McDowell gets down, diverse through diaspora

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More than 200 works of art from the hands and mind of Kevin McDowell fill his Sedgwick Avenue studio space. But on many days, what McDowell values the most in this space isn’t the art, but those who sometimes serve as his muses — his daughters.

McDowell’s work is inspired by the Afro-Latino and African-American art movements. But amongst the blown-up digital printouts achieved through kids’ painting applications, and his own paintings and drawings, the Brooklyn native also works on the animation for a science-fiction film.

The diversity in the media of his art knows no bounds.

“You know how people say, ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none?’” McDowell said. “Well, who said it can only be one? Why not master all of them?”

That’s what McDowell intends to show during his upcoming exhibit, “Black and In Power” set for Feb. 16 through Feb. 23, running from 3 to 6 p.m., at his Artizfacts Studio Gallery Hub, 3835 Sedgwick Ave.

 

Masterful inspiration

McDowell’s work is immersed in a fusion of cubism, which is the use of geometric shapes in art most commonly used by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. He also uses the history and reality of Afro-Latinos and African-Americans in his work.

But this part of the Bronx didn’t always serve as McDowell’s artistic home. He spent time in a studio in New Rochelle, and even found himself without a studio at times. More often than not, McDowell simply wanted to get his paintbrush in the door.

“There was that red tape on one level where you had elements of racism, and then some levels would have elements of politics or whatever,” McDowell said. “Early on, whenever I tried to do work other than freelance work like graphic design work, I found that I had to navigate how to get my work in a gallery. It was a process of learning the steps and understanding what they were looking for.

“Of course, there were politics between those two, so after a while, I put it on the back burner and did teaching for a minute.”

Today, McDowell has spent the past three years on Sedgwick, after waiting for it to become available for nearly a decade. He hosts events in his studio every now and then, which was a long way from his very first show in his old one-bedroom apartment near Yankee Stadium. His paintings, usually stuffed under the bed or in the closet, were given their first exhibit. He and his wife invited their friends over, and while it wasn’t a traditional studio, he still made a couple thousand dollars by the end of the night.

“I hadn’t really showcased it but one time I got the urge and something said I need to put my work out,” McDowell said. “I need for people to see my work. We put the work up in our living room and friends came over. It was small pieces, but it got me started. And then I was like, ‘Honey, I need to get my own space.’”

 

Unlikely inspiration

Animation inspired part of McDowell’s love for art. Watching cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera like Yogi Bear and films like “Godzilla vs. Megalon” or alien flicks always left McDowell wondering, how?

“That stuff always got me intrigued,” he said. “Like how do they do that? Is that real? My siblings would always make fun of me and be like, ‘that’s corny, that’s a puppet.’ But you know it was those things that drew me, and I was always fascinated with the way things looked visually.”

McDowell graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 1988, but before that, he created from whatever materials he could find. When McDowell was 7, instead of researching in his encyclopedia, he used its plethora of pages to create his first flipbook.

“It was like a UFO flying over a volcano,” McDowell said. “And then the UFO would fall in the volcano and it blows up, and the alien comes out, and some weird thing like that. But it was pretty good animation for a little kid.”

As an art teacher for more than 20 years, McDowell tries to inspire similar feelings in his students, especially where he currently teaches at P.S. 140 Nathan Straus in lower Manhattan.

As an art teacher, McDowell re-educated himself on the “masters” of art by focusing on the history and how those legendary creators were inspired. Picasso, for example, found his muse for his cubic style through African art. The Spanish painter collected such art while painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” And when he visited the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro, Picasso was exposed to the artistic influences of the African masks that were there.

“But at the same time, I let my students draw on their own experience with their own cultural experience,” McDowell said. “Most of my kids are Afro-Latino or Jamaican and Trinidadian … and I always tell them that they can be inspired by this, but also put your own voice in your work.”

Through his experience as a teacher, McDowell learned that some students felt disconnected from their identity. Some expressed low self-esteem or issues with their blackness. Sometimes they wouldn’t represent themselves in their work or include features that were their own.

“When you look at media, we’re being told what is beautiful and what looks nice and what doesn’t look nice and the images behind it,” McDowell said. “In a lot of my artwork, you’ll see my culture and connections.”

In his work, McDowell represents parts of the African diaspora through Taino women of the Caribbean, flattops from the 1980s, and black fathers holding their families together. Growing up under his mother’s guidance, McDowell found that much of his work represented strong women in the form of healers or warriors.

After McDowell became a father, he began to create work that embodied that piece of his identity as well.

“I always tell my students, art is power,” McDowell said. “Even if it means it gives you a sense of control in the moment, or it gives you the ability to convey a message or transcend that message to other people and they see it. Images can speak loud for you.”

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