Monday, March 04, 2013

Interview With Mark Bowles Pt.1

When You’re Honest With What You Do, That’s The That People Enjoy.

One of my 2013 resolutions is to update this blog more frequently. One of the most popular and enjoyable posts for me was the interview of Jose Digregorio. So in the coming year I plan on doing one interview a month! *
There is about 30 minutes of really goof stuff that isn’t in the following interview. Not because it was “off the record, which would make my process sound cool and edgy. But in reality, I forgot to hit the record button! Yes that means this interview was even longer! Enjoy  :)

Mark Bowles-Shadow-Acrylic On Canvas-50" x 50"- 2012

Bowles’ landscapes are individual statements that have emerged with individuality from a rich tradition of California landscape painting. Unlike his friend, Gregory Kondos, Mark Bowles is not a plein-air painter although he finds time in the field crucial to his artistic sensibility. Mark prefers the solitude of the studio to address painting infrastructure and color interplay which eventually find placement in a finished work. Whereas many practicing Northern California landscape painters find richness with riparian settings or city-scapes, Bowles primarily features the broad plains of the Central Valley as his favored subject matter. Often, distinctive landmarks are visible in a setting that is on the verge of abstraction.  

Scott Shields, Ph. D.Chief Curator, Crocker Art Museum 

Jeff Musser: Sacramento is well known for Theibaud and Kondos, how was it painting the way you paint, and not be labeled, “Oh he obviously has been influenced by Theibaud or Kondos,” because it’s obvious when you look around town at other landscape people. I mean you can see it and know; this person either went to Sac City College or UC Davis. Your work is obviously yours.

Marl Bowles Well I’m well aware of that, but I grew up in the Bay Area, and I went to Arts & Crafts in Oakland. So I was exposed to Bay Area painters;   Diebenkorn, Bischoff, David Parkall of that whole school, even though they were much older than me.

JM Yeah you can see a lot of Diebenkorn in there.

Richard Diebenkorn-Ocean Park #83- Oil On Canvas-100" X 81"-1975

Mark Bowles-Night Fall-Acrylic On Canvas-50" x 40"-2012

So I knew just as much about Kondos or Theibaud as anybody. So I wasn’t influence by them much, and didn’t even know they lived in Sacramento. I’ve been painting my whole life, my mom was an artist, so I started showing and selling work when I was in high school. When I went to college at arts & crafts I was selling work in Sausalito, doing different experimental works with tar and cement, and then doing landscapes. Living in the Bay Area with the rolling hills, it is a very pastoral area, with cows and nature and all of that. So when we moved to Sacramento because of the economy, I wanted to stay home and paint, we wanted to have kids, Debbe wanted to focus on her career, so financially we couldn’t stay in the Bay Area, we had to move somewhere else, and Sacramento was the spot. So I came up here and started painting, and it wasn’t for several years before I met Kondos. 

I met his wife, Moni, first, then I met Gregory, but if I look at work I did, say from the 70’s, it looks like Kondos. So there is this sensibility about how you approach the landscape, which we both have, for whatever reason. And he’s considered a Bay Area painter too, he’s very well known in the Bay Area now. But I wasn’t aware of him when I was there, but now we’re very good friends. He was here in my studio the other night and we did a critique of my new work.  He wanted to see what I was working on, and it was incredibly valuable he’s an incredible teacher and he helped choose some of the paintings that are going to be used for a show in Tucson (AZ)

So he’s really quite incredible, but there are so many people who copy him here. I mean it’s just distasteful that there are so many people that make a dime from being an artist who don’t do the work.

JM -Chuckles-

MB You know I’ve put in 40, 50 years of painting, maybe 80 grand in education, so I’ve paid my dues.

JM Yeah, it’s very apparent, you can go to any gallery, whether they are open or not over the past few years, and point and say, “Oh, yeah that.”

MB And it’s pretty unabashed and there’s a market for it. People seem proud that they can copy and make a living of it and galleries are happy selling it because it makes money. But when it comes into the world of art, and process, and what’s important, it’s very superficial. I find much more meaning in my life, to be able to do something that’s more unique with the canvas, that’s hugely important to me.

