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No Amount of Stone and Bone


Shea Stanfield
Arts Columnist

Noted paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey once commented, “No amount of stone and bone can yield the kinds of information that the paintings gave so freely.” Mary grew up in a family of creative and inquisitive individuals that availed her of the opportunity to see the world and the difference culture makes in human expression.  So went the life of multi-talented local artist Jan Downey. Jan also considers herself fortunate to have come from a family of many artists who appreciated and nurtured their love of art in their children.  An appreciation of color, form, texture, and function were common topics of family conversation. Jan reflects, “Artistic expression is as natural to me as thinking in numbers might be to someone else.”

Growing up in Chicago with an inventor for a father and a hobby painter for a mother allowed Jan enormous freedom to explore and experiment with different media. The kitchen table became her “creative lab”, one day making batik wall hangings, maybe boiling down vegetables to make her own fabric dyes, next stringing a selection of small animal bones, fruit seeds, and other repurposed objects into what Jan calls, her Bohemian jewelry. Holidays saw Jan’s industrious side emerge in potato stamp wrapping paper and making gifts with the help of her father’s soldering iron. Anything was game, and almost everything seemed to work its way into one of Jan’s creative pieces. This talent for invention and curiosity did not lead to a career in art immediately; instead Jan attended the University of Minnesota for her BA in Anthropology and moved to Arizona in 1989 to finish a MA at Arizona State University in Cultural Anthropology. This career, interestingly enough, would be the segue from an adventurous childhood into the love and understanding of various cultures. In her career, Jan traveled and worked in a variety of cultures, and her natural tendency was to be drawn to the art of each culture. She shares, “The range of artistic expression through time and across all societies show that creativity is part of our human heritage. “

Jan retired from her career in Anthropology and concentrated her efforts on weaving her early creative life and career studying world cultures into the new expressive art forms we see today. Jan expresses her years of exploration, observation, and limitless creative ability using gourds as her natural canvas.  People often ask Jan, “Why gourds?” and the answer is clear to her. Gourds have been important to so many cultures around the world: as food containers, musical instruments, water carriers, spoons, drinking vessels, and objects to decorate.

“Gourds are amazing collaborators in the creative process,” says Jan. “You can paint, dye, carve, wood-burn, add weavings to them, embed objects in them, leave them whole, or cut them into various shapes.”  

Jan works from her studio ZolioArts, which she says, “is connected to my home in a beautiful Sonoran desert setting.” She continues, “I have always loved going to work but especially today when I have the opportunity to create, experiment, and engage a variety of materials, tools, and methods. It’s like being a kid again!” 

Jan is a member of the Sonoran Arts League. She has an Etsy online store at, where you can see and purchase items, and a Web site, where you can contact her, as well:

Contact Arts Columnist Shea Stanfield at