Justin T. A. Downs
Died: Jul 26, 2021
Justin Thomas Andrew Downs of Brooklyn, New York, died on July 27, 2021 in Fahnestock State Park, NY. He was 41. He leaves behind his loving mother, Linda Downs and his aunts, Katherine Sylvan, Sarah Downs, Katy Downs and Elizabeth Collins. His father, Timothy Downs, predeceased him.
Justin Downs was born in Detroit, MI on March 30, 1980. His family moved to Bethesda, MD in 1989. He received a scholarship to attend The School of Visual Arts where he received a BFA in Fine Arts and Semiotics in 2002. For his master’s project he invented the “Personal Range Finder,” a remote detection device to facilitate movement by the visually impaired. The Helen Keller Foundation and Avelient BioPharm Group supported it.
In addition to earning multiple technical certifications ranging from mechanical engineering to solar installation, Justin was an avid and dedicated artist. He exhibited his art and design projects at various venues including: D.U.M.B.O. Arts Festival, “The Living Room” (2002); “Visionary Architecture” at Dia Beacon (2009); Interactives at Eyebeam, “Watch What You Are” (2008); “Will O The Wisps” at Free 103.9”s Wave Farm (2010); and “Sonic Prism” at Organizmo, Bogota, Colombia (2016).
Justin earned awards and grants in diverse fields including the “Editors Choice Award” at the New York Maker Faire (2016). He received a major grant from NYSCA to produce “Electronic Media and Film” (2008); a National Science Foundation AISL Award for community wireless networks; and a joint grant from National Geographic and Microsoft for “AI for Earth” (2019) to create photo records and indexing to track and preserve lions in East Africa.
Justin established his first company, John Henry’s Hammer, for design engineering, fabrication, consultation in 1998. In 2001 he designed and fabricated the first metal display cases for the American Folk Art Museum. Justin developed and fabricated works for several artists. He was design/fabrication and production manager for the Starn Twins on a carbon arc lamp for the exhibition “Attracted to Light” from 2002 to 2005 in Stockholm, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He was in charge of the engineering systems and design fabrication of David Byrne’s “Playing the Building” in New York, Sweden and London from 2005 to 2008.
As one of the founding members and CTO of Ground Lab (2008) Justin designed and engineered a medical health device for UNICEF, among other projects. In 2009 he was founding design engineer for The Lion Guardians: Living with Lions in Kenya, Africa. For this project Justin built a three-story tree house for game wardens and researchers in the bush for which he had to engineer WiFi and a remote solar system. He also designed and engineered the first lion tracking collars and surveying instruments. In 2015 he became the director of LINC, a lion database and computer visual facial recognition system for identifying lions by ten lion preservation organizations in East Africa.
From 2012 to 2021 Justin was Vice President of the Nullary Care Community Health Initiative called Cyclopedia, where he and his cousin Geoffrey Collins, MD, MPH worked with elementary and high school students and their parents in East Harlem to maintain good health through good nutrition and exercise as well as working on science projects. He thoroughly enjoyed working with children on science and engineering projects as well as biking with them throughout the summer, culminating in a four-boroughs bike ride.
His work took him to the Indianapolis Zoo where he developed a prototype interactive game for primates which is now being used in an elementary school; to Nicaragua where he was systems engineer for the non-profit Grid Alternatives, installing micro-grid drip irrigation designs for medical clinics, schools and rural towns; to remote areas in Colombia where he designed solar systems including a musical solar instrument that created tones related to the intensity of the solar rays for Organizmo; to Nepal where he was asked to design solar power for schools; and to Appalachia with Allied Media Projects, for which he designed and installed communication grids; he also consulted for the Modi Research Lab at Columbia University to design medical devices in Mali and India.
Justin was known as a highly principled, imaginative and committed individual whose passions led him to support open access, fair housing and wages, and vast knowledge of sustainable communities from prehistoric times to the present and he made efforts to contribute his expertise to small communities. Recently, he and his Aunt Sarah planned a community mural with members of the Big Potato Foundation in Apopka, Florida that celebrated their lives, traditions and work.
Justin published extensively in media such as The Huffington Post and Rhizome. He lectured on open-source manufacturing, sustainability and specific projects at the University of Southern California, Queens College, Rutgers University, Columbia University and the Wildlife Conservation Society. He taught the flagship electronics and solar technology at Brooklyn International Highschool/BEAM Center.
Justin was an outstanding athlete. Since his arrival in New York City, his only transportation was by bicycle. Over the years he built many bikes for himself and friends. He was an outstanding swimmer, hiker, runner, sailor and recently, a practitioner of kung fu and qigong, sources of great enjoyment. After trips with his family around the United States, sailing in the Bahamas, Mexico, Spain and Germany, he took off by himself to explore Europe for a summer. Throughout his life he traveled to Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Israel, Jordan, Nepal, India and the Andes. He climbed the Himalayas where he saved his two porters from drowning crossing several rivers in a torrential flood. He climbed up Machu Picchu, through the ruins of Petra and Mt. Kenya where he saved a fellow hiker from falling off a cliff.
Justin was a friend of the earth who sought oneness and peace with the universe. His spirit will endure with his family, friends, colleagues and all the people whose lives he touched around the world. He was a life-long supporter of the New York Metropolitan Housing Council, Greenpeace, the ACLU and NYCLU. Donations in remembrance of Justin may be given in his name to these organizations. A Zoom celebration of his life will be held on August 12th at 7:30 pm for his family and friends.