Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Sculptor of Cathedral’s doors: above all, ‘I am a Christian artist’

by Bonita Lawhead, for the Inland Register

(From the October 18, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)

Dorothy Fowler’s depiction of Christ was installed over the center doors of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of the many pieces Fowler sculpted in addition to designing the doors themselves. (Detail; IR photo courtesy of Dorothy Fowler)

When, at age 51, Dorothy Fowler began classes to become a sculptor, she had an ambitious goal: She wanted to become a well-known woman sculptor.

The gifted art major most likely knew of her abilities but there is no question that her goal has been reached. However, there was a second, underlying goal: that her art would reflect the gift she has been given by God. “I am a Christian artist,” she said in an interview at her spacious home southwest of Spokane. “I always include a cross when I sign my name to a work.”

Her work can be found all over the world. A bust of the Princess Mother of the King of Thailand that she made has a home in the royal palace in that country. A Christian church in Israel has doors that she has done which show Jerusalem’s Beautiful Gate with Sts. Peter and Paul and the children. St. Ann Cathedral in Great Falls, Mont., is the home of another set of her doors, depicting St. Ann and Mary and Jesus. Both of these works were the result of the Spokane Cathedral doors project, Fowler’s biggest project to date, created in the early 2000s.

Her favorite work, however, stands on the coffee table at her home. Titled “Heather’s Gift,” it is a statue of a young woman violinist in a flowing dress, feet bare on a sandy beach, eyes closed, appearing deeply caught up in the music coming from her instrument. Fowler’s gift in bringing forth warmth and emotion in cast bronze is very evident in the statue. The young woman appears unaware of anything around her except her instrument and her music. Observers looking at the statue can find themselves caught up in their thoughts, perhaps of their own music heritage.

Fowler recalled her long-ago meeting with Heather’s mother and with Heather herself. Fowler met the mother through friends at Fowler’s church, First Presbyterian in Spokane. The mother brought Heather to Fowler’s studio. Fowler invited Heather to model for her and took many photos of the young woman. Heather was being treated for cancer and there was a several-year delay in the work Fowler had planned. In the meantime, the young model had moved to Vancouver, Wash. to attend college, and later died there.

Fowler said on some of the statues of “Heather’s Gift,” she placed a cross in the front of it. Heather had volunteered at a children’s camp where there was a beach that had a cross made of driftwood by the children. Heather had expressed a wish to have her ashes scattered there and Fowler chose to acknowledge Heather’s request in that way. The 30 statues of “Heather’s Gift” sold out “in less than a year,” Fowler said.

The Spokane Club owns a copy of “Heather’s Gift,” which is how Fowler became acquainted with Msgr. James Ribble in 1995. He was then rector of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane. Msgr. Ribble had been looking for someone to make “dramatic doors” for the church for the Millennium Year of 2000. Fowler had had a show at the Club which Msgr. Ribble attended. He had a donor for the doors, Betty Wheeler, but lacked an artist capable of what he wanted. He liked what he saw in Fowler’s work.

When he first contacted Fowler, however, she turned him down. She had never done bas relief, she said, and didn’t think she could do the job. Her husband, Jack, always her greatest encourager and supporter, she said, had other ideas. He had encouraged her to study sculpting and now he suggested that she study the art of bas relief.

Msgr. Ribble, too, encouraged her, asking her to think about the project, saying she could learn. “So I went to Italy for a month and studied with Eugene Dobb. Then something in me told to go ahead,” she said. The “dramatic doors” that resulted are evident to anyone who climbs the front steps of the Cathedral in downtown Spokane and uses them.

“Saints of the Centuries” was what Monsignor Ribble had in mind as the theme for the doors. The saints were chosen by the cathedral’s congregation and willing members of the congregation were used as models. Fowler, who did much research for the project, chose models who seemed to embody the qualities of the saints she was sculpting. Msgr. Ribble took advantage of the work to educate his parishioners on the saints sculpted for the doors. He himself chose Blessed Mother Teresa as one of the saints for this current century.

Making the doors was a two-year project, Fowler said, and longer, if the planning phase is included. Not only was there the making of the doors, but the cathedral’s door frames had to be reconstructed to hold the heavy metal doors. Additional equipment was installed to make the doors open more easily.

Fowler and Msgr. Ribble became good friends. “He loved everything I did,” she said, “encouraging me so much.” One thing Fowler did for the monsignor was to fly him to the Valley Bronze Foundry in Joseph, Ore., to look at the doors as the work progressed, she said.

Another quality comes forth in Fowler’s work. What is evident in “Heather’s Gift” is the vibrancy of the young woman. Fowler has done a number of pieces of young people, catching them at a particular place in time and the qualities of their youth, playfulness, meditativeness, is also caught. One statue depicts a young boy and a Golden Retriever, appearing ready to play a game of catch. In the boy’s back pocket is a slingshot, a realistic touch. Another shows young people enjoying snow sports, a work that graces Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort, which Jack had founded just before Fowler began studying sculpture. Jack himself was a model for “The Aviator,” a work commissioned by Boeing. This particular work, along with many others, is still sold by galleries.

Fowler said she never took a work she wasn’t inspired to do. Her work has been shown in galleries and she has done pieces on commission. Her subjects are varied: a ballerina; a young woman who has just arisen, drinking coffee; a young boy with a toy sailboat; a young girl with a shell; a young mother with baby, which is a particularly touching work; a young girl in a floppy sun hat. A statue at the Ronald McDonald House in Spokane depicts a mother holding her child’s hand, with a suitcase nearby. The work has become a symbol for some of the Ronald McDonald Houses.

Another special work in the field of aviation is a larger-than-life-size statue of Col. Michael Anderson in the Museum of Flight in Seattle. A smaller edition of the statue graces Riverfront Park in Spokane. Anderson, who considered Spokane his home, died in the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

A unique feature of Fowler’s work is the different colors of the bronze in the statues. This comes in the patina work, using various chemicals, Fowler said. Parts of a piece can range from silver to gold to bronze brown to pinkish brown, giving each a special depth of reality and emotion and a richness of character.

Fowler’s days are quieter now, much like the drive to her house on a warm early autumn day. Her studio holds many memories; the clay models and drawings of her work decorate the walls and peek out from cupboards and shelves. She and her husband raised six children, one of whom, a daughter, lives close by. Not only did the Fowlers raise their own children, they raised many foster children. They also hosted exchange students from foreign countries. “We loved doing that,” she said. One of the exchange students had just recently returned home to Guatemala after a visit with Fowler. Jack retired in the 1980s and died in 2009.

Fowler is modest when talking about her work, but acknowledges the special gift she was given. Even though an art major, she didn’t fully realize her gift for sculpting until age 51. Copies can be made of paintings long after they have been made and additional statues can be cast in bronze long after the artist has sculpted them. Fowler’s work, found in galleries, museums, and private residences will continue to bless future generations. Asked how she views her legacy, Fowler said, “I hope I’ve given pleasure to many people.”

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