years, I taught English as a Second Language. I loved meeting people from other cultures. Art slipped off my radar screen. My focus in Silicon Valley was technical communications. As Chair of a Technical Communications Department, I immersed myself in the burgeoning Internet industry. My artistic interests fell aside and didn’t reappear until 50 years later.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
As you see, my artistic path has been circuitous; it did not follow a straight line. In fact, for most of my life, I didn’t realize that I was an artist. Looking back now, I see how many elements from my past combined to make me the artist I am today.
What re-ignited your artistic interests?
After several years of submerging myself in the fast-paced technical world, I discovered an unfulfilled longing for blue and green and being in nature. In addition, numerous trips to Hawaii brought me into close contact with nature’s vivid and wild colors.
Eventually, I left my technical career, moved to the Pacific Northwest, and looked for a program in which I could learn about art, specifically fabric art and mixed media. I began ten years of full-time art study with Gail Harker in her Creative Studies Center now located in La Conner, Washington. Gail Harker formerly taught City & Guilds Creative Studies in Britain and served as an External Verifier for the City & Guilds Institute. Gail taught textile art, color studies, machine embroidery, multimedia art, and dozens more. This excellent program was exactly what I needed to re-ignite my artistic interests and skills. I earned a Diploma in Design through Gail Harker’s program.
I felt I had come home to myself — the part of myself that I had left behind 50 years before when I created art with paper and fabric and developed mixed media pieces. Now I am a fabric and mixed media artist using many surface design techniques. I create art with fabrics, yarns, and beads. Sometimes, I create art by transferring designs to fabrics using dye, paint, silk screening, or stamps. Then, I sew the fabric art by machine and by hand. I add sparkle, color, and movement with beads, mirrors, ribbons, and threads. For me to discover my artistic path took over 50 years!
What did you learn after you started your artist’s path?
I created preliminary designs in sketchbooks, determined the size, shape, and scope of projects, met new friends in the art community, conducted experiments with paints, mediums, textures, backgrounds, and framing.
In addition, I discovered that I enjoy abstracting designs rather than furtively trying to replicate details as a photographer or botanical or medical illustrator would. Instead, I learned to look at an object’s essence. I have also learned to express myself by creating imaginary creatures, plants, and spirals. For example, I enjoy creating Biomorphs — combining plants and animals into amazing creatures.
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
Because of my diverse interests, I don’t experience creativity blocks. There’s so much to learn that I keep lists upon lists of things to do. I keep some lists on my computer, others on index cards.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an artist?
Initially, my “beginner’s mind” questioned and tried everything without a clear focus. Any project, regardless of its complexity, intrigued me and drew me into spellbinding hours exploring possibilities. This lack of a clear focus and always asking “why” led to constant experimentation. Fortunately, I had the time and energy to spend on whatever attracted my interest. Eventually, though, when my focus landed on mixed media and fabric art, I was excited to begin working with exotic textiles from my travels as well as with the fabric stash that grew beyond expectations!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have two studios downstairs joined by a hallway. My sewing studio has an 8-foot long sewing table for my Bernina 790 machine with room for my two Janome sewing machines and a Viking felting machine. I also have a custom-made 6-foot table with half dedicated to cutting and half to pressing. Several floor-to-ceiling shelves contain books and publications. A table holds my computer. Baskets contain yarn. Plastic storage containers hold an assortment of ribbons, tassels, and other embellishments. Round wastebaskets that fit nicely into shallow shelves hold beads and specialized yarns. Good lighting is essential. My husband added several track lights in the ceilings.
The second studio has six filing cabinets to store supplies and archives, a design wall, a workbench, a table for the grandchildren’s creative projects, bookshelves holding art books, and floor-to ceiling racks holding my fabric stash. Three years ago, we added a deep sink for art projects requiring running water. I also have my cameras and other photographic equipment in this studio so that I can take photos of art pinned on the 4 x 8-foot design wall.
In the hallway between these two studios, bulletin board walls made from insulation and covered with batting allow me to hang work in process. One side of the hallway has three cork bulletin boards and a 6-inch deep shelf holding my rubber stamps, paintbrushes, and small supplies. The other side displays my framed art.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
The two studios separated by the hallway allow me to organize my projects so that I can move from painting, printing, silk screening, and dyeing, to the sewing area. My workbench and toolbox are always “at the ready” when I need to assemble a picture frame or cut foam core and mats. My photographic area and lights are in place to photograph finished projects. Varied papers fill the collage area. Actually, this studio is quite crowded, so continually organizing slows my work process. I guess there is never enough space!
Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
Yes, I use stacking containers from Ikea to store my fabric stash. The wire baskets allow me to organize my fabrics by color, type, fabric and designs.
What plays in the background while you work?
