The St. Olaf Art and Art History Department welcomed Visiting Assistant Professor Beth Dow to its ranks this fall, but it was certainly not the artist’s first time on campus. Dow graduated from St. Olaf in 1987 with a studio art degree and her photography has brought her back to Northfield since then, when Carleton College commissioned her work for a project.
Dow’s interest in photography began early, as her dad worked in experimental printing and photography.
“Some of my very earliest memories were sitting in my dad’s darkroom, watching prints come up in the developer,” Dow said.
The professor explored a variety of interests before returning to photography. She entered St. Olaf as an English major, worked on the Manitou Messenger staff, hosted a radio show and studied in England for a semester. Her time abroad proved so enjoyable that she moved to London after graduation and stayed there for eight years, working as an artist.
Over her career, Dow’s work has been exhibited in America, Britain, Japan, China, Switzerland and Germany, and has received many awards and reviews from a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe. Dow has also been awarded fellowships from the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.
Dow describes herself as having an artist’s mind, but she has always been drawn to teaching, too. As a young adult, she taught Sunday school, helped at a Tiny Tots program, coached t-ball and hosted workshops.
She attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota and then taught photography classes there, which sparked her passion for education.
“To get our brains working in ways we didn’t think they could work; to make associations in our own lives and with other people’s lives,” Dow said. “Tying your broader life into the medium, and tying the medium into your broader life. To me, that’s the most exciting part of teaching.”
While most students in Dow’s classes probably won’t go on to work as artists after graduation, she hopes that the courses still play an important role in their holistic education.
“My goal is to build a better audience,” she said. “We’re all going to consume images. I’m hoping to create a better audience, so that can carry on with them throughout their lives.”
“I love photography in all its forms, even when the forms are kind of awful, I love that there’s a conversation that can be had around them,” Dow said.
Dow doesn’t just work with photography; she also enjoys drawing, writing and craftsmanship. Part of her work at St. Olaf includes serving on the Folk School staff, where she teaches spoon carving and leatherwork. She additionally sings in the Prairie Fire Lady Choir, a women’s choir in Minneapolis and plays ukelele in weekend musical jam sessions.
Whatever she’s doing, the artistic process informs both Dow’s professional work and personal life. She noted being particularly drawn to certain objects, such as trees, without knowing the reason why. Pointing to a pile of negative slides on her desk, the artist described how she tends to hold on to objects that interest her without knowing the reason. This tendency allows her to remain open to the unexpected.
“Something excites me, and grabs my interest somehow ... I store it away in my house and my mind, and I find context for it later,” she said. “I will need those things someday and use them, but I don’t know how yet.”
While Dow values setting goals, she also emphasized the value in distraction. In her photography, she often sets out to create a certain project, but will find something new along the way that holds a certain magic.
She related the open-minded artistic process to the importance of college students seizing the variety of opportunities that St. Olaf offers.
“If there’s something that even just remotely interests you, look into it,” Dow said. “Join that club, or join that group and follow that interest. Because if it grabs your attention in some way, ... [it might] really figure into your lives,” Dow said. “So meet those people and make those connections while you’re here. Keep your eyes open for things that might surprise you, because that’s how you grow.”