Inteview: John Down
Luca Curci talks with John Down during THE BODY LANGUAGE 2020 at Palazzo Ca’ Zanardi.
John Down works in several media: painting, sculpture, drawing, ceramics, and chocolate. His paintings showcase accomplished brush and colour techniques. In his larger scale paintings, the artist’s images are developed from a foundation that frequently starts with a sketched structure in pencil or charcoal. He is particularly fascinated with natural phenomena: fractals, the science of patterns; quantum physics; and how everything is related to everything and everything else. Down is an expressive and passionate artist, influenced by Byzantine and Medieval icons, Persian miniatures, and cross-cultural indigenous art. He states, “My paintings embody fundamental symbols of nature. The act of art gives me a greater understanding of myself. It is about my passion for awareness, the truth, and, quite simply, the act of painting itself”. In 2002, John Down was invited by New York City to relocate his business, Christopher Norman Chocolates (CNC), to the Financial Centre of New York City, which was being redeveloped after the 9/11 carnage. Once established there, CNC participated in many community-building events such as classes and demonstrations for the neighbourhood’s benefit. Like so many people who were present in the aftermath of the disaster, by 2011 Down became debilitatingly ill, forcing him to close his business. In 2014 he relocated to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, close to relatives. Since then, he has regained his health, re-established his chocolate business, and, most importantly, has resumed his art work. Down’s paintings have been shown in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa, in Canada; in Seattle, and New York, in America; in Tokyo, Japan; and in Florence and in Venice, Italy. His paintings are in the Seagram Collection, New York, and in Canadian, American and international art collections. He has received numerous commissions; and he was the recipient of the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation Award. A highlight for Down was when he was invited by Lord and Taylor to decorate their Fifth Avenue windows with his paintings, joining the ranks of Warhol, Rauschenberg, Duquette, and Johns, who all fashioned Fifth Avenue windows. Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1958, John Down studied at Emily Carr College of Art & Design in Vancouver, and at the Banff Centre for the Arts in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. John has been engaged in the creative process since his youth. As Down states, “Life is everywhere around us. The vitality in life makes me want to translate this awareness using my paintbrush vocabulary”.
Luca Curci – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
John Down – I studied at a few art schools, but I have been engaged with the creative process since I was very young. My art practice began in the early eighties. I was influenced and inspired by the Neo-Expressionist movement, by contemporary and modern art, as well as by my study of art history through the ages. In 1990 I moved from Canada to New York City where I lived for twenty-five years. Exposure to the New York art world was a significant and ongoing influence on my art practice. However, now that I live in a west coast wilderness setting, I am deeply connected to the landscape and its super-natural presence.
LC – What is art for you?
JD – For me, art is a profound way to communicate through a visual vocabulary that expresses my skills as a painter. I enjoy the challenge of pushing a composition as far as I can while maintaining the formal concerns of light and dark; lean to fat paint; fluidity; and the juxtaposition of these elements in a composition.
LC – What is your creative process like?
JD – My creative process incorporates a variety of approaches. I have a formal sensibility. When working two dimensionally, I sketch in an outline to build an image on. At times this line drawing is complete in-and-of itself and has an atmospheric quality that refers to calligraphy. This evolves and emerges through my paintbrush vocabulary and my refined sense of complex colour. I work with a combination of mixed colours using two methods. I begin by premixing colours before I start the work. As the painting progresses, I mix colours directly on the canvas or paper. At other times there can be from a few to many layers of paint, applied by brushes and or scrapers. Maintaining contrast is a fundamental concern as the painting evolves toward the abstract. What makes a painting successful is a dynamic composition that pushes and pulls the eyes into the depth of the painting.
LC – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
JD – There is always a challenge. It is one of the reasons why I keep painting! I really enjoy the process, especially when I get to the point of pulling it off! Maintaining fluidity and clarity is of essential importance for a vibrant image. A vibrant painting can also be monochromatic. A good example is painting snow – how many whites are in snow? It’s all about keeping the paint ‘fresh’ by neither overworking the paint nor the composition. As an image builds knowing when to stop is a key moment.
LC – Do visitors’ suggestions enrich yourself and your art?
JD – Yes indeed. As an artist I always value the time and effort that the viewers spend appreciating my art and sharing their insights with me.
LC – We were attracted by your last artistic production. Has the artwork presented been created for the festival or as a part of preexisting works?
JD – My exhibited works from the Plein Air Series have all been created in the last few months and were selected to embody the theme of “The Body Language”. I create my paintings using energetic actions; the process is physical in that a lot of paint is applied in the many layers.
LC – In which way the artwork presented in our exhibition is connected with the festival’s theme?
JD – With the Venice Carnival in mind, I framed the two larger paintings with Venetian style frames to tie into “The Body Language” theme at the venue Ca’ Zanardi. In my exhibited works, “Body” refers to my completed paintings. The “Language” refers to my paintbrush vocabulary – my technique of using of paints. The act of painting contributes to the sensory exhilaration that excites me into creating art.
LC – What do you think about the organization of our event?
JD – I was pleased to be invited to the ITSLIQUID’s Venice exhibition “The Body Language” during the Venice Carnival. My communication with the staff at ITSLIQUID was professional in order to get my work from Canada to Italy; and once in Italy, the staff was welcoming and supportive.
LC – Would you suggest a collaboration with us?
JD – Definitely, if something comes to mind, I will be in touch with the people at ITSLIQUID.
LC – What do you think of our services?
JD – I thought that the location, venue, and setting of the Carnival were well suited to the “The Body Language” art exhibition. The invitations, advertising and opening were organized and very well attended. My paintings were professionally presented. I met and visited with several of the artists and the art enthusiasts who attended.
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