Frequent visitors to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art recognize Dan Dowd as a familiar face. Over a decade long career as a museum security officer, his standing silhouette has become one with the pristine gallery walls, a guardian figure quietly watching over the collection. Yet there is a different kind of sparkle behind his glasses as Dowd speaks about making art of his own: uncovering the markings of time, material and narrative.
On his Instagram profile, Dowd summarizes himself as an “artist, rummager, conservationist, SAAB driver.” He is eloquent and soft-spoken, and perhaps a bit “earthy.” After a self-designed liberal arts study at Framingham State College, the Massachusetts native switched careers several times before moving to Maine in 2001.
“I graduated at a time when the economy was in really bad shape,” said Dowd. Companies were not hiring for creative offices, so he worked for seven years at a financial company in Massachusetts. “It was a fun social experience, but the job itself kind of bored me to death,” he said.
At the time, Maine, with a special connection to an influential art teacher from Dowd’s past, seemed like the next logical destination, offering new horizons in his career trajectory as well as art-making.
“I asked myself when I was at a chain or at a point in my career where I wasn’t sure what was next, where would I go if I retired? And I said, well, I’d go to Maine if I retired—so I did.”
He wasn’t quite sure where he was heading, but he held tightly onto art. During his early days in Phippsburg, Maine, Dowd took on restoring an 1880s Victorian House as a project. He continues to seek inspiration in found objects and discarded materials, juxtaposing and reimagining seemingly mundane objects.
“I’m interested in the recorded histories on materials,” he said. “I’m usually not drawn to using materials that are new and perfect. I’m interested in using the pieces that were worn out or stained or torn by the person that wore them.”
With his touch, aged pieces of rubber, fabric, metal and wood come together as assemblage sculptures, ingenious in their simple forms, bold colors and textured surfaces. Dowd salvages all his materials from a transfer station in Phippsburg, transforming a method of waste management into a tool for artistic reincarnation.
“There’s this attempt to keep things out of the landfill,” Dowd said. “There’s definitely an environmental spin to all of those piles and trailers at the transfer station too … showing the life that has been recorded on the material, but also the life that remains with the material.”
Daniel Kany of the Portland Press Herald praises Dowd for his ability to “establish dignity in detritus.” Despite their humble sources, these assemblages harken back to a broader tradition in the history of art, full of subtlety, self-awareness and artistic sensibilities.
“I feel like I paint with material,” Dowd said. “I look at material and I think, where can I include this piece that will go well with that color and that Patina to create this object of history that will satisfy me?”
Humor acts as another powerful tool in Dowd’s oeuvre. His installation in 2011 at Fort Andross featured photographs of the head of former faculty member Anna Hepler against various backdrops on campus, accompanied by a monumental sculpture of Helper’s head, recreating the texture of her hair with faux-fur and fabric.
“I was interested in documenting her here, but not in a typical portrait way. So I asked her if she would let me photograph her head, because that was how I was sort of introduced to her [as having a great head of hair],” he said.
“I’m definitely interested in humor and quirkiness and letting people sort of make connections about things that don’t necessarily make sense. I’d like things to be a little bit absurd,” Dowd added.
Though he likes to consider his art as separate from his job, Dowd acknowledges the impact of being in such close proximity to the masterpieces of the collection. In 2012, he got to contribute to an exhibition at the museum by painting a reproduction of William Wegman’s work on the museum wall. Cognizant of viewers’ response to a work of art, he cites the Edward Hopper show in 2011 as a personal favorite.
“I have clear memories of standing in the Osher Gallery and looking at the pavilion stairs throughout the day. And then the stairs were never empty of people; it was either people coming in or going out the entire time. It was unheard of previous to that show,” said Dowd.
He is always looking to exchange ideas with members of the Bowdoin community, either about his own process or interpretations of ongoing installations. In fact, one of our first encounters took place when I was writing a paper in Boyd Gallery. Dowd’s friendship with faculty from the Departments of Visual Arts and Art History has inspired new levels of critical understanding.
“So when I was talking to [Professor of Art History Pamela] Fletcher, I was really interested in the sort of alternative label to give the visitor an alternative idea about what that piece of artwork could be about,” he said. “Just to show another angle, another side—I think it’s just broadening.”
For any artist, collaboration and creative exchange is central to their process; Dowd is no exception. He talks fondly of Maine’s greater artistic community, connected by the machinery of social media.
“I feel like there’s a lot of artists that are hidden in the cracks that no one even knows about,” Dowd said.
Towards the end of our chat, he confessed that he wasn’t used to talking about himself. We briefly stepped into the Boyd Gallery, where Dowd posed in front of an Anne Arnold sculpture in his usual position—still, silent and steadfast.