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Datebook: 'Unsteady Hands' Grasps The Richness Of Artist's Memories

An exotic gift from a kind eccentric and formidable grandparent...the jaw-dropping riches of another culture... 

These are the memories that have informed the latest work from Twin City artist David Dow, now on view at the McLean County Arts Center in Bloomington. The exhibition is called “Unsteady Hands” and continues through Feb. 19. 

For many years, Dow has delved into masks and what they mean to us. His latest works, richly adorned with glistening beads set in wax, reflect childhood experiences and memories that Dow said he explored during the pandemic lockdown. 

“I’m fascinated with masks and how they’ve been used through various cultures and times to represent power, fertility, station in life,”  he said.

The show highlighting Dow’s latest creations is broken into three different childhood reminisces, with each memory detailed and posted near the work it inspired. One story relates Dow’s reaction to an unexpected gift from a dinner guest when the family was living in Ghana. The gift was a tribal carving that, Dow recalled, raised some eyebrows even as it utterly fascinated him. 

“It was a very phallic carving that I’m not sure my mother loved,” he said with a grin. 

The guest related to Dow the lore and the meaning behind the carving. 

“And that gesture of kindness touched me deeply.  That really introduced the passion for tribal art, African art, masks.” 

Dow’s visit to Iran as a child also factors into his latest works. His family spent some time in Tehran, which led to an extraordinary opportunity. 

“It was this immersion into a culture that was vastly different. One of the great experiences that we were able to have was visiting the crown jewels of Iran, which were literally housed in these enormous bank vaults.” 

Dow saw pretty much what one would expect when visiting crown jewels: thrones, crowns, scepters, tiaras and all sorts of jewelry. But that wasn’t what made the biggest impact on the young man. 

“Incredibly, there were bowls, there was a gold and ruby bowl filled with cut and uncut rubies," he said. "And bowls of emeralds. And in the backdrops of some of these exhibits, they would use strands of pearls, just butted together densely to create the backdrop. 

“It was such opulence and such decadence! An extreme show of wealth and power.” 

Dow’s use of dark crimson beads--gleaming, lavish, oh-so-tempting to touch--in his mask work reflects the impressiveness of the images he saw that day in Iran. 

“If you were to come to my studio at home in the basement, there are these piles of red beads and piles of different colored beads. And during those dark months (of the lockdown) of figuring out what we were all going to do, being surrounded by these piles of jewels just transported me back to that time as a child, looking at bowls of color.” 

“Even if you didn’t know that they were precious stones and didn’t think about the value and just the vastness of the fortune, just the piles of color were stimulating and intriguing. Those memories just came rushing back to me.” 

“Unsteady Hands” rounds out with a third memory, one of Dow’s grandparents--particularly his grandmother, who was dubbed Great Phyllis. According to Dow, she lived up to that moniker. Great Phyllis was formidable, as was her collection of jewelry and more. 

“She wore turquois and sterling, magnificently crafted bracelets, from her wrists to her elbows, on both arms, every day, everywhere, the grocery store, wherever she went,” he said.

Scouring the southwest in the early days of her marriage, Great Phyllis and her husband collected jewelry, blankets, baskets, dolls and more. 

“I was truthfully a bit scared of her, but also in awe of this collection,” Dow admitted. 

“When your viewpoints to different cultures or different people are positive, when they are born out of appreciation, fascination, interest, then those stereotypical barriers that are consciously or subconsciously put out between cultures go away. 

“Those experiences can happen at any point in our life and can create shared experiences and shared common values in art, in craft, in culture, and just in us as human beings.” 

Dow works with wax, affixing beads to his sculptures. 

“They’re fragile,” he said. “But also forgiving.” 

They had to be, after a near disaster at the McLean County Arts Center. 

“We installed most of the show on Sunday and the heat was left on in the small gallery where the show is,” he said.

You can see where this is going. Heat plus wax... 

“It was hot enough, long enough, for the wax to get a bit of softness,” Dow explained ruefully.  

Arriving at the gallery Monday morning, Dow found five of his mask sculptures had taken dives to the floor. Three of them could be repaired on site, but the others had to return to Dow’s studio for some repair work. Now back in the exhibition, there’s no way of telling the sculptures had been through a heat-related misadventure.  

Still, it was a nerve-wracking experience for the artist, whose works require a steady hand to create. Dow is fighting against nature to do that, since he’s lived with essential tremor since he was a young man. The name of the show--“Unsteady Hands”--was suggested by his longtime partner, Jim Neeley. 

“It can be managed, but it doesn’t go away,” said Dow. “And you get shakier as you get older. On a given day, soup is my worst enemy. And when you concentrate on tremors, it makes them worse.” 

Yet, Dow is able to create art that requires steady hands. 

“There are two places for me that I do not experience tremors. That’s in the water, training, swimming. And when I’m creating. It’s metaphysical, it’s mental, and it’s physical reaction. 

“My hands settle, my mind concentrates, I get lost in memories, and everything just kind of settles in and I’m able to pick up on a needle, a bead, find the right place for it and place it with hands that look like they’re steady as can be. 

“When I own the experience, it robs the extra angst. So, Jim’s suggestion was kind of a tribute to overcoming that and losing myself in the art and finding steadiness.” 

“Unsteady Hands” continues through Feb. 19 at the McLean County Arts Center in downtown Bloomington. 


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.