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  • Writer's pictureShea Stanfield

Art Apart from Stone and Bone


The paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey once commented, “No amount of stone and bone can yield the kinds of information that the paintings gave so freely.” Ms. Leakey grew up in a family of creative and inquisitive individuals that availed her of the opportunity to see the world and the difference culture makes in human expression. So went the life of multi-talented local artist Jan Downey. Jan also considers herself fortunate to come from a family with artists on both sides that appreciated and nurtured her love of art. Jan reflects, “Artistic expression is as natural to me as thinking in numbers might be to someone else.”

Growing up in Chicago with a mechanical engineer/ inventor for a father and a hobby painter for a mother allowed Jan enormous freedom to explore and experiment with various media. The kitchen table became her creative lab. One day, she made batik wall hangings by boiling down vegetables to make her fabric dyes; the next day, she was stringing a selection of small animal bones, fruit seeds, and other repurposed objects into her Bohemian jewelry. Holidays saw Jan's industrious side emerge in potato stamp wrapping paper and making gifts with the help of her father's soldering iron. Anything was game, and almost everything seemed to work into one of Jan's creative pieces.

This talent for invention and curiosity did not immediately lead to a career in art; in fact, she was dissuaded from pursuing art as a career because her parents worried that it would not be sustainable. So, Jan followed her other passion, the study of human culture, developed over a childhood of many visits with her father to the Chicago area museums. She attended the University of Minnesota for her Bachelor's degree in Anthropology and moved to Arizona in 1989 to complete graduate work in Cultural Anthropology at Arizona State University. This career, was the seg-way from an adventurous childhood into a lifelong love and exploration of various cultures, as she traveled and worked in multiple settings as a consultant or an investigator doing fieldwork and writing reports. Yet, all along, her natural tendency was to be drawn to each culture's art. She shares, "The range of artistic expression through time and across all societies shows that creativity is part of our human heritage.”

Jan taught Anthropology at the college level for 13 years and continues to teach in community settings today. She retired from her career in fieldwork to concentrate her efforts on weaving her early creative life and career studying world cultures into the new expressive art forms we see today.

Using gourds as her natural canvas, Jan expresses her years of exploration, observation, and limitless creative ability. People often ask her, “why gourds?” Jan replies, “Gourds have been important to so many cultures worldwide for 10,000 years used as food containers, musical instruments, water carriers, spoons, drinking vessels, and objects to decorate. In addition to helping keep humans alive, I think gourds are amazing collaborators in the creative process. You can paint, dye, carve, wood-burn, add weavings, embed objects, leave them whole, or cut them into various shapes."

"The range of artistic expression through time and across all societies shows that creativity is part of our human heritage.”

Jan works from her studio, ZolioArts, a space connected to her home in a beautiful Sonoran Desert setting. She says, "I have always loved going to work, but especially today when I have the opportunity to create, experiment, and engage a variety of materials, tools, and methods. It's like being a kid again!" She continues to be inspired by the patterns, designs, colors, and forms with cultural roots that play a significant role in her gourd designs. Artist Jan Downey is a member of the Sonoran Arts League and participates in the Hidden in the Hills Studio Tour in November. She exhibits at The Finer Arts Gallery in Cave Creek and is a member of the American Gourd Society. Jan continues to be inspired by adaptations made in the natural world as well as those made by humans in cultural groups everywhere.




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