ONLY a handful of American artists have appeared in the Louvre, one of them was Joe Downing. Although he passed away in 2007, film maker Chistopher Strong met him whilst filming his Treasures of France tour, here he writes about their meeting.
He’s an exceptional artist with an incredible story. An honest to goodness country gentleman from Horsecave, Kentucky. Joe’s love affair with France began more than fifty years ago, when he stood on the banks of the Seine, gazing at Notre Dame.
He’s been in that state of wonder and appreciation ever since.
I found Joe in the usual way, via the telephone book after surfing through local tourist rags for story ideas and I discovered Joe was just a few villages away.
The whispered, soft voice that greeted me was courteous and cultured, but not pretentious. I sensed, correctly, an impish sense of humour poised to pounce.
Although I offered to send him some advance video Joe pooh-poohed the idea instantly with a warm: "Oh no, that won’t be necessary. I’d be very pleased to participate. And we have a little house where you can stay."
My arm, dear reader, had been twisted. Joe’s good directions, plus the postage stamp size of his village, brought me easily to his door.
Clocking his house, my first thought was, 'this is my house', the French country house I’ve always wanted. Weathered, original stone, surrounded by trees and caressed by vines. Not too big. Not too small. Spread out. But not sprawling. Ah, love.
I leaned my bike against the bottom wall,and inched reverently up the steps inhaling the paradise of stone and shadow before me. Reaching the top, I was greeted, to my right, by a large, rectangular road sign, poised on a stone slab, 'Horsecave Kentucky, pop – 2,254'.
When I looked back, there stood Bilbo Baggins. Ok, it was Joe. But, if Bilbo, in his elder Hobbit years had been a human, he would have been Joe Downing. Short, stooped and leaning on a cane. Sparkling blue eyes set in a round, cheery face crowned by a tussle of pearl grey hair. With the most sincerely welcoming smile imaginable.
"It’s cooler in here," was Joe’s opening salvo. At the end of his short, arched Medieval gloom hallway, Joe’s living room began.
Graced, but not stuffed, with tapestries, sculptures, and one-of-kind object d’art. Suffused, as you would expect from an artist, in abundant natural light.
Although he didn’t offer me a tour, Joe did offer me lunch. (My arm twisted again.) Tuna salad and bread were today’s special. Joe asked me if I’d like wine or coke.
I think you can guess my choice, can you not? When I reminded Joe, who had opted for coke, that alcohol consumption is inherent in the artistic manifesto, Joe smiled knowingly and replied: "Oh, but I have been responsible.Let me show you the evidence."
Joe led me through the kitchen to his cave. And with a delicate flourish, pushed open the door. I saw an average sized room, with an average amount of wine. Obviously, whatever I was supposed to 'get', I was not gettin’.
I looked back into the cave again. Then, I got it! The floor was completely carpeted with corks. Joe signed wistfully: "I’m afraid I’m responsible for most of those."
After lunch, Joe gave me directions to 'the little house'. When I asked what time he’d like to start tomorrow, Joe replied firmly: "Not before eleven."
The little house, a three minute walk away, was medium sized in a tower sort of way. At street level was a small, rustic kitchen with a gasless stove.
Next flight up the first bedroom, which was medium sized. Cozy. Night table and lamp. View out to the ramparts and the countryside beyond.
Second floor, a medium large, squarish room. (think small art gallery.) This was another atelier. It’s back door led to a small terrace, enclosed on all sides by the walls of adjoining houses.
Third floor was the pick o’ the litter. Bathroom with a working (as in hot water) shower. And a bedroom, that, while smaller, had a huge, yet inexplicable dollop of charm.
A smaller window revealed the plains past the village walls, morphing into the Luberon mountains in the distance.
Here at the top o' the tower, separate and sequestered this tiny, perfect oasis of modest, yet grande comfort captured my heart. Like any kind of love, it matters not if you can explain it. Only that you can recognize and appreciate.
Like many artists of his generation drawn to Paris, Joe needed a day job, until his art took off. Joe’s was weaving the raffia that goes around lampshades and Chianti bottles.
