Views through Jane Margaret Dow's roomy home-studio key her many personalities: sprays of gladioluses in a tall glass vase, a fat copy of Yasuicki Awakawa's "Zen Painting" on a table, works by Dow and others. And through the 1911 glass doors, typical of the Adams-Morgan apartment where she lives, is the cavernous studio filled with haunted painted figures.
The nudes -- some embracing, others running, two talking -- call up Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon. Like Munch's "The Scream," Dow's silent, twisted, tense figures reveal angst by posture, distorted perspective, and their setting in empty spaces. They hark back to the artist's involvement in the 1970s with archetypal geometric forms. At that time, series of black and gray circles, squares and cruciform shapes expressed the intensity of vision and connection with mystical, psychic states that the figures now do.
"I'm Norwegian, Danish and Scottish by ancestry," Dow says. "How more dour can you get? I get my personality from the North Europeans. My religious upbringing was Lutheran.
"I see my art as a transcription of nature, of primal forms. The reaction is, at times, an ecstatic response to nature and the psyche. There is the search for myself, the emergence and realization of self, and of the universal, through responding to primal forces."
Art began early for Dow. Born and reared in Alexandria, she was given private lessons at age 8 by her mother. Summers were spent at the family farm in Iowa. It was there, the artist says, she "first connected with the primal, elemental forces of nature. I felt, and feel, that lyricism in my painting from that experience. My art comes out of my childhood with a mother very sensitive to nature, and from those rhythms at the farm."
She studied interior design, with an emphasis on painting, at Purdue University. She's been a practicing artist in the Washington area since 1970. Technically, and through use of darkly valued colors, she economically creates -- through masterly drawing and surface textures -- an ecstatic, mysterious vision.
"Woman in the Dark," a naked woman painted with jagged, passionate brushwork, is the artist herself running through a raw, primeval landscape. She could be a Hindu goddess, dark-bodied, staring straight at the viewer, with a huge white hand clutching the right shoulder. "Northern View," by contrast, is "a composite of all the trees I've ever seen," Dow says. "It is a northern, Scandinavian nature, with a demarcated view of thick firs with only one figure -- painted much like a tree -- at lower right."
Her "Portrait" -- tense, straining to look over her left shoulder, revealing her psychic "uncomfortable self" -- is included at the Jane Haslem Gallery's exhibition "The Washington Art Community: Self-Portraits" (through the end of this month).
Dow has developed a complex, subtle technique that effectively shows her convictions. The canvases are first heavily gessoed, then many layers of darker acrylic colors are applied. She says this is her way of "washing" to achieve the textured, shimmering surfaces she wants. Finally, she draws with a graphite pencil through the wash to the white beneath for the figures and other painterly elements. (She often pencils her own figure, lying nude on a large piece of paper.)
"It's a glorious obsession that is also a curse," Dow says of art. "It very definitely keeps an artist from functioning in society the way other people do.
"The work forms itself on you, and requires of you that you make it. I'm very creative, and I have an intense need to make art, to give form to that need. I don't feel I have an ease of expression, and I have to struggle. This struggle reminds me of Vincent van Gogh, who's so awkward, and he made that awkwardness into high art.
"Because I have to work so hard at expression, my awkwardness allows me to be more individual, to try to find a sincere and personal expression. I'm always testing myself. I'm always measuring myself against an integrity or truth, the something elemental within myself."
An exhibition of 25 of Dow's current works is on view at the Art Gallery of Towson State University near Baltimore through Aug. 7.