In the evolving world of ceramic sculpture, San Francisco-based artist/teacher Jeff Downing has emerged as a fresh-and-formidable force, creating a steady stream of innovative and adventurous work that pushes boundaries and breaks new ground even as it vividly reflects the artist’s own path and the very personal touchstones that have marked his circuitous creative journey.
New York born and raised, Downing spent his early years on the waters of Long Island Sound, the place where he began to create his own world. His prodigious ceramic output overflows with nautical references – playfully, cryptically floating like emotional flotsam and jetsam through his works. He remembers carefree days on the water with his best buddy, his boat and Sienna, the Chesapeake Bay retriever that was constantly at his side. Dogs have emerged as an important, recurring subjects in Downing’s work. And that sense of nostalgia and innocence still lights up his ceramic pieces, which radiate a visceral, moment-of-creation spontaneity and energy.
Downing’s initial creative impulses were musical. He moved to San Francisco in 1983 with proverbial suitcase and guitar in hand, but a chance encounter with an art school ceramics class soon altered his trajectory. Captivated by the pioneering work of California ceramic artists including Peter Voulkus and Robert Arneson, Downing dove headlong into ceramic sculpture, but music remains an important part of his artistic palette and always accompanies his creative process.
Now in his 15th year at San Francisco State University, as a tenured full professor Downing heads up the school’s ceramics area, constantly challenging students to push boundaries and expand the form. It’s a job that allows him the freedom and creative space to push his own art into new places.
My process of working is fluid and spontaneous. Inspired by music, dreams and childhood memories, the originality of each sculpture is a reflection of my improvisational approach. The forms emerge from a swift process of modeling, allowing the natural qualities of the material to guide the composition. The true potential of this process is realized when I have successfully integrated a concrete idea with random discovery.
My affinity for dogs stems from my lifelong fascination with their expressiveness, intelligence and sensitivity. In studying the dog, my aim is to develop a better understanding of the connection between human culture and the natural world. For as long as we have co-existed with animals, dogs have provided us with a close link to nature. They are the most expressive of the corollary emotions and needs of humans and animals, because they have developed an intuitive communication between our two disparate worlds.