Written by Amy Shuman, with Photography by John Shuman
As Jean Barnes Downs and Ray Downs traveled Route 68 from their home in Arlington, Virginia, to visit family in Ohio, considering where they wanted to move when they retired, they passed through Cumberland and always thought, “It’s so beautiful. These mountains are grabbing our attention.” They investigated the area casually at first, agreeing that they didn’t want a “commuter community.” “We wanted to be a part of a full-time community.” They happened on an art opening at the Saville Gallery on a spring weekend in 2002 and remember seeing Suzanne Donazetti and Ken Payne’s work and thinking, “This is wonderful. This is great quality work!” Their next question, “I wonder what housing is like here?” led them to Long and Foster’s Mark Kyle, who assisted them in searching for a “mountain view.” Meanwhile, they spent time with Andy Vick and Ann Townsell of the Allegany Arts Council. “All the people were kind and generous,” remembers Jean.
On one particular day, Mark found Jean sitting on the screened in back porch waiting for him to show them this home southwest of Cumberland. “I knew when I saw you relaxing on the porch, it was your home,” he commented. Christmas of 2002 found Jean and Ray settled into that house on a hill that nestles amidst oaks and maples. Sonny Talkington, a local remodeling contractor, has assisted them through the years. He first took out a wall between two bedrooms upstairs and installed a sink and cabinets to make a studio for Jean’s work. Because they love watching the birds and other wildlife, Jean and Ray opted for a large window in their extended eat-in kitchen. They renovated two bathrooms, removing a tub/shower combo and installing a walk-in shower in the master. Track lighting was added to highlight the artwork in the family room.
The kitchen is open and friendly and sports a large pantry where Jean and Ray organize all their recyclables. One “henna red” wall extends from the kitchen through to the living room, allowing this area to flow seamlessly. Beth Piver’s bright “mini” paintings are featured across one kitchen wall. “Other than my studio, this is where I spend a lot of my time,” explains Jean. “I love experimenting with new recipes from favorite vegetarian cookbooks.” “Our dining room is wonderful when the children come. This room is a bonus because I really could seat all twelve of us without too much trouble,” says Jean. The highlight in this room is Ray’s grandmother’s secretary, filled with pink depression glass goblets that his Mother purchased while working at a “five and dime store” for a quarter each. Jean refinished the secretary that was then converted to a china cabinet, with glass doors where the bookshelves once were.
Another furniture treasure is Jean’s grandfather’s maple cabinet, purchased in the 1920’s, from which he recorded all of Roosevelt’s fireside chats on discs. It now serves as a gorgeous credenza. Ray has always enjoyed baskets. He decided to buy a few and “got hooked, particularly with special ethnic ones.” His favorites include a cassava sifter basket from Venezuela, a Chinese market fish basket, a Zulu beer basket, a Zambian wedding basket, and one with porcupine quills from Vermont. Jean pointed out a colorful Ecuadorian weaving of cranes where a pattern forms from the cranes being snuggled in alternate rows, left to right and right to left. “There’s a common thing that happens with art. Themes seem to happen several places at once. This weaving reminds me of Escher’s work.”
Standing center stage in the master bedroom is a beautiful cherry bed with curved headboard. A silk coverlet, purchased at a new local specialty store made from huge squares of Indian sari material in jewel tones of deep emerald, sapphire, ruby and copper offers a contemporary feel. Jean and Ray’s living room has recently been converted to a gallery type area, where they display their own art for visitors and for the Allegany Arts Council studio tour weekends each November. They also love sharing local art pieces purchased from local artists. One of the display cabinets for the gallery is a Hoosier, purchased in 1905 by Jean’s aunt and uncle for $50. “I remember ‘Mom McMichael rolling out sugar cookies when only my nose would reach the enamel counter,” smiles Jean. The cabinet had been painted many times and Jean, once again, painstakingly refinished it so that its original beauty could be admired. A settee, a treadle sewing machine that belonged to Ray’s grandmother, and a flax wheel from Jean’s family complete this space. A gorgeous pastel art nouveau piano lamp from the 1920’s sits atop Jean’s electronic piano.
Jean’s quiet second story studio, with light from a skylight streaming in, overlooks the back woods, allowing her to be with nature that she incorporates into her art. “When I begin to work, I like to do a contour drawing as a meditation to center or focus. ” Jean has recently begun to offer workshops entitled “Drawing as Meditation.” “I’m so concerned about our environment. I encourage students to observe until they feel like the flower or the leaf is looking back at them before they begin to draw,” Jean explains. “Be a little inchworm and imagine what it might be like crawling on a pine cone. When you can help people get in touch with their creative side, they find their spirit and they are all the richer for it. They never see the world in quite the same way again!”
Jean graduated with a Fine Arts degree and re-entered the world of art after her children were grown. She pursues her art full-time now by creating unique hand pulled fine art prints called monotypes. This involves painting on a surface that will not absorb the color and then transferring the image by hand to paper. This medium allows Jean a great deal of experimentation and supports her intuitive way of working. Jean’s fine art is well known through the east. She has won many awards, her favorite being “Best Sculpture” for a set of pen and ink drawings of marble sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, accordion pleated into a book with a cover made from a museum gift bag.
Ray has always appreciated and enjoyed visual art of all types. As a research scientist and technical manager, his life was too full to begin to find a medium he enjoyed until he retired in Cumberland. Faced with a myriad of possibilities, he wanted to do something physical, 3-D, and which would express his beliefs and moral values. He took a few classes in welded metal sculpture and, with the encouragement of local artist friends, has evolved in a short period of time to the place where he is comfortable entering local art shows. He was pleased to learn that one such entry won a prize. Ray appreciates using “discarded” or found items. “I have a strong belief that social justice should be a major priority for all of us, and our governments. This draws me to subject matter that provides the opportunity to make subtle or not-so-subtle statements about the physical suffering and injustices that we humans inflict on each other.”
“Equally important is my desire to also make artistic statements that celebrate the strength, dignity and courage of those who have struggled and continue to struggle to make life better for others.” Such is the case with Ray’s piece entitled “Mandela on Robben Island.” After reading Nelson Mandela’s biography, Ray was so moved with the details of Mandela’s speaking in his own defense, being imprisoned for many years and saying, “It’s a cause for which I’m willing to die,” and then, after surviving, was totally open to forgive and declare equality among all races, that he created a sculpture with a metal base of the outline of Africa on which a figure is seated chipping rocks—Mandela’s hard labor at Robben Island Prison. Looking at another outstanding sculpture, with a piece of recycled metal resembling an elephant trunk, surrounded by metal tusk-like protrusions, called “Protecting the Spirit,” one feels the extraordinary empathy and grace of this species’ camaraderie.
Jean and Ray’s heart-centered style of living and being with their art processes is a fabulous blend that matches the beauty of the mountains and the potential for community that helped them stop and ponder whether Cumberland could be their perfect “new home.” The whole community here is smiling!
You may access more information about Jean and Ray’s art at www.solitudestudio.com; www.alleganyartscouncil.org; www.artsatcanalplace.com. Please contact them: firstname.lastname@example.org.