BRATTLEBORO—Paul Bowen is a sculptor, printmaker, and master of assemblage from found objects. His work is in both public and private collections, and he has exhibited worldwide in galleries and museums, including the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.
Bowen was born in Wales, lived in Provincetown, Mass., for 30 years, and now resides with his wife, Pamela Mandell, in Williamsville.
From 1972 to 1974, he was a Hoffberger Fellow at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, and from 1977 to 1979 he was an artist-in-residence at Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. In 2005, he was artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
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Wendy O’Connell: I think that there’s a real sense of place in the works that you do, with the objects that you find to bring into your sculptures and your assemblages. And I’m wondering if you find a similarity between Wales and Vermont.
Paul Bowen: That’s so interesting you say that. When I was doing my gig at Dartmouth, I spent all my time exploring Vermont, and down at this end of the state I was driving around and stumbled into Newfane. Invariably, I was drawn to back roads and dirt roads — and the dirtier the better! — and discovered Williamsville. I described the area to my wife, who was back in Provincetown taking care of our aged dog, as being very similar to the area of Wales I was from. So you’re spot on, actually. There’s definitely a connection.
W.O.: You spent 30 years in Provincetown, so you were part of the culture there, and you spent a lot of time on the waterfront as well.
P.B.: I had done graduate work in Baltimore and went back to Britain to teach for a couple of years and realized pretty quickly that I did not want a career in teaching — not a tenure-track. Although, it would have been such a good idea because now I’d be reaping those retirement benefits.
W.O.: But you’d have had to go through all those years of discontent.
P.B.: And I’m not a committee person. So I was looking for an opportunity to come back to the States to do something just as an artist, not as a teacher. And I found this fellowship program, this artist-in-residence program, in Provincetown, which was somewhat unusual at that time because it was a long-term residence. And it was by the sea. And indeed it’s just at the end of one of the streets and you look down the street, there is the bay.
W.O.: You have an instinctive relationship to place, obviously. How much do you think that informs your art, the manifestations that you create?
P.B.: When I think of Wales and I think of home, there are very, very specific places I think of as resonating, as being meaningful. For instance, behind our home in Wales, which was on a crest of a hill overlooking the Irish Sea, on a clear day you can see the coast of Ireland on the Isle of Man. And you can actually see the top of Liverpool Cathedral, but because of the curvature of the Earth you could only see the top of it. And the same with Blackpool Tower, which is a bit like the the Eiffel Tower, but you couldn’t see the bottom of it because of the curvature.
W.O.: That’s because you have a story associated with it.
P.B.: It’s all about stories.
W.O.: An awful lot of it is about stories.
W.O.: You’ve been a teacher, you’ve been a lecturer, and I know that you did little stints at different places. You were at Dartmouth, for a while at Marlboro College, at Landmark College. What did you enjoy about teaching?
P.B.: Should I say the paycheck? [Laughter.]
W.O.: If it’s honest!
P.B.: Well, in all those places you get to deal with students from all over the world. And that’s really wonderful. In one of my teaching jobs, I had an Afghani student, an Egyptian student. So as artists, we bring our lives and autobiography to the work that we do. And you see students bring that with them and suddenly, occasionally, you just see a light go on. You inadvertently say such and such, and suddenly, and from then on, they just catch fire, and all you have to do is fan the fire. And that’s lovely, you know.
W.O.: Let’s talk a little bit about scavenging; you’ve also used the word “harvesting.” In one of your catalogues someone said that you use sought objects in your art as well as found ones.
P.B.: Oh, yes.
W.O.: I thought that was an interesting concept.
P.B.: Well, in my world, it’s not something you just stumble across. It’s that I go on a mission, you know. Perhaps some objects are found by accident, but I’m fully aware of why I’m going out on the beach, let’s say, or to the river bank. I do dam sites as well here in Vermont because those are good places for me to find materials.
P.B.: I look for all kinds of things at the same time. There are areas on the Cape where I beachcomb; I still go back for at least a couple of weeks every year. And I tend to go to the same areas — one is an area that was used as the town dump for hundreds of years, and there you can find things that were left a week ago or that were left 200 years ago.
And so you can be finding historic material that is almost archaeologically interesting. But at the same time I find a piece of driftwood that’s got a rusted bolt attached to it and thousands of things like that. And so it’s taken a while to develop criteria as to what I leave: I can’t take that because of X, Y, or Z; it’s too rotten; it’s too new; it’s too this-that-or-the-other-thing.
W.O.: Right. It’s probably good to have parameters of some kind, right?
P.B.: Well, you couldn’t have a warehouse big enough.
W.O.: I had the privilege of going to your studio, and I have to say that the raw materials are there.
P.B.: That’s very politely put!
