Downes' 'Tied to the Past' artworks would make great presents
"Tied to the Past" is a fitting title for the 20th anniversary solo show of the works of award-winning artist Dennis Downes.
At The Grove in Glenview from Dec. 2 through 5, the artist will exhibit some 15-20 original paintings, 40-50 prints and proofs, and 10 bronzes large and small.
Those include "Horses" (2017), the centerpiece of this collection, dual bronzes of a 5½-foot colt and a 7½-foot mare that together represent family.
Those familiar with Downes' work know that The Grove Heritage Association purchased his 16-foot steel-and-resin Trail Marker Tree, one of many achievements in a career notable for illuminating Native American history. The Grove permanently installed the huge piece on its grounds, complete with a blessing and smudging ceremony attended by about 250 people, during Downes' 18th anniversary show in 2019.
Those unfamiliar with Downes' striking work may only have this one last chance to see such a magnitude of it, due to the artist's age and health complications. Downes, 70, had cancer surgery in 2016 and since then has withstood chemotherapy treatments to stem further cancer.
"I should already be dead," he said of skirting tragedy by emergency surgery, "so I'm not boohooing."
Plus, he's got an aunt who's 103, so lineage is on his side.
Still, his annual shows at The Grove are, literally, a heavy lift. Six people set up his Grove exhibition in advance, and the pieces take three days to remove, Downes said.
"It's just that it's massive," said Downes, whose charisma, sharp attire, white hair and handlebar mustache earned a scene (along with four of his paintings) in the 2014 film, "23 Blast," with Stephen Lang.
"While I'm not going to be stopping my art career, this will be the last solo show of this size, celebrating the 20th anniversary," Downes said.
Along with pieces like "Horses," a nod to his family's horse-breeding and equestrian past in Ireland and America; and a privately commissioned, 8-foot bronze of Captain George Wellington Streeter installed at McClurg Court in Chicago, Downes' work is pleasingly, importantly, tied to the past. Particularly in capturing and translating Native American history and traditions.
Downes and his wife, Gail, have a residence-slash-studio in Antioch and a place in Streeterville. Downes grew up in a forested, unincorporated area near Northbrook -- he was honored as Glenbrook North's Distinguished Alumnus in 2012 and served as a pallbearer at the funeral of Nancy Hughes, wife of the late filmmaker John Hughes.
Yet like the trail marker trees he's researched and discovered over more than three decades and 600,000 miles spanning 42 states and 5 Canadian provinces -- the trees are the equivalent of the Arctic, stacked-stone inukshuk, an Indigenous navigational landmark -- Downes stands as a living history. He's written a book about this passion -- "Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness."
Nancy Hughes purchased Downes' first large trail marker sculpture, a 5-foot bronze tree completed in 2009, and installed it as the centerpiece in the main courtyard of their 1,700-acre Redwing Estate in Harvard, Illinois. Downes was friends with John and Nancy Hughes since high school.
"I'm proud of my achievements in the art world but equally proud that I've been able to bring forward a concept that a Native American used in the Great Lakes region, to the point that I brought it out of obscurity and into the light. And because of that I don't ever think the concept will pass out of history again, and they will be recognized for this ingenious form of navigation," Downes said.
A general fascination with history and ancient sites, and a mother of Basque ancestry, Mary, who grew up in a small town, Mountain Home, Idaho, helped inspire his art and has only grown stronger. Downes' high-relief bronze of Saint Valentin Berrio-Ochoa resides in the Basque Museum & Cultural Center in Boise -- after it was blessed here by Cardinal Francis George.
Creating art starting at age 4, Downes has spoken with Native American elders since he was a child, he said, and has cultivated decadeslong relationships with leaders such as Menominee Elder Verlyn Spreeman, Cherokee Elder Andrew Johnson and Ottawa Elder Hilda Williams.
"You truly learn by being with people, and staying with them, not just saying, 'Hi, how are you?' and taking a photo op," Downes said.
His original paintings sell for between $3,000 to $8,500, his sculptures from $1,000 to large-scale works of $85,000. His prints and proofs, framed and unframed, go for between $350 to $2,000. A portion of proceeds from sales at his annual shows at The Grove benefit The Grove Heritage Association.
Along with his works, Downes will be showing documentary films on trail marker trees as well as a film following his work single-handedly building his Studio North -- a cabin dubbed "The Barbarian Shelter" in Ontario, Canada, four hours north of the border.
Opening night of Downes' "Tied to the Past" show is from 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2. The exhibition continues from 1 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 3 and 4, and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5.
He'll then head into his future, continuing to document and honor the past.
"Everyone has their own thing they love about my work," Downes said.
"I'm still going to do this for The Grove and with The Grove, just on a smaller scale, and continue my gallery shows in galleries across the country, mainly in the West and Great Lakes regions. Because that's who I am."