I listen to Pandora as I work. I prefer meditative, relaxing music such as the Anugama Radio Station. The blend of exotic themes, instruments, and chimes takes me to exotic lands while I create art.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
I base my fabric seascapes and landscapes on what I experienced piloting my boat for 32 years on San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound and around the San Juan Islands.
Traveling in foreign lands and visiting museums, gardens, and national parks always inspires me. For example, I participated in a textile tour of Japan and a textile study trip in Britain. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam held a textile Symposium that introduced me to many international perspectives. The Textile Research Centre in Leiden, Netherlands is another inspiration source. (www.trc-leiden.nl) In the United States, I participated in tours of the Conservation Center of the De Young Museum through my membership in the Textile Arts Council. San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, and the archives of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Kauai, Hawaii, presented me with countless artistic avenues to pursue. Of course, the British Museum, France’s Louvre, Belgrade’s Ethnographic Museum, and Russia’s Hermitage all gave me delightful hours of exploration.
Many times I visited San Francisco’s Flower Conservatory in Golden Gate Park. Then Kauai, I strolled in McBride and Allerton Gardens, and Limahuli gardens. When in Oahu, I explored the Waimea and Lyon Arboretums. I also hiked in Yosemite National Park over 100 times where the wilderness and nature inspired my art.
Do you do series work?
Yes, typically, I create three or more similar art pieces in varied sizes and colors. My invented biological microcosms zoom in on the variations of life’s dance. So I examine the turbulent, irregular, twisting flow patterns and complexity at the cellular level. Then I use dense stitching, dye, and paint to make the textiles reveal light, shadow, movement and color in this “Dance of Life.”
Another theme involves creating eccentric shimmering spirals that careen, twist, and wander. My imagination transports me from spirals at microscopic levels of plant and animal life to whirl pooling ocean currents and spiral galaxies. I experiment with mixed media to combine textures and colors of hand-dyed fabrics, painted papers, and beads. Then I print the designs on fabric and use embroidery and beading to enhance the designs. My designs explode, encircle, spiral, branch and wander through space. They simulate the universe at a microscopic level. DNA strands unfurl as organic growth and cellular images spiral upward from sea beds. Meanwhile, underwater creatures writhe and struggle to break barriers.
What do you do differently? What makes your work stand out as yours?
Sometimes I create art based on fractals, which are complex geometric designs generated on computers through mathematical formulas. Nature reveals itself in fractal structures so that the design of an atom looks similar to that of a galaxy. Fractals capture my imagination as I create the designs on my computer to explode into the infinite universe, then implode to microscopic size.
How has your creativity evolved over the years?
Looking back, I see that I evolved from being a technical geek into an artist. Let me explain. A few years ago, I decided to change from a left-brain orientation to the right brain. My previous career as a technical communicator in Silicon Valley closely focused on complex, technical issues, and I even received national awards in recognition for my work. So now, I am bringing my left-brain and right-brain processing together by integrating scientific areas with imagination and linear processing. As a result, I have a spontaneous approach to visual problem solving.
Do you critique your own work? What is your process?
I’ve found that participating in professional organizations is essential for evaluating and improving my work. Also, my professional associations give me wonderful contacts with other artists. The three organizations in which I am most active are the Surface Design Association (SDA), the Contemporary QuiltArt Association (CQA), and the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA).
The Surface Design Association promotes awareness and appreciation of textile-inspired art and design through publications, exhibitions, and conferences. I belong to two Washington SDA groups.
The Contemporary QuiltArt Association promotes interest in contemporary art quilts, encourages public and private collecting of contemporary art quilts and encourages and supports contemporary quilt artists.
Studio Art Quilt Associates is an international organization that promotes the art quilt. In addition, SAQA offers resources and professional opportunities.
In addition to actively participating in professional organizations, I am also active in BARN (Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network) located only a couple miles from my house on Bainbridge Island in Washington. BARN is an artist center offering eleven studios for creating arts and crafts.
Recently, I began participating in Judith Trager‘s Master Class. Judith is a world-renowned quilting instructor. Judith, as well as the other class participants, critique projects.
What supplies do you use?
I use sketchbooks in all sizes and shapes. In them I place my photographs and examples of varied media such as printing inks, oil pastels, acrylic paints, watercolors, markers, pens, pencils and dimensional paint.
How important is it for you to exhibit your art in varied venues?
Some of my award-winning art appears in hospital and healthcare centers, art centers, galleries, businesses, a museum, and civic centers. I also participate in studio tours and art festivals. Meeting people in the art community often leads to future exhibits. As a member of the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce and Bainbridge Business Connection, I expand possibilities for exhibiting my art and meeting collectors. So it’s never too late to explore and begin new adventures of the imagination!
Interview published August, 2019.
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