W.O.: Well, it was exciting. It was wonderful to see the things that you use: an old piece of wood, a rusty bolt, or detritus. And when you look at your finished pieces, it’s very clear that you may not necessarily and probably didn’t have an end in sight, but you develop and put things in relationship to each other. Can you talk a little bit about that?
P.B.: Well, yes — often, it’s something in the back of my head. But very often that concept evaporates as I work. I have dozens of sketchbooks for drawings of sort-of-imaginary objects and sometimes a drawing will be the spur that gets me going.
But I also use those books for resolving technical problems. I’ll make almost-engineering-type drawings although I’m not an engineer that will help resolve the problem. There are certain types of things I’m really, really bad at that making a drawing sometimes will help resolve.
I don’t throw much away, so a piece of wood that might have been worked on five or 10 years ago, I still have knocking around somewhere, and sometimes it just happens to be lying next to something else on the floor. And they develop a relationship, which is lovely. In a way, every object in the world has a relationship with everything else.
W.O.: You also use very interesting materials: wood, tar, wax, leather — all kinds of different things go into your work. Some paint and not a lot of color.
P.B.: No, but I’ve made prints and drawings and sometimes use quite a lot of color. When you say leather, I should say it’s leather off the beach. Tanned leather doesn’t decay very easily. And so when a dump from 100 years ago gets exposed, there’s shoe leather and it’s still intact. I’ve got shoes with heels, layers and layers of leather that are pegged together with little tiny wooden pegs that are still intact.
W.O.: So you are partly archaeologist and as Thoreau said, “wreck master,” which is another word for the consummate beachcomber.
P.B.: Well, you know, wrecking was a very big part of the economy of seaside towns, both here and in Europe. In earlier times, long before the Coast Guard or rescue services or cheap GPS or land-to-shore radio or anything like that, and charts perhaps were not as dependable as they are now, ships came ashore by the thousands. You look at a map of Cape Cod with the wrecks marked: there are hundreds and hundreds of them.
W.O.: You’ve had many exhibits all over the world and you’ve gotten a lot of awards and fellowships and grants You’ve had a really healthy career in art, and you’re still making art.
P.B.: Yes, yes. It’s true. I’m looking at what my last gasp or perhaps a second wind has in store. I don’t really know. I’m making prints and drawings. That’s the main thing I’m doing at the moment. And what my future is with sculpture and/or painting, I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I’ve been making prints at River Gallery School and teaching a class there: “Winter’s work,” on working with the snowy landscape.
I was in “The Domestic Plane,” a museum-wide exhibition of new and commissioned work at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. I was in the section called “On Edge,” where a group of half a dozen sculptors were paired with furniture builders to make custom-made tables for the museum.
Much of what I’ve done in sculpture is joining materials and forms together in a semi-permanent or permanent way. And for this exhibition I thought I would do something different: to join materials in a temporary way using balance and clamps. So they’re rather fragile and they have a different kind of splice, because they’re not smooshed together like carpentry, they’re not joined — literally. They’re balanced on each other, forms that just sit in relationship: a barrel that’s got a big, heavy wooden mallet balanced inside it, right on the edge of a table hanging off, and then the barrel is clamped with a big old wood clamp onto it.
W.O.: I love that. There’s a kind of poise to many of the pieces that you have done over the years. They’re in balance somehow.
P.B.: That’s right! That’s really a good observation.
W.O.: And somehow they also often seem to defy gravity. But the idea of something very heavy in this sort of airy atmosphere — really, it’s very appealing.
P.B.: I love doing that. I think early on my work was heavier and clunkier and very symmetrical. And as time got on it got lighter in feel even if it wasn’t actually light. It’s not that difficult to make a great big chunk of wood, if it’s on the wall, look weightless.
W.O.: For you!
P.B.: In the two-dimensional work right now I’m making quite-simple images and drawing imprints. So last winter I drew the Harris Hill Ski Jump. I’m not interested in drawing skiers or jumpers or crowds necessarily but that form of that little building off to the left that’s on stilts and that huge long sweep with the structure up to the top and the stairs going up — you know, it’s visually very, very dramatic.
So I made some little prints of that and simple domestic things, like a bowl of fruit or stuff I’ve found on the beach. That sounds so pedestrian. But you know I’m — no pun intended — so drawn to that.
I’m doing self portraits right now in a drawing. I don’t know if or how that could translate to sculpture. That’ll be the next act, I suppose.
W.O.: Would you say you’ve had what certainly seems like a satisfying career in art?
P.B.: Yes, it’s what I wanted. I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t try to do anything else. And I wasn’t good at anything else. So the idea of making a life out of what you have is what I’ve done. It’s a lot like the materials.