JM I think that a lot of people that are interested in art or what do be artists, don’t take that into account, because this is a long term investment kind of a lifestyle, with little or usually no return on investment ever.

MB Yeah it’s hard.

JM I struggle with this everyday, how did you keep going despite it all? I remember back in 2006 when we met, you discussed certain times when you just refused to get a “job.”

“I’m artist, this is what I do, and it’s my job!”  How did you do that?

MB Well one, I was married so there was an income, so I’m indebted to that. But there was an income, not a huge one. We learned and grew up with a lot less compared to a lot of our friends. We weren’t buying homes, we weren’t going on vacations, we weren’t buying boats, and we weren’t going to Disneyland. We would go someplace maybe once a year, but much less compared to a normal family. There’s nothing else that ever interested me as much as painting, nothing that I ever got such a reward from. I wasn’t very good in school, the way I learn is very different that the way they teach. Which is common, as I get older I can see, the way the public schools teach doesn’t fit every kid. And I was one of those kids. So my self-esteem came from the praise or reward I could receive from the artwork I was making, plus I loved doing it and always have. So the thought of another career, I mean I’ve thought about it, my dad was a court reporter, so I thought about that.

JM Good lord! Um, well I’m sure it’s a great job for some people but…

MB It’s a job that makes money, that’s all it is. My dad used to say he was a glorified secretary, and he was not happy doing it, but his mom did it so he did it, and it made a lot of money, but he was not a happy man. So seeing that I knew that money doesn’t make you happy. And my mother being an artist, she really pushed that you need to find what you want to do, something unique about it. And my wife was ok with it. So understood it for whatever reason

JM Which is AMAZING! The fact that you can find a close friend that’s not an artist who understands, let alone a life partner is HUGE!

MB Yeah. A lot of her friends didn’t understand why she would support me, they just didn’t get it. A lot of times, I was being teased about why was I being supported by a woman, you know staying home with the kids. It was kind of new at that time, now it’s more common, but there was this big question mark around me.

JM “What kind of a man would allow the woman to be the bread winner?”

MB Right. “ What kind of a man would want to stay home with the kids? And who would want to be an artist anyway?” So many people had a huge question mark just about that. It doesn’t mean anything now, but at the time it meant something, not much. But that’s the good thing about getting older, you just don’t care.

JM I’ve found that as well, I’m not old, but thinking about how I was at 25 vs. now…

MB (laughs) It just doesn’t matter. Obviously you don’t want to be a fool or destructive to anyone else’s life. But we’re all here and need to do what we’re here to do while we’re alive. You get to do what you want to do and make your own choices in life, and choose your life how you want it to be. Having to worry about someone else’s judgment is really detrimental, you should be fulfilled, cause this is a short lifespan. It’s a terrible thing to waste as they say. So I’m older, my career is established, I don’t feel stagnant. 

Every time I paint, I’m absolutely in love with it; the process not the paintings. Still, they go through the complete cycle. From the beginning, here I go, I have to take myself through this journey, making it difficult and resolving problems and resolving the painting and coming up on the end and being absent from the painting. To be able to see that it has to stand on its’ own, and what I’m learning to do now is enjoy that minute and make that time longer. And not putting it away and say great I’m onto the next one. Take time to enjoy it and not punish myself so much, not grab a canvas right away and start the journey over again. Every painting to me, for some reason, I put myself into a struggle position. I make sure that if the painting happens too easy, I’m not happy with it.

JM (laughs)

MB It would great if I could … but for me it doesn’t work that way.

JM Human beings don’t value something we don’t have to work for. In relation to art, if you wait for inspiration, the clouds to part moment, all the planets to line up and everyone in the Middle East to get along peacefully, you’re never going to get any work done. It’s work. You have to get in there and grind it out and not be happy with the result most of the time.

