He has been called the Michaelangelo of our times, and to look at Dr. Ronald McDowell today with all of the accolades bestowed on him from his art work, both in paintings and sculptures around the world, you might not have imagined these successes from a life filled with turmoil and torment.
From a childhood of dysfunctionality in all of his relationships, to being bullied and ridiculed as a child, to homelessness and all that being on the street has to offer a young person in a big city, Dr. Ron is now living the "American Dream.
While the struggles still exists, in life, and with being African American in America, Dr. Ron has proven many wrong, including himself, to become one of America's most celebrated visual artists.
I am sitting in the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom at the gala soiree HAL Awards, an annual scholarship fundraising event created by Ms. Janie Bradford, one of Motown's early songwriting partners with Berry Gordy, and sponsored by the Motown "family" to provide scholarships to young people to further their educations beyond high school and follow their dreams professionally.
I have been graciously asked to attend this event by Dr. Ron, to sit with him and his lovely family at his table while doing my research on him to write this article. It occurred to me while watching Dr. Ron, who is so comfortably introducing me to such dignitaries in the room as Martha Reeves, Mary Wilson, Janie Bradford, and many other Motown legends, that the loving hugs and exchanges between him and those dignitaries are of a man who has earned the respect of accomplished people in professional arts and music culture.
This revelation is also evidenced down South in Tuscumbia, Alabama at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, for example, where most of the portraits in the hall of fame are of some of Alabama's most notable and legendary celebrities the world over, and all were painted by Dr. Ron.
From Hank Williams, to Eddie Kendricks, to Lionel Ritchie, to name a few, in a stunning collection of come to life portraits you will ever see, Dr. Ron's paintings fill patrons emotionally as they stroll through the hall of fame.
Perhaps even more endearing to Dr. Ron is his relationship with the South's historical preservation of the Civil Rights era and those pioneers who worked and sacrificed to force America to realize it's promise as set in the constitution.
Dr. Ron has become one of the "go to" visual artists to erect sculptures, or paint portraits, of our country's civil rights leaders and the significant events of the movement.
These accomplishments are a far cry from his early days growing up in Pittsburgh, California, a suburb in the Bay area of San Francisco, or his "scared famous" days as a teenager in Hollywood where he would become Motown's unofficial portrait artist.
Joining the staff at Tuskegee University in 2015 was a crowning achievement in Dr. Ron's career. Becoming a professor of art instruction at one of this country's most prestigious Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), cemented for Dr. Ron a sense of arrival and purpose as he could now teach art to many hundreds of young adults who are empowered by a gift he says God gives us all. Not to be visual artists necessarily, but to be creators utilizing the gifts and skills God gives us all for quality of life.
Meeting and becoming friends with people like Coretta Scott King, Eddie Kendricks, Amelia Boynton (who "spiritually" adopted Dr. Ron as her God-son), and of course his endearing friendship with Michael Jackson, for whom he was Michael's art instructor and confidant for many years, has filled his heart for a lifetime.
Dr. Ron is very grateful and humbled for all of these blessings because he says these things did not happen by his plan, but by a higher Being's plan that he believes has a purpose for us all.
TOUCHED - The Ronald McDowell Story
He is the Picasso of the ghetto.
Born into poverty and raised in a housing project; childhood was an ugly, lonely time for Ronald McDowell.
But as an artist, he had the magic touch. When he touches a pencil and paper, a beautiful illustration appears. In his hands, paints and palettes morph into museum quality works of art. When he touches a lump of clay, it transforms into a sculpted masterpiece.
His touch has elevated him to a realm that is reserved for geniuses, the gifted and greats. Ronald McDowell is a celebrated artist with paintings, statues, murals and other artworks adorning public parks, libraries, banks, offices and homes of clients; including celebrities.
Ronald McDowell was touched by a supernatural power and in the early years it was as though he was cursed. No one around him understood how a baby in diapers could draw like he could.
This incredible journey is captured in TOUCHED: The Ronald McDowell Story
It is a story about the vicious beasts Ronald McDowell encountered as a child—abuse, rejection, ridicule and bullying; and the blessings that ultimately liberated him to become a modern-day renaissance artist.
--By, Karin Hopkins (Dr. Ron's Publicist)
Q&A with Dr. Ronald McDowell
Q) Dr. Ron, you have been referred to as the "Picaso of the Ghetto" and the "Modern day Michelangelo" for your works as a visual artist. How does those sentiments make you feel when you consider your humble beginnings?
A) The impact and influence that parents come up to me to tell me, or the young people themselves, how much they have learned, or the confidence they gained from unlocking their talents through my classes, keeps me humbled.
Q) Did you attend school for any formal training in the visual arts? How old were you when you discovered you had the gift to create art and what was your very first sketch?
A) I really taught myself how to draw and just expanded on this wonderful gift God gave me, something he gives us all. I started at a very early age, I am told, at only 11 months old. My siblings all could draw and I really learned a lot from my brother.
I became aware that I could really draw after winning an art contest in kindergarten.
Q) You were born in Northern California and had quite a thriving career in Hollywood, what prompted you to move away and go to Alabama?
