Born in Tompkinsville on November 15, 1925, Joe Downing was one of eight children born to Aldridge Clifton and Katie Burton Goodman Downing. He grew up in Horse Cave, where he attended elementary and high school, graduating in 1943 as valedictorian of his class. Downing spent his youth observing and exploring the caves and landscape around him, unknowingly laying the groundwork for his amazingly creative works of art. Downing's work has long been known for his unique combination of media and technique, demonstrating a dedication to his personal artistic vision which he proudly acknowledged was rooted in his Kentucky home place.
Following his 18th birthday in November, 1943, Downing was inducted into the United States Army, where he served as an artillery observer in Europe during World War II. He was assigned to a unit that landed at Normandy soon after D-Day and the unit was engaged in a distinguished record of service leading to the end of World War II. Downing, himself, earned the Bronze Star with the citation for courage in action. While in Europe, Downing caught a brief glimpse of Paris, the city that would become his home in 1950 and where he maintained an apartment and studio until his death.
Following his return to the United States, Downing enrolled at Western Kentucky University for a portion of the 1945-46 school year, a time when he began to recognize his enthusiasm for art with the encouragement of Ivan Wilson. Following his parents' wishes, Downing turned his attention to preparation for a career in optometry when he enrolled in and graduated from the Northern Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago. During that time, however, Downing also took classes at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1950, following his graduation, Downing went to Paris for what was to be a three-month stint, only to find that he could not bring himself to leave. In 1952, Downing had his first one-man show, attended by Pablo Picasso, whose simple words of "well done" were encouragement enough to spur Downing on.
Downing's work is owned by such museums as the Paris Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as the Kentucky Museum in Bowling Green, the Speed Museum in Louisville and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art. Collectors around the world own his work, and he had showings across the globe, including Tokyo and much of Europe, as well as several shows over the years in Kentucky. Downing's natural creativity led him to write several books of poetry and, most recently, a book about growing up in Horse Cave.
Horse Cave native and internationally renowned artist Joseph Dudley Downing died December 29, 2007, at the age of 82. Downing passed away in the village of Menerbes in the Provence region of France, a place where he kept a home for over 40 years.
"Time and again, on canvas and tile, wood and leather, paper and linen. Downing rejoices in the very act of seeing: the visual possession and transformation of life. In the end, what strikes one most in this long song of praise to sight is its gathering freshness. Innocence, curiosity and desire haunt the paintings as they did Downing's mind as he daydreamed in the grottoes of Horse Cave. The source has widened but never grown tainted. This is the world of a man whom the dreams of childhood have never failed."
—excerpt from The Achievement of Joe Downing by Michael Peppiatt | Art International | Volume XXVI/4 September-October 1983
"Uncle Dudley's life was passion fully formed from an early age, yet was always in metamorphosis. For creativity is a constant state of change, and if Uncle Dudley's existence demonstrated any pure concept, it was that openness to change, and the ability to embrace and learn from the struggles it might bring, will keep you young until at least the age of 82. There was no one who more epitomized what he, himself, laughingly referred to as 'pathological optimism'."
—Elizabeth Downing | niece of Joe Dudley Downing
—Elizabeth Downing | neice of Joe "Dudley" Downing