Portrait of an Artist as a Halsey Intern: Jillian Dowdy

Artsy Fartsy | Derek Berry | March 31, 2016

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On Friday afternoons, Jillian Dowdy works behind the desk of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. In late March, walk into this gallery, located the College of Charleston School of the Arts, and see student artwork arranged neatly upon the wall. This month’s upcoming exhibition is The Young Contemporaries, an annual exhibition of jury-curated student art which opens April 1. Sculptures populate the gleaming floor and portraits stare down from the white walls—this particular exhibition is eclectic in style, form, and intent. Everyone is preparing for the exhibit. On the periphery of the action are the Halsey interns, like Dowdy, who greet and count gallery visitors, answer questions about the art and artists, and update the gallery staff on upcoming events. Preparing for exhibitions and hosting lavish donor parties find them sometimes photographing, serving champagne, or acting as bouncers to, in Dowdy’s words, “guard the art from fingers and wine glasses.” The job is not as simple as sitting behind a desk, and for an artist like Dowdy, the position can offer a rare glimpse into the world of professional art and museum work.

Working in a gallery makes sense for Dowdy, who majors both in Studio Art and Arts Management. She pursues both degrees so that she may gain perspective both on making art, but also on the business behind art. She began interning at the Halsey in August. “I decided to apply to the Halsey on a bit of a whim after receiving some emails over the summer,” Dowdy said. At the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Arts, Dowdy receives a real-world education into the preparation and execution of gallery shows.

“We’re responsible for making sure the gallery space is maintained properly, for making sales on any of the Halsey publications or t-shirts, and for assisting those who wish to become members,” Dowdy said. In between shows, we assist the preparator, Jordan Fowler, in writing condition reports, readying the walls of the gallery, installing and labeling the works, and applying the new vinyls for the shows. We also help out with all of the member events, artist lectures, film screenings, and other special events. Interns at the Halsey basically get a taste of everything.”

Dowdy has also worked, during her sophomore year, as the education and outreach intern at the Gibbes Museum of Art. During those months, the museum did not host an exhibit, instead undergoing renovations, which offered Dowdy an opportunity to experience new aspects of gallery and museum works. She worked primarily to help pack and store education supplies. “I’ll probably never see an empty museum again,” Dowdy said.

The work at the Halsey offers Dowdy some downright strange experiences. During preparation for the Moon Party, an annual donors event, Dowdy sat behind the desks for several days ripping raw canvas into strips. For the Groundhog Day event, she helped to create tetrahedrons out of plastic drinking straws for the installation on the stage. For a Halsey intern, strange tasks are part and parcel of the job.

Dowdy hopes to continue working in non-profit galleries after she graduates from the College of Charleston Honors College in May 2016. “Getting to experience all aspects of this kind of work has both solidified my desire to continue in that direction and given me a better perspective about what it entails,” she said. “It’s one thing to be able to draw, and it’s another thing to be able to sell your art.”

Dowdy works not only as an intern, but also pursues a career as a visual artist. Step down the hall and climb the stairs three stories to the student artist studios to find Dowdy’s work: a series of portraits of her friends, drawn in charcoal and sealed with a wax binder. Her workstation is situated in a tight corner of an open white space, where student artwork hangs, half-finished self-portraits and outlines of landscapes. She has been using charcoal pencils throughout her college career, favoring its superiority over graphite pencils in conveying darkness.

“I don’t love calling myself an artist, but I do make art,” Dowdy said. Her senior project focuses on her friends in odd and hilarious situations. In the portrait, they affect often an air of silliness. In one portrait, a boy looks up gleefully at the camera as he devours a cookie. In another portrait, a girl offers an ironic wink. The work arose partially from the popular app Snapchat.  “I had a habit of saving a lot of Snapchats, and I would draw them in my spare time because they are funny,” Dowdy said. What began as a pastime became a more refined theme as Dowdy entered her senior year; she drew each portrait with more narrow margins to mimic the dimensions of a Snapchat camera.  “These started out as normal photos, but then I began making them appear more overtly like cell phone photos,” Dowdy said.

“It progressed into pictures of my friends having fun,” Dowdy said. “All of the photos are taken organically. I try to take photos when I am out with my friends, and then I use whatever comes out of that. I’m inspired when they get weird, when they put their guards down around me. I try to capture their personalities.”

Working as an artist has changed her views on what it means to work in a gallery and vice versa. “I think creating artwork really helps in knowing how to handle work and paying special attention to detail. You’re a lot more careful when you know first-hand how fragile stuff can be,” she said. “Working in a gallery has definitely had an influence on my stuff as well. The logistics of hanging my work was a total afterthought when I first started at the college, and as a result, a lot of that work is messy and a little beat up looking. Now I’m more careful in keeping the paper or canvas clean, and thinking about how the images will be oriented on the wall.”

Although Dowdy will graduate in May, she remains optimistic about the exhibits coming to the Halsey, especially The Erwin Redl light installation, which will be open during Spoleto. At the moment, Dowdy is helping prepare for the Halsey’s next show The Young Contemporaries. “It’ll be 100 percent student artwork,” Dowdy said. “I think it’s always incredibly satisfying to see your work and your peer’s work in a professional setting.”

The Young Contemporaries opens at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Arts on April 1. Check out Dowdy’s contributions from 5-7 p.m. at the opening reception on opening day!