By Donna Lewis Johnson
Special to the AFRO

After 32 years of federal service, Prince George’s County native Monique Downs, 56, retired from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on Dec. 31 and has picked back up a favorite pastime she shelved for nearly forty years- painting.   

“When I was young, I would be up on Saturday mornings, after cartoons, and I’d watch Bob Ross,” said Downs, with her molasses-rich voice unfolding in thick waves of laughter. “I loooved Bob Ross,” she swooned. 

After over 30 years in federal service, and retirement from the CIA, Monique Downs, 56, is going to start a career as a professional artist. (Photo by Donna Lewis Johnson)

Her muse, the host of “The Joy of Painting,” on public television, was known for his mesmerizing voice, bushy hair and step-by-step instructions on how to paint. 

“And he’d talk like this,” Downs whispered, imitating Ross’ iconic hushed diction.  “And whatcha need to do is take a little bit of ochre,” she continued, immersed in the indelible memory.

Inspired by Ross’ ability to easily transform blank canvases into landscapes, Monique took up art in high school, creating her first painting, a ram poised on a mountaintop glade.

“I will never forget my father hurt my feelings so bad,” Downs chuckled. “I brought it home and he said, ’Oh, wow, that’s really nice. Is that paint by numbers?’”

As much as Monique enjoyed painting, she didn’t see a future in it.

“It was hard to even make sure your child went to college, much less go into an art career. It wasn’t even thought of,” she explained. “Even if I expressed that out in the open, I couldn’t see anything like that being supported by my parents.”

Monique took a conventional path to career success- albeit her occupational choice was in the top-secret intelligence field. 

“It just happened to be the Decade of the Spy,” Downs said. 

In 1986, Monique earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts with a concentration in criminology from the University of Maryland, College Park.  Then Downs entered the federal workforce, starting at the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1987; then two years later she began at the CIA. She retired as a security policy and training strategist responsible for writing and implementing policy. 

Now that she’s retired, Downs wants to learn more about her chosen craft and “bring out the inner artist in others.” She plans to take classes nearby and host Paint & Sip events in her Bowie home and in other places, including senior communities and churches. 

From her kitchen chair, surrounded by art she collected on trips across Africa, Downs exuded excitement- her dimpled smile but one sign. 

“I really like to see other people have fun with paint. It’s like they are going back to kindergarten.”

As she evolves as an artist, Downs also wants to create an identifiable aesthetic. 

“I want my art to become me. I want people to look at a painting and say, ‘Monique did that.’”