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“Ashes In the Night Sky” exhibition, July 21st, 2010

Ashes in the Night Sky, an exhibition of an artists’ book and inkjet photographs by Bill McDowell, will open at the Gallery Kunstler, 250 N. Goodman St., on Thursday, July 1 with a reception from 5:00- 7:00 p.m. The exhibition is being held in conjunction with the Photo-Bookworks Symposium at Visual Studies Workshop.

© Bill McDowell,

McDowell’s book consists of 48 inkjet photographs, and it was printed, hand sewn, and bound in a limited edition by Booksmart Studio. The exhibition includes 20 large (36” X 45”) and 20 smaller (17” X 22”) photographs, also printed at Booksmart Studio.

Ashes in the Night Sky” is based on the idea that when one looks at a celestial sky, the astronomical objects seen are representations of the past. McDowell used his father’s cremated ashes to simulate stars, nebulae and galaxies, scanning them on a flatbed scanner. Later, he re-worked the images on a computer.

The photographs in the exhibition are arranged in four related series: Galaxies, Night Skies, Negative Prints, and Fragments.

In Galaxies, McDowell often relied on using source images found in astronomy books. “I would work with one of these astronomical photographs by my side, replicating its composition by using my fingers and various sieves and screens to sift and drop the ashes on the scanner glass. The denser the accumulation of ashes, the brighter the image they recorded. Fine, dust-like particles often appeared as distant stars or gaseous clouds against the background’s inky blackness. I didn’t try to copy the astronomical photographs too faithfully; they served as starting points. I was more interested in the chance-determined relationships that developed from my inability to precisely control the fall of the ashes. It was in the translation from the document that fortuitous things happened.”

Other images in the Galaxies series depended more heavily on computer manipulation, where McDowell selectively blurred areas in an image to alter depth relationships, and in others to create a gaseous or nebulous region.

In Night Skies, McDowell worked sequentially. Each sequence began with ashes spread on the scanner to simulate a star-laden sky. After viewing the first scanned image, he would respond to the arrangement, which was still on the scanner, add more ashes and rescan. He continued adding ashes in this way, producing up to 20 consecutive scans per sequence.

Negative Prints were inspired by the practice of astronomers printing a photograph as a negative to access greater information in the image. By reversing the tonal scale, McDowell was reminded that all of his pictures began with the elemental particle of ash.

In Fragments, he scanned individual pieces of cremated bone. The respective fragment (each less than an inch in length) revealed a particular coloration and architecture depending on the bone’s mineral content, the temperature of the fire, and the crematorium’s grinding of the skeletal remains. These photographs presented the bone fragments in a straightforward manner, much like a forensic or archeological document.

Of  “Ashes in the Night Sky”, McDowell stated, “This work is a meditation on my father’s passing, but also an exploration of the interconnectivity of life on Earth and in the Universe. I’ve read that on a clear night the unaided eye can see five planets, ten thousand stars in the Milky Way, and the glow of three other galaxies. That over one hundred times more stars fill the sky than sand grains on all the beaches of our world. That the nitrogen atoms we breathe on Earth are identical to the nitrogen atoms on Mars. That the laws of physics really are universal.”

Intellectually I know all this and yet, in the everyday, my world is small and my cosmology is shaky. Often, I’m as oblivious to the brilliance of the night sky as I am to those I love. The phase of the moon, the paths of the stars and planets, they move above me unnoticed. And too often, like those I love, I neglect the sun’s warmth and radiance until it’s gone, its light faded to darkness.”

Bill McDowell is the Chair of the Department of Art & Art History at the University of Vermont. He has also taught at Texas A&M University-Commerce, and Rochester Institute of Technology. McDowell received a M.F.A. in Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology, and took classes at Visual Studies Workshop.

He is a recipient of the Artist Fellowship in Photography from the New York Foundation on the Arts (NYFA), an Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship, the Texas Photography Society Grant, as well as several artist research grants from the University of Vermont and Texas A&M-Commerce.

His selected solo exhibitions include Jan Kesner Gallery, in Los Angeles, Houston Center of Photography, Robert  B. Menschel Gallery at Light Work, Kenyon College, St. Lawrence University, and the University of Vermont. His group shows include the Dallas Museum of Art, Blue Sky Gallery, Society for Contemporary Photography, in Kansas City, and the Triennial of Photography at the Deichtorhallen Museum, Hamburg.

His work is represented in collections at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Deichtorhallen Museum, St. Lawrence University, and the University of Vermont.

His photographs have been published in Light Work’s Contact Sheet 96, Art in America, Art Issues, The New Yorker, Spot, and Exposure.

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