LINDON — Art has many definitions. To Eric Dowdle, those definitions are fluid, and the same has held true for his life.
"I wanted to be a professional basketball player, but it didn't work out," he said, while putting the finishing touches on his latest artwork. "I couldn't jump, shoot or dribble, really."
To Dowdle, creating art involves research. It involves meticulous planning.
"My goal is to tell a complete story," he said.
His finished pieces may turn out just how he'd envisioned, but that's rarely the case with life.
"When it came to art in high school, that's what I did between seasons," said Dowdle. I grew up in Idaho and Wyoming, and after high school, I moved to Boston."
Life on the East Coast turned out to be a bit of a culture shock to the young man. As the years passed, his ideas about art began to change.
"Realism was where it's at to my parents," said Dowdle. "If it didn't look like a photo, it wasn't a painting. You see a deer, paint a deer."
So one form of art he never thought he'd be using his brushes to create was folk art.
"I used to think folk artists actually did folk art cause they couldn't paint," said Dowdle. "I'm like, 'Poor guy. He's not very good.'"
But preconceptions were made to be painted over. And now, a folk artist is exactly what Dowdle is.
"I've had people like, 'That's not folk art,'" he said. "Folk art, to me, by definition, it's the relationship between people and their environment."
He paints those people and those environments in places all across the world. It's not realistic, and it's not widely respected in the art community — but it certainly is liberating.
"There's a much more creative process sometimes than taking a photo and duplicating it," said Dowdle. "I learned it from Charles Wysocki. He, to me, is the father of folk art. It just allows you to break rules and construct things and people in a way that breaks the rules of perspective. People can be big, cats can be big, things can be small. It allows you a lot of freedom to tell a bigger story."
Liberating creatively, but even starving artists have to eat. And one medium in particular seemed to fit together with his form of art like a puzzle.
"Folk art, I learned, is the best venue for a puzzle," said Dowdle. "Because there's so much going on."
People just become themselves when they do a puzzle. I used to get my kids to confess stuff to me. They didn't know they were doing it, but I'd do a puzzle with them, and before long, you know, finding out she kissed her boyfriend.
Dowdle found that corner piece, and the jigsaw of his life began to take shape. Most of his artwork is turned into puzzles and ends up on shelves across the world.
"People will be like, 'Yeah, Puzzle Guy! Puzzles!'" said Dowdle. "No one goes to art school going, 'Someday, I'm going to be that guy.'"
Some artists may look down on his creations, a fact Dowdle has come to accept.
"In the elite crowd, they wouldn't know, recognize or care about what I do at all," he said.
Puzzles have become his passion, and his collection continues to grow. The number of titles and puzzles he now offers has passed 200.
"If I didn't like puzzles, this would be terrible," said Dowdle.
He said he finds them particularly interesting because of their ability to bring people together.
"People just become themselves when they do a puzzle," said Dowdle. "I used to get my kids to confess stuff to me. They didn't know they were doing it, but I'd do a puzzle with them, and before long, you know, finding out she kissed her boyfriend."
Despite the lack of professional acclaim from his peers, you can't argue with Dowdle's success. He's sold millions of his puzzles worldwide, and his product can be found in stores like Wal-Mart and Costco across the country. He's become so successful that he even has a new TV show on PBS, "Painting the Town with Eric Dowdle," where cameras follow him to different cities, showing him researching landmarks and meeting the locals before painting a picture of their town.
Dowdle is also expanding his art into more elaborate three-dimensional forms called "Stratascapes." One aspect of his business he's especially proud of is that he makes all his products in the U.S.
"We moved away from making production overseas eight years ago," said Dowdle. "When we were making our puzzles in China, the factory next to us was making the American flag, so I didn't feel too bad."
Eventually, difficulties with shipping and quality control led him to move all his production stateside.
"You're doing an order, you have a great company that wants your product, and something goes wrong at the factory," said Dowdle. "All orders have a cancel date. You miss your cancel date, you go from being positive, or in the black, to being in the red. And that's what happened to us. Things are going well, and then all the sudden you lose a million dollars."
We could definitely make more money and sell more if we went overseas. There's no question. So when something does cost a lot, if it says 'Made in China,' don't pay for it.
Dowdle doesn't pull any punches when it comes to his experiences trying to make his puzzles in China.
"The quality's not as good," he said. "Your communication's very difficult. So many things can happen — we had a boat break down in the ocean, and we didn't get our product. We were three weeks late. It hurt us bad."
His decision to move was difficult, but he believes it was the right call.
"I could sell these for $50 if I made them in China," said Dowdle, pointing to his Stratascapes. "But I have to sell them for $250 because I do them here. It does negate some of our clientele, but that's the route we've chosen to go. We could definitely make more money and sell more if we went overseas. There's no question. So when something does cost a lot, if it says 'Made in China,' don't pay for it."
Dowdle's main puzzle factory is in Indiana, but he has plans to move it to Utah, where he currently has a handful of people working on his Stratascapes.
His building in Lindon isn't just a small art studio. To Dowdle, it's big business. And while they still have fun, Dowdle makes sure everyone knows his opinions.
"Only problem is I'm extremely critical," he said, cringing. "Which really makes my wife happy."
To Dowdle, his creations aren't just pieces of art, they're his children. He wanders from employee to employee, pointing out small issues with production. But he said no one takes offense and understands the desire to make the product as perfect as possible.
"We yell," he said. "And we don't feel like we're working."
Life is more like a puzzle than a painting, but Dowdle has come to embrace who he is: half artist, half businessman.
"As much as I want to paint that amazing landscape, that's just not what I'm going to do," he said.
It's not the NBA, and you won't find any of his puzzles in a museum, but to Dowdle, his life ended up fitting together perfectly, and he takes pleasure in knowing people appreciate his artwork — even if they only see it on a coffee table.
"You'll spend four to five hours staring at the art," he said. "And people start to recognize and understand and see the creative side. They'll stare at it far more than anything they will on the wall."
You can learn more about Eric Dowdle and his puzzles by visiting his website.