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A garden of earthly delights in Freeland
As his work grows stronger, so do the hands that make it.
He must have the hands of Superman by now because everything he makes is handmade on a forge and anvil he built himself.
He is metal artist Jon-Paul Dowdell, and he will be showing his forged steel sculptures and hand-forged knives, along with the work of fellow artists, painter and sculptor Eric Tunnell and photographer, mixed-media and video artist Joe Menth. The show is a two-day event on Saturday, Aug. 28 and Sunday, Aug. 29 at the Raven and the Spade gardens in Freeland. The show includes an artists’ reception and garden party from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday.
Dowdell’s knives are as virile as a superhero’s bicep and exude a kind of wild west warrior style. One piece is titled “Nick’s Beartooth” and is made of steel, nickel and the horn of an African Water Buffalo. It features a slick and shapely steel blade that makes one think irrationally about tools, as in: “Hmm ... that’s quite a sexy knife.”
But any sexiness seems like a bonus. Dowdell said he has been exploring the more cerebral qualities of the form while keeping his heart in the fire of his work.
“My time in the studio has been particularly joyous lately,” Dowdell said. “I’ve been exploring various mathematical symmetries found throughout nature in my sculptural work, working with the application of the ‘golden mean’ or ‘divine ratio’ to achieve a simplistic and aesthetically pleasing movement, as is found in my ascension series of forged steel sculptures.”
Dowdell refers to the theory that in both mathematics and the arts, two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one. This quality is prevalent in the major works of Leonardo Da Vinci including the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” Inherent in many of Da Vinci’s art, designs and inventions is the ratio of approximately 1:1.618, which is also found often in nature, such as in the rows of a pine cone, a sand dollar, a starfish and the petals of the daisy and the sunflower, among various other natural creations.
Dowdell’s concentration on such divinely influenced sequences has seeped into his knife work, as well.
“I have been exploring more complicated patterning with my knife work, creating my own Damascus, or forge welded steel, with which I forge out the blades themselves,” the artist said.
The general term “Damascus” refers to metal with a visible grain pattern, sometimes with a texture, and is created by layering various alloys together in a rough billet — a bar of steel before it has been shaped. The pieces are then forged into a single piece of steel. That billet is then forged out and thinned, cut into smaller pieces, stacked and then forged together again. This process is repeated until a billet with the desired amount of layering is achieved.
“I typically stack up to 60 or so layers, but sometimes forge up to 120 or 160 layers for some of the more complicated patterns,” Dowdell said.
“Needless to say, it is a time consuming and tedious process at best, all of which I do by hand, with a forge I built myself on an anvil I built myself.”
It’s a daunting endeavor.
He said it can sometimes take him three or fours days of solid work to come up with a piece of steel which he can begin to forge into what will later become a blade for a future knife. Such skills take years of practice, and Dowdell continues to expand his knowledge of the form by attending a blacksmith program at the New England School of Metalwork in Auburn, Maine for which he received a scholarship. The school has the only certification for the American Bladesmith Society in the country.
“I’ve recently had the opportunity to learn traditional Japanese sword-making under the tutelage of the legendary Don Fogg,” Dowdell said. He talks about other areas of study under master smiths, such as advanced integral knife forging and Damascus techniques, as child would talk about his first crack at riding a two-wheeler. Dowdell’s gleeful enthusiasm for metalwork comes from a determination to learn more, do more and to excel at it.
“Needless to say, all that work feels worth it to me when I get to look at one of the finished pieces,” he said.
“It’s the process that brings me joy, the end product is just icing on the cake.”
Considering how much time and energy it takes to create those “cakes,” Dowdell said he also likes to make use of the recycled steel of found objects such as old chisels, jackhammer bits, lawnmower blades, elevator cables and old truck leaf springs.
“I enjoy the idea of taking something that has served man for so long, then was cast away as waste, and is now given a whole new life as one of man’s most basic tools, an edged blade.”
But even beyond the work, Dowdell exudes a kind of slap-happy creative spirit that is derived by those artists with whom he collaborates and befriends. It’s part of his particular brand of the creative process — surround yourself with a garden of earthly delights and everything else will follow.
Dowdell said that having a show with fellow artists and friends Tunnell and Menth, catered by his culinary artist wife, Chef Jess Dowdell, in the artistic French potager garden created by friend Camille LaTray, refreshed with local brews made by the Olde World Brewery in Langley, and being able to serve a new wine he made himself with help from the Whidbey Island Winery, makes the whole experience a celebration of all the creative bounty available to those who live on and visit Whidbey Island.
“From the food, to the music, to the beer, to the wine, to the sculpture, to the paintings, to the photography, to the video, to the gardens and grounds themselves, every aspect of this happening is born of an artist’s passion,” he said.
“I feel creativity should be in a constant state of evolution. It’s that constant growth that motivates and keeps the journey exciting.”
The Raven and The Spade is at 4785 East Harbor Road in Freeland. Garden and art show hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.