February 20, 2001
by Michael Smith
Casey Downing, Jr. was born in Tuscaloosa while his father attended law school. Back in Mobile, his parents' home, Casey grew up knowing he would be bored with the research his father was required to do. He enjoyed art, but never thought he could make a living at it. And the only statuary he had seen was Admiral Semmes and what was displayed in the Catholic churches he attended.
Downing went to McGill, but transferred to Murphy to take a drafting class as he thought he might like designing buildings. After a local architect told him that he would be out of school ten years before he would get to design anything, Casey gave up that idea.
Because he was not ready to go to college, Casey joined the Navy. He did not see the world, but he did not go to Vietnam either; he was stationed in Pensacola where he taught helicopter instrumentation and navigation. While serving his country, Downing began taking courses at Pensacola Junior College. Once discharged, he transferred to South, a university his father had helped establish, and took courses in commercial art. He realized quickly though that he did not want to design milk cartons, clothes, or furniture.
At the urging of one of South's art professors, Emily Savage, Casey attended a lecture given by sculptor/instructor Jeff Bayer from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. During the talk, Downing experienced what he refers to as an epiphany: he understood that he was meant to be a sculptor. He transferred immediately to U.A.H. where he completed his Bachelor's degree, majoring in sculpture and minoring in both art history and art education K-12. Downing knew that he wanted to sculpt and/or teach.
At his downtown Mobile studio, he gets to do both. Casey has several students who regularly work on personal sculpture projects and has had at least one student continuously for the past sixteen years. There are no classes and no formal instruction; rather, Downing advises each individually how to best accomplish the desired goal.
And all the while he works. Sculpting since 1978, Casey believes he may be Mobile's first full-time sculptor. Clay models and bronze busts burden the shelves of his modeling studio. An eighteen-inch D'Iberville and a two-foot Joe Cain are clay models Casey prepared as speculative work--work that he would like to do but for which he needs a patron. He hopes Mobile might be the beneficiary of those particular sculptures in the future.
A gracefully-curved, silver wood piece stood alone on one shelf, a model for a sculpture Casey envisioned several years ago. It is a sculpture with "a coastal beat," portraying the movement of both waves and flight. When the Art Patrons League approached him to consider a piece for Mobile's three hundredth birthday, he already had the model prepared. The thirteen-foot stainless steel "Portal" will be unveiled at Cooper Riverside Park next year.
Casey's art, at least for the past five years, has primarily been commissioned work. Although he does not think of the commissioned pieces as being that much different from the speculative work, the former allows him to place his work before the public.
Downing feels fortunate that so much of his art can be viewed in and around his hometown. His sculptures are literally all over the Mobile Metropolitan area: the stainless steel "Departure" at the Mobile Airport, the stainless steel "Vis-a-Vis" at 1 Maison (on Airport Boulevard), the fabricated bronze at Mobile College, and the bronze fountain piece named "A Small Wonder" in front of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, Mobile Branch. Not to be forgotten are the painted steel playground at a day care center on Washington Avenue, the sign for Cathedral Square Park, two bike racks on downtown Dauphin Street, and a large stainless abstract at 1 St. Louis Center. On the Eastern Shore are two pieces which he designed and built in collaboration with Dentist Barry Booth: a hand holding an American flag in Daphne and a large paper clip in Spanish Fort. Casey's sculptures also reside in Dothan, Montgomery, and Birmingham as well as Atlanta and Toronto.
Downing is currently working on the clay for a large bronze Buffalo Soldier on horseback which is going to Huntsville; after fighting alongside Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, those troops were stationed in Huntsville. "Portal" has progressed to the point where the metal is formed and the pieces are being put together. In a third sculpture, a sixteen-foot bronze shofar (a ceremonial ram's horn trumpet) being prepared for the Synagogue just off of Airport Boulevard, the waxes have been made and are being cast. The three large sculptures, one realistic, one non-referential, and one abstract, respectively, provide Casey the opportunity to labor on different types of sculpture at one time, making his work satisfying and enjoyable.
Downing did not pursue art to find a niche where he could produce sculpture which would be identified as his style so that he could keep doing the same thing over and over. That would be akin to the factory worker who regularly produced the same material or commercial good. Simply put: "Art is expression. Creativity is Expressing. So I express and don't worry about the rest."
Looking back on his high school drafting class, Casey said that it was the most valuable course he took because it taught him the mechanics of sculpture; it provided him the fundamentals for cutting a pattern from a flat sheet of metal and shaping it into a three dimensional work. He thinks of his sculpture as the animation of geometry, a joining together of the organic with the mechanical world.
Casey's work allows him to continually experiment and learn, something which gives him great pleasure. His sculptures give us, the public, the opportunity to think and learn as well.
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