In an upstairs studio in his south Minneapolis home, Douglas R. Ewart demonstrates one of his many creations. The one he calls the People’s Idiophone, a large metal contraption clangs in various tones as he plays.
“[It’s made of] lots of cooking utensils, pot covers, trays, hubcaps, old symbols,” Ewart said.
The metallic items hang on a frame that almost takes up an entire wall in the main room of the studio. It is part of a larger collection Ewart has dubbed his “crepuscular instruments” because as the term means twilight, the instruments are fashioned from household items near the end of their original use.
“I can take that item and transform it into a stamping stick or a drum or a picture frame,” Ewart said. “It's left to my imagination.”
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He also plays more familiar instruments, such as flutes and the didgeridoo, a wooden wind instrument.
Jeff Bailey, a professor of practice in music at Hamline University, has known Ewart for years. He said Ewart comes from a musical tradition that isn’t concerned with labels but could be generally described as improvisational jazz.
“Some might call it avant-guarde” Bailey said, “part of it is a willingness to be very present in the moment and reactive, instead of falling back to overly systematic approaches to music.”
Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Ewart studied to be a tailor in high school before coming to the U.S. in 1963. While in his 20s, he picked up a saxophone. By late 1967, he decided to pursue music and continued to work as a tailor.
“There's this notion that you can only do one thing well,” Ewart said, “I disagree with that philosophy. And, in fact, I try to impart to my students to do several things.”
Along with his musical prowess, Ewart also creates visual arts and continues to tailor and design clothes. Ewart also taught at the Chicago Art Institute School.
Even as his reputation in music and visual art grew, friends and fellow musicians also know Ewart for his ability as a collaborator and teacher.
“He's a community artist who works, and he teaches, supports, includes, encourages, stands up for, and participates in art and creation,” said Mankwe Ndosi, a Minneapolis-based musician.
Ndosi also credits Ewart with helping her develop as a multidisciplinary artist.
“One of the things that he did, which was most influential to me, is showing me how many different ways you can live as an artist and ways that you can support yourself,” she said.
The McKnight Foundation honored Ewart’s years of community engagement and artistry with this year’s Distinguished Artist Award, which carries with it a $100,000 prize.
Ewart hopes to use the money and recognition he’s received from McKnight to continue his community education and to create.
“The things that it will enable me to do are the things that I'm already engaged in on maybe a easier level” Ewart said, “wherever I go, I’m always trying to do positive work.”