No motivation? No problem
Most people don’t think of James Bowden as an artist.
“Most would think I’m an attorney or engineer or something like that,” said Bowden, the latest artist to exhibit his work at the Gretchen Charlton Art Gallery in Kankakee.
Despite what strangers might assume, the 80-year-old Kankakee-born artist has enjoyed a long career in formalist painting and had been working in creative fields for more than 50 years before retiring.
His exhibit, titled, “FORMidable Edge,” is the sixth exhibit since Victoria Strole began directing the gallery.
Though Bowden, who has lived in Peotone since the 1980s, is a seasoned artist who taught at the high school and university levels, most of the works featured in “FORMidable Edge” are among Bowden’s most recent pieces.
“This work represents the last five years of [Bowden’s] work, but a lot of it is the last three years and even the last few weeks,” Strole said. “All this work is fairly new.”
Bowden’s work hasn’t stopped changing since he first began studying to be an artist.
Before completing his undergraduate degree in 1961, he focused on drawings and prints and rarely painted.
“In the summer after I got out of school, I drove a home delivery truck for a juice company in Chicago,” he said. “As I was going through the city, I would see things out of peripheral vision, and I’d think, ‘That’s kind of interesting.’
“Then I’d go back around the block and think, ‘Eh, it’s not that interesting.’”
Just the fragment was interesting.
“This kept happening,” Bowden exclaimed.
He saw glimpses of beauty in things on the streets of Chicago or in abandoned buildings.
“Those experiences kept bugging me. I thought, ‘How can I make a picture out of that?’ because nothing I saw was worthy of a picture, but the idea was.”
So, he started painting those interesting glimpses and turning them into works of art.
“That’s how I got into abstraction,” he said. “It wasn’t a plan; it was just something I saw.”
Bowden’s abstract works are what captivated Strole and drew her toward his works.
“It’s really dynamic and bright and playful,” she said. “And there’s so many variations between all of the works.”
“What’s really fun to look for are the figure-ground reversal in the paintings. When you imagine yourself stepping into the painting, you think that you can walk along something, or enter into a doorway, and then you realize that something you thought was receding into the background might be protruding into the foreground. It plays with your mind a lot where you constantly question if you saw something right.”
What also makes Bowden and his work unique is his “no nonsense” approach to creativity.
“[Bowden’s work] is very formalist,” Strole explained. “There’s no deep story behind it. It’s just for aesthetic pleasure. There’s nothing more. There’s nothing to discuss about it.”
“It’s just intuitive with me,” he agreed. “And they’re not about saving the world or anything like that.”
Contrary to what some believe of creative endeavors, his philosophy on creating art does not rely on motivation or inspiration.
“My approach to fabricating a painting is a very straight forward process that is conceptual and controlled,” Bowden said in his artist statement.
He works about five days per week, sometimes for up to six hours, sometimes for only one hour.
Bowden compares his current work process to his schedule when he was employed as a graphic designer and sign maker after finishing college with two master’s degrees in 1970.
“In a way, I make my own plans, OK them and execute them,” he said. “It’s just workmanlike. I like doing it, and I don’t feel I have to be in the right mood or whatever.
“You can’t be inspired every day. You have to go out and execute the work.”
So, unlike some young artists, Bowden doesn’t feel compelled to wait until inspiration strikes to create something — he just picks up the paintbrush and makes it happen.
Perhaps because of this attitude, he’s produced countless works which have been shown at several universities and galleries in Chicagoland, as well as in surrounding states. He’s won several awards, including two from the Gretchen Charlton gallery prior to their 2018 reopening under Strole’s direction.
What makes Bowden and his works additionally interesting is he admits he does not mind hearing friendly criticism — especially from his wife.
“Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll ask my wife for help,” he said.
Kay Bowden, who herself is not an artist, has no problem saying she doesn’t like a certain part of her husband’s works and will gladly admit when he needs to change or add something to make the project complete.
“Once in a while she’ll [also] say, ‘I don’t like that color’ or ‘That color is a problem,’” Bowden said.
At the same time, Bowden said he’s strong enough in his talents to know if a work is good or not and to know if it is finished or not.
He saves up a collection of works in his work space at home until he is satisfied with each piece and knows it is “decent enough” to exhibit, he explained.
His self-awareness of his abilities are high enough to know when works are ready to exhibit — and now, finally, they are ready to be solely exhibited in his hometown.
See Bowden’s works at the gallery any day from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. until Feb. 24 and don’t miss a chance to meet Bowden at the artist reception from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Feb. 7.
The Gretchen Charlton Art Gallery is part of Presence Heritage Village at 901 N. Entrance Ave., Kankakee. Anyone is free to visit the gallery any time during its open hours, but in order to protect the safety of Presence’s residents, the gallery doors must be unlocked prior to entering via a code on the door.