Ginna Dowling came from a family of artists, but early on, her rebellious soul told her to stay away from the art supplies and get a job.
“I was inundated with it,” said Dowling, who is showing her ambitious exhibit of modern glyphs and universal communication, Inherent Language of Life, through March 10 at Mainsite Contemporary Art, 122 E. Main St., in Norman. “I didn’t want to go into the arts. So I went into the written word, but as I went through life and worked in advertising and public relations, I realized that I needed to go back and get my MFA.”
The slow, nasty drip of sexism in the workplace prompted Dowling’s return to the family tradition. She said she was “patted on the head” for her work but rarely rewarded with promotions, and the pay raises she received were incremental to the point of inconsequence compared with her male counterparts. So when she returned to school and recommitted to a life in art, it was with a strong sense of social justice.
“What I’ve done always relates to community, totally related to nonprofit work, social consciousness and working with kids,” she said.
This commitment to activism and her fascination with the symbol-based art of Nancy Spero led Dowling to iconography. She became fascinated with idea of universal language through symbols — communication that transcends levels of literacy or verbal language.
It became the focus of her MFA and informed her work thereafter as she sought ways in which icons could be used as communication tools across social and cultural boundaries.
Fascinated by the petroglyphs of her ancestral Irish homeland, Dowling pursued an artist residency in Ireland, where she studied the Neolithic and early Bronze Age petroglyphs that adorn historic megalith sites such as Brú na Bóinne in County Meath.
She carefully documented and researched the markings, which date back over 5,000 years, and found that many of them are easily understood today. She photographed more than 6,000 glyphs.
Her experience in Ireland led to the creation of More Than Gaelic: A Printmaker’s Guide to Her Heritage, in which Dowling collected glyphic images from Ireland to tell distinctly modern stories about social, cultural and international issues.
Depicted on translucent panels, glyphs that represent men, women, the elements, creation and other important images become part of a story.
“Every glyph informs the meaning,” Dowling said. “As I started carving them, the story started telling itself.”
More Than Gaelic ultimately informed Inherent Language of Life, in which Dowling crowd-sourced 85 participants from different circumstances — homeless children; wealthy people; and participants from various ethnicities, experiences and sexual identities — to develop a glyphic language that represented their community through tearing paper by hand.
“This is my version of hieroglyphics,” she said. “I had everyone from children with Positive Tomorrows; I had doctors and attorneys; I had ages from 4 to 88. I had every gender or sexual identity that I could gather who participated in this project. What I would do is talk to them about this process, this ability to create.”
She explained to the participants that everyone’s goal when trying to represent an object through art is to create a perfect image, but as the image in one’s mind travels through the synapses and down the muscles to the hand, it takes on the character of the artist. So perfection was not required, and tearing the paper by hand became a kind of artistic equalizer.
When it all came together in the end, the work of a community can be easily mistaken for the work of a single artist.
“You can’t tell if they’re black or they’re white or they’re old or they’re young or they’re a professional artist or a nerdy scientist,” she said. “Tearing was the great equalizer. And while it may look naïve or childlike, that’s because it’s very pure.”
Mainsite Contemporary Art is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Admission is free.
Inherent Language of Life
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
through March 10
Mainsite Contemporary Art
122 E. Main St., Norman
Print headline: Global expression, Ginna Dowling’s Inherent Language of Life employs glyphic language for artistic communication.