The Woodland Palette of Nature's Artist Paul Downs

Appreciating the beauty and artistry of Greenbelt's woodlands with artist Paul Downs.

Paul Klee, the famous Swiss-German expressionist painter, once described drawing as “taking a line for a walk.” This aptly describes the art of another Paul—local artist Paul Downs. Only the lines that Downs works with are formed from branches and sticks, and he literally takes a walk to gather his “palette” from Greenbelt’s woodlands and gardens.

Downs takes forgotten, ignored, or mundane natural materials and creates images that are both whimsical and stunning. Sticks, moss and grasses are transformed into a miniature landscape of a train crossing a bridge, with a plume of curly wisteria vine smoke pouring from the train’s chimney. Tufted grasses furnish a diminutive twig fairy house. Tulip poplar, maple, and red twig dogwood branches become sandpipers or great owls in flight.

Back in the 1980s, Down’s prominent role in the Committee to Save the Green Belt, a grassroots effort to preserve Greenbelt’s woodlands from encroaching development, led him to start making these art pieces. It was a way of bringing woodland beauty home to people, even as he guided hikes and walks into the woods to educate people on what could be forever lost.

In that same spirit, this past Sunday, Downs guided me on a short walk through the woods and to Hamilton Gardens and Henry’s Hollow to show me where his materials come from. The gray, cloudy day was transformed into a fairy landscape of possibility.

Serendipity, intent, and playfulness animate his two- and three-dimensional creations. Serendipity comes through a chance find — such as the newly shed skin of a black snake — that becomes a lacy mantle for the “Queen Mudwalker,” a magical sprite that skims across the mud flats.

Intent is apparent through Down’s extensive knowledge of Greenbelt’s plants and trees — gained through a lifetime of walking and observing. He intuitively understands how sun and time interact with nature’s leavings, bleaching some discarded branches into creamy whiteness and turning others into a rich red or gold. And you thought that sticks were always brown!

Above all, his works exude the playfulness and experimentation that is an integral part of Down’s creative process. I swear that one of those owls hanging out at the New Deal Café was winking at me!

An exhibit, “The Coming of the White Buffalo” of Paul Down’s latest work is on display until November 7, 2011, at the New Deal Café. And this Sunday—October 9—Friends of the New Deal Café Arts (FONDCA) is hosting a reception for the artist from 7 to 9 p.m.


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