Artist's portraits are multimedia memory holders

Charlotte artist Sharon Dowell's favorite memory involves her former hometown of New York City.

In a new self-portrait, Dowell used graphite, collage and ink to depict a New York City subway map, with a path between where she lived and Bethesda Fountain in Central Park highlighted in red. Living there "changed my life," she says. "It helped me to think for myself. I blossomed there."

This work is among 40 portraits she has created in the past three months, the result of an idea she had during her recent stint as an affiliate artist at the McColl Center for Visual Art: She put out a call for Charlotteans - friends and strangers - to send her a favorite memory, along with a picture.

Dowell, 31, used these two pieces of inspiration to create a portrait, and the collection is on display as a window exhibit in uptown's Transamerica Square titled "What Color Is Your Memory?" The space, on Seventh Street between Church and Tryon streets, is granted in six-month increments to artists from North Carolina and South Carolina by the McColl Center.

"I do portraits here and there ... (but) this work is really different because people know me for my architectural imagery," says Dowell.

She paints building facades and is designing work that is sponsored by the public art commission for the Lynx Blue Line light-rail extension. "They are like, 'Oh, you are the fire escape painter,' or, 'You paint those New York paintings.' "

Her best market

Born and raised in Houston, Dowell graduated with a BFA from UNC Charlotte in 2002, moved to New York for that life-changing year, then returned here to find lots of success. She landed exhibitions at - among others - Shain Gallery, The Light Factory, Green Rice Gallery and Center of the Earth Gallery.

At Center of the Earth, she was an intern, then gallery associate, then director, a position she held until the gallery closed in 2010. "Charlotte has been really great for me. It's been my best market."

For "What Color Is Your Memory?" Dowell used acrylic, graphite, ink and collage to create the portraits on 3-by-3, 6-by-6 and 10-by-10-inch squares. The project was given a boost when Pat Love of the Stratford Richardson YMCA brought a group of senior citizens to Dowell's NoDa studio.

Many of their memories were of their school days, which prompted Dowell to paint backgrounds of letters of the alphabet. One woman reminisced about her dad taking her candy shopping when she was a child. Others wrote about meeting their spouses, or the birth of their children.

Not surprisingly, Dowell found it easier to create portraits of people she knew than of strangers. She depicts her friend Scott Partridge, a Charlotte artist, reading a book, with a background of rocks and water that reflect his memory of the ocean. A portrait of Dowell's boyfriend, Asjah Nixon, shows him as a teenage skateboarder.

"The colors came easier," she says. "Knowing someone, you know what it should look like beforehand."