By Annette Hinkle
In the world of interior design, Elizabeth Dow is best known for her textiles and wall coverings (a selection of which can not only be found in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian, but on the walls of the Oval Office as well).
But Dow is also a passionate and accomplished painter and she finds she’s at her creative best — both as a designer and a fine artist — when she’s able to quickly transition between artistic disciplines.
Recently, Dow moved her design studio and showroom to the former Golden Eagle building on Gingerbread Lane in East Hampton. The building has been renovated and the ceiling lofted in order to accommodate a workshop, design studio and office and meeting space. It’s a dynamic and bustling place where Dow and her staff move fluidly from one aspect of the business to another.
But the building is also large enough to house Dow’s painting studio, and it is here that she is able to indulge her fine art impulses by creating the large scale abstract and landscape paintings which define her vision as an artist.
“What I love about this building is that there can be so many things going on at once,” explained Dow during a recent tour. “Design… textiles … then there’s a whole other plate spinning — making wall paper.”
The notion of keeping several plates in the air at once is an apt metaphor for the way Dow works not only as a businesswoman, but as a fine artist as well. In the studio, she always has at least two paintings in progress simultaneously — one purely abstract, the other inspired by nature.
“I think it keeps it fresh,” she says. “It helps me not overwork it. I never would be able to start at the beginning and paint all the way through.”
“The interesting thing about what I’ve experienced as an artist in the studio is I’ll work very intensely, then take a brief period of time off,” she adds. “That moment when I go back in the studio, I feel like I’m lifted into another plateau. I think it’s about life experience.”
When it comes to life experience, the past year has been a good one for Dow, not only in terms of the new design center, but in her fine art career as well. Last fall, Dow was selected to take part in the Parrish Art Museum’s “Artists Choose Artists” exhibit by guest juror Laurie Anderson, a musician, composer and artist in her own right. And this Saturday, Vered Gallery in East Hampton opens “Elizabeth Dow: Heaven and Earth,” an exhibition featuring several of the artist’s large format paintings
This will be Dow’s first solo exhibition on the East End and though she has historically been an abstract color field painter, Dow’s most recent paintings represent a shift in perspective — one that has been inspired by living full time on the East End for the last eight years.
“I’m being affected by nature. For the first time, I’ve started working with landscape and water,” says Dow. “Being out here has really influenced my thinking.”
The vision serves Dow well. Though her landscapes appear to be nearly photorealistic, they somehow remain ethereal at the same time. But Dow is not a plein air painter. Instead, she takes photographs of scenes in nature and uses those as the basis of inspiration in the studio.
“I’m really an iPhone photographer — a fast record taker. It’s about catching the moment,” says Dow who, on a recent trip to Istanbul, was deeply moved by the waters of the Bosporus Strait.
“It was amazing because of the terrain of the city,” says Dow. “I expected to fall in love with the water, but I didn’t expect to see the water almost everywhere I went in Istanbul.”
For Dow, motion is key, both in work and life, and her paintings are anything but static. Some of her haunting landscape imagery even looks as if it’s an artfully blurred photograph. Movement is evident not only in the appearance of the final product, but the process as well.
“I’ve always tired to incorporate motion in the work,” explains Dow. “When I’m painting, I do a wet on wet paint technique. To me that means, I’m painting and I won’t stop for three hours. I don’t do a layer and let it dry. I keep the oil moving as fast as possible. I like the physicality of it and the motion of making it too.”
Dow’s interest in working with paper is evident not only through her wall coverings, but in her paintings as well — which are oil on paper, rather than canvas.
“Ever since I started painting, I loved paper,” admits Dow. “I love the texture of it, I love the way the paint is absorbed into the paper. This was well before I even thought about making wallpaper. I like the smooth quality of paper, and it’s so easy — I can roll it up and not have massive canvases to tote around.”
Dow’s artistic career began with her training as a fine art painter. But she developed an interest in wall coverings and textiles after becoming involved in the restoration of decorative painting work on the ceilings and walls of historic buildings.
“I was very privileged to work in historic museum houses all over the country,” explains Dow. “The painters who painted these ceiling were extremely talented European technicians. The quality of the work was fantastic. The premise in restoration is your hand is not seen.”
Dow notes it was through this work that she developed her keen color sense and came to understand the endless possibilities inherent in its application. It’s a skill set which continues to serve her well in her design business and as a painter.
“I think I fell in love with color more so out of art school and while working in restoration,” she says. “I was mixing so many colors and working with a Victorian color palette — that was amazing.”
“I started understanding the components of color and what complimentary colors do when you mix them,” she adds. “You see it on the color wheel, but we put into practice mixing the colors of restoration. If you have blue and it’s too true, instead of adding white or black, you kill the color with orange.”
“Really, I feel like I got another degree,” she says.
Not only did restoration work lead Dow to realize the possibilities inherent in textile and wall covering design, it also inspired the size, scale and subject matter of her fine art work. Clouds, in particular, were among the imagery she found herself restoring in historic buildings and, perhaps not by coincidence, clouds were the first landscape elements that made their way into her nature painting.
“I also love working large scale. I like the physicality of it and I think that’s why I was happy, even in a decorative painting environment,” notes Dow. “I could be working on huge ceilings in museum houses with grand big rooms or on church ceilings.”
“I’ve always been comfortable in places like that,” says Dow who, after a quick glance around her new design studio adds, “…and that’s why I ripped out the ceiling.
“Elizabeth Dow: Heaven and Earth” opens Saturday, April 12, 2014 with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. at Vered Gallery, 68 Park Place, East Hampton. The show will be on view through Monday, May 19, 2014. For more information, call 324-3303 or visit veredart.com.