This is what he was doing, during his first Paris exhibition. "While I was weaving away, all of a sudden I saw a shadow falling on the floor. I looked up, and, my lord, it was Picasso.
"My heart was beating fast and I carefully looked down until I heard footsteps in the middle of the gallery.
"I looked up and nodded to him. He looked at the paintings for quite a long time. Then he came over and said he’d enjoyed the exhibition; and when my work had evolved, he’d like to see it again.
"He also signed the visitors book. And he did a very dangerous thing. He signed on the right hand side at the bottom. The way he does on his paintings.
"And a cat walked on it before the exhibition was over. So I have this Picasso signature as a souvenir.
"Well, then two years went by, and my painting had changed. So I went to a Picasso book signing and got in line. When I got to him, I reminded him that he’d asked me to let him know when my painting had evolved, so he invited me to tea.
"And this gave me a little boost, because news of it trickled down to Paul Fecchetti, who had one of the best galleries in Paris. And so, from 1952 until 1958, I worked with him."
You can take the gentleman out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the gentleman.
I discovered this one morning, when I arrived to find Joe at his garden table, cutting up plant leaves. This, as Joe explained, was something I’d heard about – but never seen.
Polk Salad. The wild greens that are traditionally 'po' folks food in the southern United States. (As in 'cookin’ up a mess o’ greens'.)
Obviously, Joe hadn’t forgotten his roots and they haven’t forgotten him either, back in Horsecave.
"I went back home in 1957 to visit my family. I was walking down the street, and one of my friends rushed across, grabbed my hand and pumped it up and down, and said: 'Congratulations!'.
"And I said: ‘On what?’ And he said: ‘On having a painting in the Louvre.’ I said: ‘I don’t have a painting in the Louvre.’
Then, I went a little further and a woman, who is also a good friend, motioned to me to come across. And then she threw her arms around me and said: 'I am so glad you have a painting in the Louvre’.
And I thought, Lord help me, what’s happening? And then I realized. And I ran home to my mother and said: "Mother, what have you done? And she said 'Well,..what do you mean?'"
And I said: "The whole town is congratulating me on having a painting in the Louvre. Nobody has a painting there. What in the world got into you?"
And she said: "Well honey, I asked everyone what was the best place in the city to have a painting, and everybody said the Louvre, so I just supposed you’d have one there."
Then, in 1975, the Louvre invited the Brest museum to show it’s collection in Paris. And they had a painting of mine. And so, for three months in 1975, I did have a painting in the Louvre.
So I said: "Thank you, mamma. Of course, my mother was dead by then. But I knew she was the trigger."
Unlike some of his contemporaries, the passing years haven’t dampened Joe’s artistic passion. If anything, they’ve increased it.
Each time I visit, I’m careful not to stay too long. Because, as Joe rightly says: "There’s so much to do.
"The only raw material an artist has, is his or her life. And what he or she has loved or hasn't loved.
"As a child, I played in the red clay of Kentucky. And I remember mainly just outdoor living.
"Running through the fields when I was no taller than the daises, and tasting everything within reach. Our senses were open and welcoming.
"All of that gets into the painting.It’s a continuing adventure that renews itself every day.
"What one can do, and hopefully does, is to take the elements that have been given us, and become part of us, and extract the greatest beauty and the greatest meaning possible.
"One can go to the studio every day, with something resembling glee simply because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
"The painting leads the artist, more than the artist leads the painting. I’ve found that one doesn’t become an artist. One discovers that one is an artist."
Joe Downing’s contribution to the world of Art may not be as great as Picassos. But his contribution to the lives of the people his art has touched, has been no less important.
Those who have seen a Downing exhibition, met Joe, and/or own 'a Downing' have experienced a positive and personal expression of beauty. One that cannot fail to enrich their lives. And widen, however, subtly and imperceptibly, their horizons.
Related website: Joe Dudley Downing 2000 art exhibit
US-born video film maker Christopher Strong produced the Bicycle Gourmet's Treasures of France tour, which fulfilled his dream of cycling around the country visiting interesting places and meeting entertaining characters.