A) It was sorta like that saying, "everything that glitters is not always gold". I made some wonderful friends while in Hollywood and especially with Motown where people mentored me, many are still my friends to this day, but I still felt a calling beyond that lifestyle, and you have to keep in mind, I came to Hollywood with no real money and was homeless for part of that time, something I hid from those music stars.
Q) I mentioned that you had quite a career going in Hollywood before leaving. Many people don't know that you were Michael Jackson's personal art instructor for several years and that you two became very good friends. How did you meet Michael and what was that time like for you?
A) It was the mid 1970's and a man by the name of Debow, who was Louis Armstrong's nephew, introduced me to Joe Jackson. He had seen this drawing I did of the Jackson 5 and couldn't wait to show it to them and to Joe.
Several days later, I was delivering a drawing I did for one of Motown's music engineers, Frank Wilson, and Joe Jackson was there. Joe told me he wanted me to meet his boys, they were recording in the studio. I was like, "you mean, the Jackson 5 are here recording?", and he replied, "Yes, I want you to meet them".
I was so totally unprepared to meet them. Keep in mind now, I was just a teenager myself. They came out of the studio, one-by-one, and Joe introduced me to each of them. Michael was the last one to emerge from the studio. Once we were all assembled in the green room, they teased me after complimenting me on the drawings they saw. They thought I was some 53 year old white man.
Michael quickly tugged me off on a side bar. He was elated and asked me to teach him how to draw like how I drew. I responded with, "I can't teach you how to draw, you're Michael Jackson, and besides, we are both kids."
He wouldn't hear of it and called me several times. Both Joe and Katherine agreed to it, and Michael and I began drawing together and became good friends. He was a wonderful visual artist.
Q) You of course did many portraits of the Motown artists over the years. What was that like meeting and capturing all of those great artists' likenesses on canvas? And, how did you get involved with Motown in the beginning?
A) Well, many Motown producers, writers, engineers and artists started hearing about my drawings over the weeks and months. Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations was the first Motown star that started requesting work from me regularly. He in fact thought it might be best to venture elsewhere, but he did not know that I was basically homeless and needed to keep trying to grow the work I was developing with Motown.
In time, Motown staff members began to mentor me, people like Iris Gordy, Willie Hutch and Melvin Whitfield. I even stayed at the Jackson home while working with Michael.
Q) I understand that the visual arts is not your only talent, and that a very famous singer actually wanted to manage you?
A) Yes, I sing as well. I only tell this story as part of my memoir about being scared famous. Because of the art work I was doing for Motown artists, I was led to also do work at many of the area schools where the celebrities' children attended classes.
I met Diana Ross through her brother, Chico, at school and she was impressed enough with my work to want to manage me. The same with Leon Sylvers of The Sylvers. Leon was actually quite passionate about working with me. I was real young and so scared that my on and off homeless situation would be revealed, and so I shied away from their offers.
Q) Since leaving Hollywood, you blossomed even more as a visual artist with your sculpted pieces and paintings for famous Civil Rights pioneers such as Coretta Scott King, Amelia Boynton and "Miss Nina" Miglionico, to name a few. How did you come to move to the South and begin such works?
A) Well, I actually moved back home to the Bay area, and there I met a man who I would come to call, Pops. Pops lived in Alabama, and was returning there. He offered me the chance to come to Alabama for a visit, and it was a spiritual awakening for me.
Hard to describe it, but it was like that feeling you get when you have gone on a vacation, or been traveling on business for a long time, and you just feel at ease when your keys open the door to your place, your home. That's what I felt.
I met a lady who was in charge of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Barbara Danner, and she offered me an opportunity to do portrait paintings of the many celebrities who became music legends, people like Hank Williams, Eddie Kendricks - who I had already had an association with at Motown, Lionel Ritchie, and so many others. It was sustained work, for the first time in my life.
And then later, the President of Tuskegee University, who had been wanting to develop an art curriculum at the university, heard about my work, and asked me to join their staff to teach and provide art instruction.
I was home. It was as if all of the torment and turmoil of growing up in Northern California, followed by me being "scared famous" in Hollywood with all of these music icons, was all in preparation to come to the Southeast, headquarters for the Civil Rights movement, and capture visually the struggles and the victories of America's ugly history. This reflected much of what I experienced personally coming of age.
Q) You have been working on your life story as a memoir and a planned documentary, and movie. What do you wish to accomplish with telling your story, and who do you want to reach when these presentations are done?
A) I want this documentary and movie, as well as my memoirs, to reach children, especially poor kids and those that are impoverished and disenfranchised. Truly, if I can become a professor of art instruction at an institution such as Tuskegee University, or teach a superstar like Michael Jackson how to draw, from where I came from in my life, they too can achieve great things. They need real examples of this and that's what I want my story to be, an example of how God works in all souls.
Q) If you were giving this coming year-end commencement speech at Tuskegee University, what would you like to say to the young men and women who will be beginning their journey as young adults from school into work life?
A) We all have doubts about who we are and what we want to be or do, but always believe in yourself because God has given us all gifts to survive and to thrive.
Let your work be a Labor of Love and not Labor of Money. When you have a true passion for what you love, that will eventually sustain you in all the needs for your life.
Thank you Dr. Ron. We look forward to much more visual arts from you, and for your new book and documentary.