Diagnosed on the autism spectrum at an early age, Myasia Dowdell sees the world through a Technicolor, dreamlike lens. Soft spoken and extremely timid, she rarely offers a glimpse of this world, except through her art. Born in 1989 in New York City, Dowdell had difficulty communicating and socializing with other children, a common symptom of her disability. Early on, however, Dowdell began drawing and eventually learned to express her complicated thoughts through her art, exposing her fantastical universe.
In 2011 the budding artist joined the League Education Treatment Center’s (LETC) LAND Gallery, an art studio in Brooklyn, New York, for adults with developmental disabilities. Attending the studio full time, she first began methodically working on a series of sheep renderings. Each day, wielding paper and colored pens and pencils, she drew caricatures of sheep in alternating, vividly colorful landscapes. The cartoon-like figures had exaggerated ovals for eyes and simple lines and dots to represent noses and mouths. But their fur was composed of foliage, flowers, and puffy white snow. Snow-topped elm trees sprouting from the heads and backs of some, while red and yellow leaves covered others. Some sheep had budding daisies with green leaves for coats. Over time, the teaching artists working with Dowdell at LAND Gallery realized that her unique animals embodied the changing qualities of the seasons. She was using her sheep to indicate and document time, and the gallery eventually entitled the series Seasonal Sheep.
Slowly, Dowdell moved away from her Seasonal Sheep illustrations and began drawing and painting large compositions of animated objects. On blank white backgrounds, she rendered colorful collections of ice-cream cones, pretzels, cupcakes, peppermints, candy canes, and popsicles, all with cartoon-like facial characteristics. Googly eyes covered the surface of ice cream sundaes, a pretzel sneakily licked its lips, a cupcake stuck its tongue out at the viewer. Interspersed in the scenes are other personified instruments, sketchbooks, or skateboards winking or raising an eyebrow. These items are all suspended in space, with the only reference to depth indicated by the dark shadows painted next to each object. Almost an exercise in investigating human emotion, these fantastical worlds of anthropomorphized junk food, toys, and instruments have a playful and humorous sensibility. They attempt to remove the viewer from reality and allow us to exist in Dowdell’s unique, dreamlike state.
Next, Dowdell began an animated cloud series. Using black and white ink and watercolor paint, she created storyboards of her original cloud character moving through her imagined world and interacting with other clouds, animals, and objects. Each cloud was a puffy triangle, connoted by a single, connected, contour line and again had her signature cartoon eyes and mouth. Emotions were expressed by a raised eyebrow, a furrowed brow, or a mouth agape. The clouds transitioned from natural settings to fully realized urban scenes, reminiscent of a New York City street block. Under some illustrations, Dowdell wrote aspirational phrases or jokes.
Eventually departing from her cartoon-like renderings, Dowdell began painting more realistic, natural landscapes. This time, she introduced a new character that appears consistently throughout her subsequent work, a poodle. With a more sophisticated understanding of depth and perspective, she began depicting these animals with backgrounds and foregrounds. Dowdell harnessed methods of shading to create depth in the works. The features of the dogs developed into more realistic snouts, ears, and eyes. She remained, however, true to her dreamlike, fantastic reality through her use of electric, Technicolor hues. Instead of the traditional white, brown, and black poodles, she painted them in bright blue, aqua, and yellow. Her skies were represented in gradients of neons, her trees in surreal mint or turquoise. On occasion, the poodles took on a human quality and were depicted wearing clothes or with human hair such as braids or an afro.
In 2012 Dowdell began studying celebrity faces in preparation for an upcoming exhibition at LAND Gallery entitled Celebrity Sightings. Every day, Dowdell sketched her favorite pop icon Michael Jackson. Working from album covers, concert photos, and promotional material, Dowdell repeatedly sketched the contours of Jackson’s face, first in black and white and then in color. She practiced depicting his different emotions. She created contours in his face to convey a wide spectrum of emotions in the King of Pop.
Over time in the studio, Dowdell created dozens of small-scale, hyper-realistic portraits of Michael Jackson. While following in the tradition of classical European portraiture, Dowdell’s ornate renderings of Jackson, one of the most important African American icons of contemporary culture, highlights the lack of racial diversity in the works of Old Masters. Dowdell’s contemporary portraits memorialize Jackson’s cultural contributions.
Dowdell most commonly represents Jackson as a young child, which creates an encompassing feeling of nostalgia. In many of the works, the child is painted from the chest up, casually leaning on his folded arms. Jackson’s elaborate, flamboyant costumes echo Dowdell’s flowers from the backgrounds of her older depictions of Seasonal Sheep and poodles. While lavishing great detail on Jackson’s face and clothing, Dowdell sets her portraits against stark backgrounds. In some cases, they are framed within a box on top of another background—a painting within a painting.
What is perhaps the most astounding feature of these studies is the subject’s arresting gaze. In almost every painting, Jackson faces the viewer head on in a confronting but seemingly vulnerable stance. The subject in the painting holds intense eye contact, which people with autism usually find impossible to do. In her realism, Dowdell captures the life in her subject’s eyes, conveying his magnetic essence.
In recent years, Dowdell has expanded her repertoire and made likenesses of her other favorite celebrities—Diana Ross, Cher, Elton John, Carmen Miranda. Since enrolling in the art studio in 2011, Dowdell has shown her work in numerous LAND Gallery exhibitions both in their gallery space and in partnering venues. In 2013 her paintings were exhibited in New York City’s annual Outsider Art Fair. Her most recent exhibition entitled Floating Holiday at LAND Gallery in July 2015 featured two of her characteristic portraits. With a growing number of enthusiastic fans, her work is included in many corporate and private collections, including that of Brooklyn’s own Spike Lee.