Brian Dowdall, Baltimore-based visionary artist, dies

Brian Dowdall, a Baltimore-based visionary painter whose work captivated visitors at the American Visionary Art Museum, died March 21 at the age of 70.
Brian Dowdall, a Baltimore-based visionary painter whose work captivated visitors at the American Visionary Art Museum, died March 21 at the age of 70. (Handout)

Brian Dowdall, a Baltimore-based visionary painter whose palette came from “the sun, moon, fire, earth, trees and water,” died of complications from the flu and a heart condition on March 21 at University of Maryland’s St. Joseph Medical Center. He was 70.

“He painted his heart and his soul out,” said his life partner, Alison Spiesman, who was by his side when he died.


Mr. Dowdall was born in 1948 as Bernard “Bernie” Dowdall, the oldest of seven children in a first-generation Irish Catholic family. His father, Joseph Dowdall, was the only electrician in their hometown of Anaconda, Mont., while his mother, Alice, played semi-pro tennis. Mr. Dowdall attended Catholic school throughout his childhood, though the religion’s rigidity weighed on him and led to a nervous breakdown.

“Trying to fit all the sins into the rosary, I would lose count or track of types of sins and was frantic about everyone going to hell due to the strict nuns and priests,” he once said, according to his artist biography on the American Visionary Art Museum’s website.

Mr. Dowdall left home after graduating from Anaconda Central High School in 1966, hitchhiking to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the birthplace of that decade’s counterculture movement. He crisscrossed the country for the next two years, exploring the unknown and picking up odd jobs — making porcelain teeth, filling jelly doughnuts, working on a worm farm. At one point, he traveled on a meditation yogi bus and visited spiritual ashrams. He once lived in a gypsy commune and at an optional nudist community.

He settled in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and stayed there for more than 30 years. He painted alongside many of the region’s renowned folk artists, including Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Sudduth.

Mr. Dowdall was known for his vibrant cardboard and sand paintings that depict animal spirits and goddesses. He told The Baltimore Sun in 2015 that he favored cardboard for its accessibility — “It doesn't have any arrogance,” he said. “Everybody uses cardboard.”

He drew inspiration for his paintings from the pagan belief system and the “ancient energies of creation.”

“When I paint I use colors and animals and goddess images that are more loving than this world,” he wrote in his artist biography. “Very often I place animals and imaginary mermaids, goddesses, mythological characters or guardian angels together in my work that would not be true of the natural world. I want to show harmony.”

Among the people believed to have collected Mr. Dowdall’s art: Van Morrison, Johnny Cash and John Glover, according to his artist biography.


His pieces also drew the attention of the American Visionary Art Museum, based in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood. He was selected to be part of the museum’s “What Makes You Smile” exhibition in 2010, and was eventually invited to move to the city in 2011 along with Ms. Spiesman, a fellow artist and his partner of more than a decade.

“His work has made an awful lot of people happy,” said Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum’s director.

While Ms. Spiesman agrees that her partner’s work has brought great joy, she says it was the man himself who truly carried happiness into people’s lives. He was gentle and benevolent, she said, someone who seemed apart from this world.

Ms. Spiesman said neither age nor time existed in her partner’s universe, so much so that he never bothered to add dates to his paintings.

The couple practically transformed their Northeast Baltimore home into a museum, filling it with more than 5,000 pieces of art beloved by Mr. Dowdall and Ms. Spiesman. The two artists had “his and hers” studios on the same floor of their house, and would often work on their art late into the night.

“The most special moments, the most intimate and romantic moments, were the nights when we were like a symphony,” Ms. Spiesman, 59, said. “Me in my studio and him in his studio, we would paint at the same time. It was like having a concert together.


“We were each other’s favorite painters,” she said.

The house, which the couple renovated together after it sat vacant for years, was also bursting with Mr. Dowdall’s massive book collection. He read anthologies of poetry, mythology and Irish literature.

The two artists have painted collaborative pieces across Baltimore, including a large-scale, colorful mural in Clifton Park. They were also invited to create a signature room full of art at the Carlton Arms Hotel in New York City.

After her partner died, Ms. Spiesman decided to get a tattoo of a turtle dancing down the wrist of the hand she uses to paint. The design was one of Mr. Dowdall’s creations.

“We were joined in the heart,” she said.

Mr. Dowdall was preceded in death by his parents and one of his sisters. In addition to Ms. Spiesman, he is survived by five siblings and many cousins, nieces and nephews.

There will be a celebration of his life May 25 at the American Visionary Art Museum. In lieu of flowers, the family encourages everyone to buy art and support artists, as a way to continue honoring the man’s “deepest passion.”