MB If you do become comfortable, then you need to change it up a bit, and you have to stop it. You have to learn and grow on every painting, throughout your life. Even if it’s just repeating lessons, if you’re learning and you’re excited and getting it and you’re getting something new, then that’s perfect. If you’re just producing, I know a lot of artists down in Southern California that are production artists, that just keep producing and producing. They have people that work for them, and they might block in the painting, and they make a lot of money and it makes the galleries very happy because it’s a very kind of stable lifestyle. 

They kind of change with the seasons, you know if the colors change in people’s home they change too, or if shiny is in they change. They’re much more about marketing than painting and making a lot of money. For them, they’re happy with that, but I’m not happy with that at all. I’d love to make tons of money, who wouldn’t, but to able to have to take those steps …  it’s a very personal, private thing in my studio and painting and so it’s a very sacred space to me. I have collectors in here and people that buy and other artists, but still it’s a very private thing for me. So I can’t imagine having a factory with two employees turning out artwork, that isn’t my way.

JM And those blissful moments that you just mentioned, is that something that happened recently?

MB Taking the time to look?

JM Yeah, when did that happen?

MB Probably within the last year or so. Instead of standing there and making all physical changes, I make mental changes of what I’m doing. In my brain I can change this or that, make it to look like that and work off that in my brain, instead of physically changing the painting. So when I get to a resolved part when I need to see it, then I can stand up and do it. So in a sense I’ve been painting intellectually. And I skip some paint steps that I would be working out with material and work off that…then if it doesn’t work you have to find another way to tackle that problem.

JM How is it that you are able to convey atmosphere. Because I don’t see that in too many landscape painters?

Mark Bowles-Ethereal-Acrylic On Canvas-40" x 40"-2012

MB In certain parts, the atmosphere or the sky, I very deliberately try to find something that could be identified as me and not somebody else. I approach that and challenge myself with how do I come up with a new sky? One that I haven’t seen, although we’re all a collective of art history, but something I haven’t seen or is too common about the land or the sky. That’s one of the reasons my work is very minimal, I wanted to reduce everything down to the atmosphere and the earth. And that’s where I stay, with the horizon line and I’ve been developing that for years and just work with that concept. The variable you have between those two, by render and by color and by light, goes on forever, you can do it forever. Certainly I wasn’t going to touch Kondos’ Blue, which is almost a copyright/trademark thing, you can spot a Kondos Blue anywhere. 

He readily admits it that he is a western contemporary artist. So if I did blue, it wasn’t going to be that shade, so I got more and more into layering and washes through acrylic. Then I developed light particles and different textures to put the sky in and concepts along those lines. So that’s the area I explore when I want to do the sky. The reds and the oranges only live for a time, so it’s an emotionally feeling of a sunset, but not a direct one. So there are three essential parts and the horizon line, and from that I decided I wanted to move into a backdrop, a range, a California Mountain Range. So there’s development, it would be going back in a circle again, because these are similar to a painting I’d done years ago, but I wanted to go back and re-visit what I’ve learned over these years and put it back into that format. That’s like the loop that I do, I like to have a big bandwidth.

JM And before you started painting the landscape, you said you worked a lot with concrete.

MB Yeah a lot with my hands. That’s where it started for me, because I used to love clay, like all kids with mud and dirt. But I used to use my hands instead of brushes-  that went on for a long time. Yeah I used tar and would paint with that.

JM Wait, you used your hands to paint with tar???

MB And gloves don’t work, gloves just rip apart. And all sorts of chemicals I would buy without reading the labels…

JM Wow!

Louis Siegriest- Photo By Mimi Jacobs 1976
MB  And trowels! There was this one painter, Louis Siegriest and he did beautifully textured landscapes of the earth. He never got that much critical acclaim for what he did, but he was part of that Bay Area Movement along with Diebenkorn and everyone else. And his son, I took a class with him once, I used to take art classes outside of school a lot, a lot of his work was texture, gravel, so that made a huge impression on me because they were more emotional paintings. So that was interesting and he would frame some of the stuff with materials he found on the side of the road. It would be in a museum and you would see a piece of metal bent here and piece of wood there and that would make up the frame.  So you could tell he would think and re-think the materials and the tradition of what was normally being used.  

