University of Vermont

Eye to the Heavens

Brave work on exhibit at the BCA Center

See images of McDowell's work.

Bill McDowell calls it “finding his legs,” that early, searching stage in the creative process. The professor and chair in the department of art and art history says he’s learned to accept it as a necessary initial passage and work his way through. But with “Ashes in the Night Sky,” a project for which photographer McDowell made digital scans of his late father’s ashes arranged in patterns that suggest celestial images, that initial unease was on an entirely different scale.

“My first attempts were very awkward,” McDowell said in a talk at the 2009 national conference of the Society for Photographic Education held in Dallas, Texas. “Not only was I uncomfortable handling my father’s remains, I had little idea what I wanted to do with them. The normal self-doubt I usually experience beginning new work was heightened by my questioning whether I should be doing this at all. Was I being self-indulgent, self-delusional, or was this an opportunity?”

As McDowell began to find his way, the challenge of using such emotionally charged material pushed him to more deeply realize a truth he has long stressed with students. “There’s great importance, at least in my working manner, of achieving some kind of distance to the work so you can step back and look at it from as many perspectives as possible,” McDowell says.

While reverence has always remained part of the process during this project, McDowell says he eventually found the comfort, confidence, and that essential distance to pursue his ideas. A number of prints from the series are on display at the BCA Center on Church Street in Burlington through June 18.

Reassurance in research

While making pancakes one morning years ago, Bill McDowell was intrigued by how the frying batter “looked like a celestial orb against the deep black of the griddle.” He set a few pancakes aside and later placed them on his scanner with the cover open and the contrast boosted. Sure enough, the pancakes resembled moons in the sky.

After his father's death in 2004, McDowell's interest in using the flatbed scanner as a tool for making images of the night sky met with the symbolic possibilities of using human ashes as a medium. In the months that passed between his father's cremation and when the family gathered to spread his remains, McDowell had time to think more about his ideas with the scanner and the night sky. His mother agreed to let him work with some of the ashes.

As for what his father would have thought — a question that begs to be asked and McDowell has heard before — he says, “He was very much a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy; he wasn’t terribly interested in the arts, much more interested in reading mystery novels than Susan Sontag. But especially toward the end of his life he grew to really respect the choices that his kids made. In that, I think he would have fully appreciated and supported this work.”

Through the initial awkwardness and search for direction, McDowell eventually found his footing in research. While he could see that his first scans of fine pieces of ash looked similar to stars, he had no knowledge of astronomy to inform his work. A trip to the library yielded, among a stack of volumes, the Carnegie Atlas of Galaxies, a catalog of all of the galaxies discovered and photographed between 1910 and 1975, and A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way by Edward Barnard, published in 1927.

“In these books I found images that attracted me in their ‘otherness’ and in their ability to be translated to ash,” McDowell said in the 2009 Dallas speech. “I chose these photographs to work from because, to me, they represented something else besides what they were. Not in a literal sense, but they conjured up a feeling in me.”

While it has never been McDowell’s intent to produce copies of the galaxies, he used the books as guides in working to create images that would “exist both as pictures of ashes and as celestial scenes.” His success in that is immediately evident with a visit to the BCA Center’s second floor gallery where the large, striking prints line three walls.

Grounding his work in research is a common thread through most of McDowell’s past projects, tracing back to “Banner of Light,” a series of photographs taken at Lily Dale, a Spiritualist camp on she shore of Western New York’s Cassadaga Lake. Extensive research into the history of the Spiritualism religious movement, which is rooted in the mid-nineteenth century, greatly influenced the formal decisions he made in his photographs. “The same thing with this (“Ashes in the Night Sky”), McDowell says. “From the beginning I tempered my formalistic tendencies by using astronomical photographs as models to work from — that tremendously influenced the decisions that I made.”

And the influence, both of his research and the art he’s created, continue to find their way into McDowell’s life, even when he just steps out the door in the evening for some fresh air. “Anytime I go outside, I look up, I take account of what I can see,” he says. “It has subtly, but profoundly, changed the way that I think about the night.”