As a man who grew up just outside of Manhattan but left his native state of New Jersey to attend Arizona State University for college, Lenny Dowhie is no stranger to adventure or risks. He earned his bachelor of arts degree in art education from Arizona State, and a master of fine arts from Indiana State University. Attracted to the school’s potential, he began teaching at the University of Southern Indiana in 1978.
Dowhie taught ceramics for 33 years and was chair of the Art Department at USI before retiring in 2011, earning him the honor of longest serving ceramics professor at the university. Dowhie and his wife Anne, who taught art at Central High School for 30 years, donated $1 million in February to Campaign USI: Elevating Excellence, which will provide ongoing support for USI’s ceramics program. USI has renamed the ceramics studio in the couple’s honor.
Now that you are retired, what types of projects are you working on?
I mostly still work with ceramic sculpture but there are some drawings. Here’s an older piece that someone dropped that I’m repairing. These are unfired vases using a Chinese technique. I spent most of the fall living in China, working. These are very high-fire transfers that generally most people in the U.S. don’t do. I do a lot. There’s work of mine all around (my home) studio.
I do art and own businesses but I’ve been overseas a lot. I get invited around the world and I’ll go almost anywhere anyone will take or invite me. The University of West Virginia had been trying to get me to do this program where I mentored their students and I basically just spent most of the fall – September, November, and part of October – over in Jingdezhen, (China) which is the oldest porcelain center in the world. It was the oldest in existence for at least 1,700 years, continuously operating.
How would you describe your work?
All of the things that I do fundamentally have something to do with clay, but really more often than not have something to do with the social ideas that I perceive in our country. In the USI Faculty Art Show at the museum, I had a (ceramic) piece that I had shot (with a gun) the day after the Newtown massacre. I shot that piece 28 times. Then I shot another piece 83 times, which is the number of Americans killed everyday. The whole thing was this contrast that we’re all upset about the school kids getting killed but we tend to forget or ignore the fact that 83 people die every single day.
With all of your experiences, what is it about Evansville that keeps you here? I came here in 1978 to teach, and bought my home back then. And of course, it wasn’t like how it is now back then. It was a farmhouse. As time goes on, I purchased all the property around it. There’s space to live here. One of my only complaints about Evansville is that it’s not four hours closer to Chicago because I do so much connecting business there. I’m gone frequently enough that it’s nice to come home.
Is it hard not going to campus each day?
Even though I don’t teach anymore, I still see kids and kids still come over here to my home studio. I told Al (current ceramics professor, Alisa Holen) I wasn’t going to be around very much and it wasn’t because I had any bad vibes, but in order for her to get established. I was there for 33 years; anybody on campus who needed information on the clay-art world came to me. So I just couldn’t imagine if I was that person’s replacement and they were sitting in the classroom working. This way, I come in when she asks and we work together, but leaving her alone was a deliberate thing.
Were you always planning to donate to the university?
I do think it was something we always planned to do. We don’t have kids so that’s number one. I’ve been business minded to a large degree for a long time and I started investing as soon as I came here. I was making something like $13,500 a year, which is not a great sum of money. But part of the reason we all came back then was we were young, new, and it was a chance to build something. On top of investing money, I, along with some other friends, invested and started an art expo business in Chicago. We created a company called Expressions of Culture which then also produced a show called SOFA: Sculpture, Objects, Functional Art, which still is the largest show of 3-D galleries in the world. We built that up and in our 15th year sold it to the Daily Mail Group in England for a substantial amount of money. I owned about 18 percent of the company so I took that money and invested more, founded another company (in Chicago), which is the largest art expo of paintings and drawings outside of Art Basel in Switzerland. So I’ve managed to make money. I’m not like super rich, but I’m not poor by any stretch. I ended up funding things on my own when I taught, so I gave them the million bucks because it is going to give whoever is here after me $40,000 to $45,000 every year.
What are your plans for the future?
We know we live a really lucky life. Obviously, we made some of our luck from work but I’m the first to admit, we don’t live like the average person. In 2004, I did my best impression as a dead person and spent five months in the hospital (after complications with surgery). Somehow I survived and we said, “Let’s spend this money.” We’d been talking about it for years and we’ve enjoyed it for 10 years. And part of our reason for spreading our resources around is so maybe somebody else will have that opportunity.