John E. Dowell, Jr Sam Gilliam Felrath Hines Gordon Parks Lorna Simpson Richard Hunt Romare Bearden John Woodrow Wilson Robert Colescott Adrian Piper Renée Stout Eldzier Cortor Richard Mayhew Carl Pope
African American Art Text Graphic

John E. Dowell, Jr

Just a Sign of Soul , 1975

The spirit of music pervades the visual compositions of John E. Dowell, Jr. His prints and drawings of the 1970s (exhibited as “sound images”) were inspired by the avant-garde musical compositions of John Cage and the forms of African American music, particularly jazz. Dowell’s images—like Just a Sign of Soul—are known for both their visual and their auditory functions. Like the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, Dowell chose abstraction to visually evoke the rhythm, melody, harmony, color (timbre), and texture—as well as the emotive power—found in music. Set against a blank background, this work’s smooth, flowing lines and bright gradients of color are lyrical, spontaneous, and energetic. These elements make the drawing visually stimulating, and the calligraphic lines can also serve as actual musical notations, which have been played improvisationally. Although Dowell and his Visual Music Ensemble presented numerous concerts based on his works on paper, it is not believed that this particular drawing was ever “performed.”

Born in Philadelphia, Dowell received a BFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 1963 and an MFA in printmaking and drawing from the University of Washington in 1966. He found inspiration in the music of jazz greats—such as Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Percy Heath, Dave Brubeck, and John Coltrane—and in the work of Abstract Expressionists, like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. An eclectic mixture of ethnic influences—from Caribbean and Latino art to Afro-Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Macumba, and Haitian voodoo—also shaped his sensibilities.

Dowell teaches printmaking at the Tyler School of Art and has exhibited his work in museums and galleries throughout the country, including the 1975 Whitney Biennial and the 35th Venice Biennale. His work was featured in the Indiana University Art Museum’s 1969 exhibition Four Artists, along with Richard Hunt, Robert Reed, and Robert Stull. In 2001 he received the 14th James Van Der Zee Award from the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia for a Lifetime of Achievement in the Visual Arts and Teaching. His more recent work has focused on color photography.

Romare Bearden, The Family

John E. Dowell, Jr
American, b. 1941
Just a Sign of Soul, 1975
Watercolor on paper
Image/sheet: h. 29 7/8 x w. 22 " (75.8 x 57.1 cm)
Gift of Richard Young Estate, IU Art Museum 89.17
Art © John E. Dowell, Jr.



Romare Bearden
Robert Colescott
John E. Dowell, Jr
Sam Gilliam
Felrath Hines
Richard Hunt
Gordon Parks
Adrian Piper
Lorna Simpson
John Woodrow Wilson
Renée Stout
Eldzier Cortor
Richard Mayhew
Carl Pope