The Utah you see in Eric Dowdle's paintings is a bit whimsical, somewhat romanticized and a lot of fun.
"It's folk art. It's supposed to be happy," he says.
But there's a lot of truth in his work, too. You see where we came from, who we are, the things we hold dear. His paintings inspire and instruct as well as entertain.
Some 55-plus of them (there are lots of little vignettes as well as full-scale paintings) have been recently been published in book form to celebrate "Utah: Featuring the Art of Eric Dowdle." With text by William Kurtis, which is actually a pen name for Eric's brother Kurt, the book takes you on a delightful trip through both the history and geography of our state.
Eric hopes the book will help people appreciate what's here. He hopes people will be able to enjoy it time after time and find something new each time. "We have a unique state in both beauty and culture," he says. "We need to keep it unique. We shouldn't try to be a Los Angeles or a Chicago. We have to realize we can't be all things to all people. We have to be who we are, and not change that."
The book actually begins with the pioneers in Nauvoo, brings them west in wagon trains, then highlights early Utah architecture and events. It takes a look at several towns and places around the state, includes some favorite recreational spots, takes on local sports rivalries and celebrates special Utah events.
The text is lively and interesting, combining background and humor. "I wanted to make it fit the art," says Kurt. "I wanted it to be fun, as well as include some of the history." Each section is set off by a quote, drawn from everyone from Brigham Young to humorist Dave Barry. "We don't want people to think we take ourselves too seriously," he says.
There's a foreword by Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Artist's notes tell about each painting, how it came about and what it represents. Many are paintings that were done for various occasions and commissions, and some may be familiar to readers; a few were done just for the book.
One of Eric's favorite pieces in the book is one that Beattie commissioned for one of Utah's most prominent citizens, Gordon B. Hinckley. That was in 2003, and the Hinckleys invited the Dowdle family to join them for a Family Home Evening an event to be treasured, he says.
What was also fun, he says, is that at some point, the question came up whether that painting would be turned into a puzzle like so many of Eric's pieces are. "I wasn't sure I was comfortable making any profit on the prophet, so to speak. But President Hinckley said, 'Do it. Make a puzzle, and then pay your tithing!'"
Folk art naturally lends itself to puzzles, Eric says. "There is so much action going on."
Another thing that Kurt especially likes is "the way Eric highlights local businesses." You'll see homages to the Bluebird in Logan, Stephen's Cocoa, Judd's store in St. George and more.
People love those little touches, says Eric, "that's what they talk about most." He loves going to the towns and cities to do research. "I talk to historians. I talk to locals, and then I do what any other tourist would do." It seems like he always comes across certain things that people say, "it won't be our place without such-and-such."
A lot of people also comment on his mountains, says Kurt. "Eric captures Utah mountains better than anyone else. Go out and look. Those are our mountains." That, says Eric, is because of our trees. "The scrub oak makes an unmistakable pattern. It's fun to capture that in a whimsical way."
If there's one thing Eric regrets about the book, it's "Where's Magna? Where's Bountiful? Where's Vernal? There are four Logans and no American Fork?"
So, you can pretty much plan on there being a second book. "Since it's come out I've already received a lot of commissions and requests." A sequel could well include not only other places in Utah, but cities and locations around the world. Eric has painted U.S. cities such as Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., and also world cities such as London, Paris and Jerusalem.
He loves trying to capture the heart and soul of a place, whether it's a world-class city or a small Utah town. "In every town or city, you find something that makes it unique."
But one of his favorite things is also using his art to couple with an organization or cause, to tell its story and benefit it in some way. He's done that with the Boy Scouts, the Days of '47, Zions Bank charities, and he is currently working on a project with Festival of Trees. He's also working with Garth Brooks and the Smiles for Life Foundation, which brings together Major League Baseball and dentistry to help needy kids.
Eric's own Gingerbread Foundation, now in its seventh year, raises money for "two organizations I love: the PTA's arts endowment program and the Boy Scouts' Learning for Life program. Those are the two largest youth organizations in the state. I love what they do."
In many ways, the book offers not only a journey through Utah and it's history, but also through Eric's own life and times.
His paintings, he says, reflect "the way we were raised: in a patriotic, service-oriented, humor-loving family. We laughed every day of our lives."
They lived "in the part of Wyoming the Lord took the saints through because he knew they'd never stop there, like they might have in Colorado." There he learned to appreciate rural life. And he became a die-hard BYU fan. "That was fun," he says, "being a BYU fan in Wyoming."
He's one of 10 boys and two girls. "At one point, our Mother thought we could be the next Osmonds. That was until she found out we couldn't carry a tune to save our lives."
But they got a good foundation for life "10 boys, 10 Eagle Scouts." You see an eagle's nest for each one in his Boy Scout painting.
Eric credits his high school art teacher, Rudy Gunter, for turning him into an artist. "He just let me go. Kids need more of that."But it wasn't until he lived in Boston for a few years that he fell in love with folk art. Back in Utah, he painted a view of Brigham Street "to show that folk art could be done in Utah." In Boston, "I could see that it worked well in an area with high ideals and a strong heritage. Utah was that place for me."