Antioch artist Dennis Downes, Trail Marker Tree sculptor, dies

“I was just getting to like me,” said Antioch artist and historian Dennis Downes during a 2021 interview with the Daily Herald, while addressing his 2016 Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

Though said with self-effacing humor, Downes came late to that realization. He had been revered for decades for his research, award-winning work and especially for his illumination and preservation of Native American history.

Downes, 72, died Feb. 25 with his wife, Gail Spreen Downes, at his side in their Antioch home overlooking Channel Lake.

Even in the days before his death Downes was thinking of new projects.

“He just never stopped creating, and he never complained,” his wife said. “He always kept going, and I think if I have learned and taken so much appreciation from it, you just keep going, you never give up. When it’s your passion you just do it.”

Born in Chicago, Dennis Downes earned honors from the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Illinois Park and Recreation Association, the State of Idaho and the towns of Antioch, Glenview and Northbrook.

Downes was a Glenbrook North High School graduate, as were siblings Lou, Harry, Patrick, and Maryann. In 2012, the school honored Downes as its “Distinguished Alumnus.”

Spreen Downes said The Explorers Club, based in New York City, is creating a Dennis Downes American Wilderness Grant. Independent filmmaker Lesley Topping is in post-production on a Downes documentary, “Tree Hunter: Portrait of an American Artist.”

Downes’ signature project was seeking, researching and sculpting a series of Trail Marker Trees, recreations of actual trees used by native North Americans as a navigational system.

Installations of these sculptures include a 16-foot, steel-and-resin tree at The Grove in Glenview, a 7-foot Downes tree in Antioch, and his first large tree, a 5-foot 2009 work purchased by the late movie director John Hughes and his wife, Nancy, for their Redwing Estate in Harvard. Downes was a pallbearer at Nancy Hughes’ funeral.

A 7-foot tree completed before his death will be installed this spring in Harbor Springs, Michigan, said Spreen Downes, who married her husband in May 2006.

“Dennis was not only a talented and accomplished artist, he was a man that loved nature,” said Michael McCarty, executive director of the Glenview Park District. “He was a tremendous supporter of The Grove and protecting its natural resources and history for future generations. His legacy will live on in the many pieces of artwork he created, including the large trail marker tree at The Grove.”

Artist and author Dennis Downes pictured during a dedication and blessing ceremony of his bronze sculpture of a trail marker tree on Main Street in downtown Antioch. Daily Herald file, 2018

In appreciation of his pursuit of Native American history, in 2016, an Ojibwe ceremony gave him the name, Mayaagaabaw — “He Stands Foremost Amongst Others.”

The following year in Glenview, Downes received the Eagle Feather Award from Hilda Williams, a direct descendant of Ottawa Chief Pontiac.

Over more than three decades, his research spanned 600,000 miles across 42 states and five Canadian provinces. It was the basis of his 2011 book, “Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness.”

Beyond the tree sculptures, in 2010, an 8-foot Downes bronze of Capt. George Wellington Streeter was installed at McClurg Court in Chicago.

In 2011, Downes earned a proclamation by Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter for a high-relief bronze of Saint Valentin Berrio-Ochoa now displayed in the Basque Museum & Cultural Center in Boise — after Cardinal Francis George blessed it in Chicago.

Downes’ Basque mother, Mary Berriochoa, was related to the saint and grew up in Mountain Home, Idaho. Downes’ childhood visits West first sparked his interest in Native American history.

He restored two wooden boats as part of the Blackhawk Chapter of the Antique Boats Society. Downes also made more than 300 trips to Iserhoff Island in Ontario’s Wilderness Coast to build his “Barbarian Shelter,” a handmade log cabin. Only the front door remained to be hung, Spreen Downes said.

A dashing figure with white hair and handlebar mustache, Downes was a veteran lecturer and television interview subject who appeared in the film “23 Blast” and had his portrait on the cover of the novel “Ghost Bandit.”

“When Dennis wore his white shirt and black vest, I always say he was born 100 years too late,” Spreen Downes said.

He started creating art at 4 years old and over his lifetime participated in more than 150 solo, juried, public and private shows. His works spanned a variety of media and are in personal and private collections nationwide.

“Of all the people I’ve ever met, Dennis was the most determined and disciplined, someone who never gives up,” Spreen Downes said.

“I mean, talk about picking the hardest career as a professional artist, and through it all he just kept going, never gave up, never stopped, never thought he was going to change his plans. This was his profession, his passion,” she said.

Services will be held Saturday at Kelley & Spalding Funeral Home in Highland Park.

Dennis Downes atop his hand-built Studio North cabin, also known as the “Barbarian Shelter,” on Iserhoff Island in Ontario’s Wilderness Coast. Courtesy of Dennis Downes
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