A wood-shingled house, located in northeast Baltimore lay vacant for two decades until 2011, when by Brian Dowdall, 69 and his partner, Alison Spiesman, two idiosyncratic artists, moved in and called it their own. A mapping error makes it nearly impossible to locate the house, utilizing a GPS navigation device, because it has two physical addresses that are both inaccurate.
The 5,000 pieces of art that is outside of the mainstream, referred to as “visionary”, “self-taught” or “outsider.” The couple’s voice message simply says, “You’ve reached visionary! Please leave a message,” with a sitar, a stringed instrument utilized mainly in Indian and Hindustani music, playing in the background.
Dowdall appearance is old school and his thick, curly white hair hangs down past his shoulders. His baseball cap displays an American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) logo, a single eye. Those interested in Dowdall’s art can visit the museum, where it is on display.
The 5,000 pieces of visionary art is scattered throughout the house, beginning in the kitchen and extending into each bedroom. The couple refers to the house as “Howl’s Moving Castle,” like the flying castle in the anime film of the same name.
Dowdall’s art, colorful, euphoric paintings with goddesses and “animal spirits.” He works mostly with tempera, fast drying, permanent painting medium, and on cardboard. Dowdall himself did most of the art, while the rest belongs to widely known outsider artists, either obtained through gifts, trading and bartering.
The collection is a treasure trove of visionary art that was created before the turn of the century. It was at one time stored inside of Dowdall’s house “the cave” in Cocoa Beach, Florida and storage containers.
In 2010, Founder and Director of AVAM, Rebecca Hoffberger, got an opportunity to see Dowdall’s collection. She said her first thought was “We’ve got to do something” to preserve it.
Baltimore city officials allow artists to in the house in exchange for providing art to the city. Despite the fact that the house did not have any heat, paint on the walls or modern plumbing pipes, Dowdall and Spiesman jumped on the idea.
Spiesman and Dowdall have created several murals in Baltimore’s city parks, with vivid colors and wondrous creatures that draw attention from afar. The couple has plans to start a children’s program in the local recreation centers, providing them with a “satellite visionary experience.”
Dowdall and Spiesman are also beginning to catalogue their 5,000-piece collection, documenting where and how each piece was acquired. Spiesman said, “We’ll leave it as a gift after we’re dead.”