For weeks, the Votes for Women project has been telling stories about women in Nashville whose names you probably know — community leaders, CEOs, the heads of local nonprofits.
But what about other women in Nashville? They're also at the heart of what Nashville Public Library (NPL) does every day — and the issues, challenges, and opportunities they experience are at the core of the Votes for Women mission.
So, as we approach the summer 2020 opening of Votes for Women, we're taking time now to introduce you to women whose names you might not yet know ... but whose stories, insights, and accomplishments are worth discovering.
Amanda Downs Paints for Expression, Escape, and Hope
It was Bob Ross who showed her that she could be a professional artist.
That’s what Amanda Downs, a Nashville artist and single mother of two, said about her decision to start painting full-time in March 2017.
Attending a beginner’s painting session at NPL’s Hermitage Branch, featuring Ross’s syndicated TV show, The Joy of Painting, Amanda joined with others to paint a mountain landscape. She loved how the piece turned out.
Amanda didn’t bring any paints or brushes to the class — she had none to bring. But as soon as the session was over, Amanda went to a local craft store, got her own materials, and has been painting ever since.
Today, Amanda manages her own art agency, and her work has been featured in art crawls, art centers, and other venues all over Nashville.
But the passion for art was in her heart long before Ross showed her that “you too can paint almighty pictures.”
Overcoming Early Struggles
Growing up in Knoxville, Amanda found joy in the art she saw around her. She felt the desire to paint throughout her K - 12 years, but support for her ambitions was hard to find.
“My family told me there was no money in painting,” Amanda said. “When the time came to go to college, I chose to major in English. I wanted to be an English teacher, but it wasn’t a natural fit for me.”
Another challenge Amanda faced was her dyslexia. It made studying, and self-expression, difficult. Despite this, Amanda remained steadfast in her dedication and obtained an associates degree in English, going on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University.
While it made her life more difficult in some ways, Amanda said she doesn’t count her dyslexia as a disability. Instead, she believes it allows her to see the world in a different way.
And for a creator, few traits are more essential.
Breaking Through with a Brush
Amanda said that her grandmother, Ceola Allison, was her biggest source of encouragement when she started painting.
“I told her, ‘I’m too old to start.’ She pointed out some of the older artists who were creating these amazing works of art and said to me, ‘You’re never too old to start,’” Amanda said.
Ceola’s influence extended to more than just art. She was Amanda’s role model for how to navigate through life, how to overcome obstacles, and how to find joy in the little things each day.
Armed with that inspiration, Amanda set out to pursue her passion in earnest. One of the first stops on her journey was Periscope, an eight-week training program for artists, with an emphasis on both artistic and entrepreneurial skills, sponsored by the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville.
“I learned so much going through the program. What helped me the most was the opportunity to connect with more artists in the community,” Amanda said.
Not long after, Amanda had her very first solo exhibit, “The Core Essence,” hosted in February 2019 by abrasiveMedia, a non-profit that helps connect artists with training, studio rentals, and other resources. Amanda’s art show explored themes of women’s mastery of the self, African American heritage and pride, and astrological and mythological themes.
“‘The Core Essence’ show had such a huge impact on my career and my confidence as an artist. It showed me that if you work hard and believe in what you’re doing the right people will notice, and doors will open for you,” Amanda said.
An Artist’s Place in the World
Today, Amanda’s art career is thriving. Her art agency, Creative Legacy Art, serves the Nashville community with original artwork, painting classes, and clothing featuring Amanda’s work.
Through NPL, Amanda has also used her unique talents to give back to the community, teaching free painting classes at the Hermitage Branch.
But for Amanda, her greatest achievement will always be her family. Having made the decision to homeschool both of her kids, Amanda uses the Hermitage Branch location to facilitate their education.
“One of my proudest decisions was choosing to homeschool my children,” Amanda said. “It allows me to offer a more meaningful education that is specific to their needs and interests. I want to leave a legacy of thinking outside the box and grow close with them.”
The Power of Art — The Power of Women
On her role as a woman, and the state of women in society, Amanda has mixed feelings.
“I think the biggest advantage of being a woman is being able to have children and shape their early development. That’s not something we should take for granted,” Amanda said. “We are our children’s first teacher. We shape the mind of the world.”
However, she also said she believes that moving away from the traditional values of home and family is making us sick.
A woman’s power, a recurring theme in Amanda’s work, is also a prominent subject at NPL. It’s a topic our library is exploring in depth this year with Votes for Women.
Set to open later this year, our new, permanent exhibit explores the history of the women’s suffrage movement, the progress we’ve made to empower women and girls as equal stakeholders in our society, and asks the question: What comes next for women in our world?
To help us find the answers, we asked Amanda for her insights into what life is like for women now, and what she thinks lies ahead.
What do you want to be different for the next generation of women?
I want women to not have to worry about if they can afford food, clothes, or medicine for their families. That applies to all people as well. When you’re not focused on survival, you can focus on creativity, and how you can contribute to others.
What does the right to vote mean to you?
It means that every citizen has the constitutional right to vote. Currently women need to think about a movement that ensures that politicians are indeed representing the people when they are elected. Women could become more involved in checks and balances before, during, and after elections.
What form of power do you not have that you wish you did?
Socioeconomic balance in our culture. There are still disadvantaged people that have diminished physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as safety and well-being inside our American system. If we could modify the socioeconomic status in the U.S., that would improve the nation.
Entrepreneurship could help change that. It gives me hope, and I won’t stop trying to improve life for myself and my children because I ultimately want to be in the position to help others.
The process of creating art has taught me that when you start a project you will come to a point when what you are creating does not at all match the vision in your mind, but that does not mean you should stop — it just means you're not finished yet.