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Tom Chaney: Joe Downing in Paris

Of Writers and their Books, Joe Downing in Paris is a remembrance of a Horse Cave, Kentucky, native who moved to Paris, France in 1950 and spent the rest of his life there creating colorful paintings. This column first appeared 6 January 2008. Click on headline for essay with photo(s)
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Cussing with Imagination

By Tom Chaney

Joe Downing in Paris

Joseph Dudley Downing, Horse Cave native and expatriate artist, died at his home in Me'nerbes, France, Saturday, December 29, 2007. He had lived and worked in France since 1950, returning only for brief visits which often included shows of his work.

In March of 1991 my cousin Andy invited me to come to Paris. In the swirl of my three days there I called Joe Downing to pay my respects and to bring him greetings from Horse Cave albeit via another expatriate then living in exile in Philadelphia.

Much to my delight, he invited me to his apartment for an afternoon visit. I was surprised to find his place but a five-block hike from Andy's walk up.

My contact with Joe had been limited to a brief "Heighdy" or two at his exhibit in 1980 and a delightful evening at dinner with Joe, his guest, Bill Austin, and a teen age neighbor of mine. The dinner was in the Sheeny Thomas house on Cave Street -- a house Joe said he had always wanted to live in. Bill let him have the use of it for the month of the exhibit.

That night Joe had made me feel as though we had been close friends forever. Hence the temerity of my contact with him eleven years later in Paris.

He answered the door dressed in the bib overalls which he often wore.

After seating me on a couch, he took a chair to my left, broke out a bottle of dry red wine and two hours later both of us were surprised at the passage of time and wine. But we had knocked on every door in Horse Cave -- talking about the mutual friends we had known in our two different young man decades around the cave.

This Parisian visit was surrounded by the vivid blues, greens, yellows, reds of a cornucopia of his work.

Amidst those colors I saw the familiar shapes and hues of home. So I asked Joe why, since he obviously harked back to his roots in his art, he had stayed in Paris.

"Why, Tom," he replied, "I fell in love the first week I was in Paris."

I left that visit strangely refreshed and energized, much as I had felt upon my confrontation with the paintings of his exhibit in 1980 in Peoples Tobacco Warehouse #2.

When I got word of Joe's death, my thoughts went quickly back to that exhibit. He always praised the following account of the opening which appeared in the Hart County Herald. The nigh 28 years since that day have not dimmed the feeling of exuberance in the streets of Horse Cave and the wonder of a native son bringing his work back home.

The following account appeared in the newspaper under the byline of staff writer Ann Matera. Dudley liked the piece and said so. It is a fitting reminder of his return to his hometown more than a quarter century ago.

More than 2000 attend opening Sunday
by Ann Matera

Dudley came home last Sunday. Oh, he'd been back on visits from time to time, but this week he really came back. For he brought his life's work for Horse Cave folks to see.

And see they did! Hundreds of people from the area, from New York, from California, from Paris wandered through Peoples Loose Leaf Tobacco Warehouse No. 2 to see some 150 paintings by the Horse Cave native who has lived in France since 1950.

"It's difficult for me to talk about art without getting emotional," Downing told the Horse Cave Rotary Club Monday after the opening of his show. "Some artists paint death and violence -- two facts of modern life. I paint the sunshine. Art," he said, "is a soul print -- each artist's is as different -- as is his thumb print."

It was the sunshine which dominated Sunday afternoon -- the sunshine of the Kentucky spring day streaming through the warehouse skylights, illuminating the vibrant reds, yellows, blues, greens of Downing's paintings -- and the sunshine of old friends greeting each other and sharing the excitement of the artist's first home-town show.

More than 2000 people registered on the opening day of the month-long exhibit.

Not all were family and friends. Art collectors and buyers came also and before the afternoon was over several thousand dollars worth of paintings had been purchased for public and private collections and office buildings.

The fountainhead and the partial beneficiary of the show is the Horse Cave Theatre. The idea of the exhibit was conceived by Downing and friend Bill Austin on a 1978 visit by the artist to the theatre.

Austin, co-founder of the theatre, first thought of the tobacco-barn lobby as an exhibit space. But Downing rejected it as too small.

The artist was shown the construction space for the theatre in the tobacco warehouse and the exhibit idea was on the way to reality.

When major funding for the exhibit failed to materialize (except for a $1000 grant from a foundation headed by Mrs. DeWitt Wallace of Mount Kisco, N.Y.), the art show went forward on a shoestring.

Kenneth Bale, another Downing high school classmate, donated the warehouse space.

The art hangs on sheets donated from the homes of cave country. The theatre staff pitched in with publicity and coordination of efforts.

Downing shipped the paintings from France at his own expense and friends helped him hang them beneath the warehouse skylights.

The press of the area came as Downing hung his paintings, set out his leather columns and unique "stick paintings."

Sarah Lansdell of the Courier-Journal proclaimed the opening "for quality, showmanship and sheer joie de vivre, the art event of the month if not the season. . ."

Sometime, during the afternoon, amid the art and the family reunion, the Horse Cave Chamber of Commerce presented Downing with a framed pen and ink drawing of Horse Cave High School, the artist's 1943 alma mater. Witnessing the presentation was Downing's coach W. B. Owens, now living in retirement in Munfordville.

And Dudley's homecoming was complete.

The "warehouse show" continues Tuesday through Sunday through June 15.

- Ann Matera, The Hart County Herald, May 22, 1980

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-12-30 06:40:48
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Horse Cave, KY, artist Joe Downing

2012-12-30 - France - Photo photo courtesy Tom Chaney. Horse Cave, KY, artist Joe Downing at work at his studio in France.
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