He would paint on doors, old doors because that was cheaper than canvas, and just frame them how he felt. So his work was incredibly good, and still is - there is a gallery that just opened up in the Bay Area that represents him. He did these Sausalito paintings, that didn’t really impress me that much, but his strictly abstract paintings I just loved them as a kid, somehow they just resonated with me.  So I started doing works on canvas and wood and it got to the point where I felt comfortable, I knew what I was doing, sold enough, and the response was good enough kind of thing, but then you have to shake things up, and say,” Ok I did this, now it’s onto something else.” So I got into painting, and I’ve gone through different modes, but what I came back to was something similar, the composition was similar to what I did 20 years ago. But I wanted to see what I came back to it with; it’s a different line quality, different color, different layering. All those years of painting now come back into a different focus. But I like it, and as long as I’m happy with it then it’s fine. You have to be genuine and honest with what you do, with the canvas and that comes across. When you’re honest with what you do and how you paint and how you present yourself, I think that’s part of the energy that people enjoy.

JM They’re interested in the story.

Mark Bowles Interview Continued...

Mark Bowles- Sunset-Acrylic On Canvas- 40" x 50"- 2012

MB That and it transcends; the struggle that I go through in a painting and how it’s resolved and I’m happy with it, it transcends to the very essence or whatever the emotional process was.

JM That’s the point of being an artist, in my view anyway, is to make a connection that other people can latch onto. And sort of see themselves in it or see something totally different.

MB When paintings become too production like, doesn’t mean they won’t sell, it just means they’re not connected, they’re missing that key piece, that I wouldn’t want to leave out. I like producing the best work I can do at the time and I’m respecting what my craft is and think this is respected. And I think that is the secret to having a career in this, trying to only put out your best, and being very careful, especially being a young painter, be careful what influences you. To make sure it’s not money and it’s not a gallery.

JM Which is extremely hard.

MB Yeah, well there’s no other business like this. They don’t even call it a business. If you’re an actor, you can say I’m in show business, but you can’t say I’m in the art business. It’s very hard.

JM Especially with Miami Basel that has just blown up over the past few years. I know a few people in New York and Chicago that were really successful right out of school or shortly thereafter, that have told me privately that now they are kind of cursed.

MB Yeah….

JM Because now people have them in this little peg already with their work and they’re trapped. They sell consistently but every time they try to expand, they get slapped by the gallery saying, “No, no, no this is not going to work…keep doing this because it sells and we can take it here and there. And they have this constant pressure to make work and sell, and keep up and they never grow. So I guess be careful what you wish for…

MB Right. And you to do it on your own terms. For them my advice would be to stop showing. Last year I had a huge circus of shows going it seemed like every month was a new opening, it was constant. It was way too much, I shouldn’t have done that. But for so many years, you don’t say no, you just don’t. But I learned now that you do, because shows can be an awful lot of pressure. 

Because you want a strong show, you want a decent body of work, and you can’t judge how long that’s going to take. And also that means you have to commit that work to a show, which means you have to pull it out, so when it goes to the gallery, they have to now market them which means you can’t sell them. So your income is kind of locked until that show happens. It’s a huge commitment on my part and it’s a huge commitment on the gallery’s part. But none of my galleries tell me what to paint. They make suggestions, but I don’t take them. I don’t work that way, I guess it would be great if I could, but it always turns out the opposite with me.

JM We talked about being spontaneous and if you came in with a plan, that’s lost. And at your age you have enough momentum with your work and your career, you could tell a gallery, “No I’m not going to do that,” and they shouldn’t be offended at all. Where as me, they could say, “Well I know more about the business than you kid, I think this would help you…”

MB There’s always another gallery. When I was younger there certainly wasn’t, I would take any gallery I could get into. Now it’s different, I get asked into galleries and now I have to debate how much work I want to produce, and there’s only so much work I want to do. And of course there is the business correspondence and all that which takes lots of time.

JM You need an intern! You don’t even have to pay them and they get college credit!

MB (laughs) I do! Maybe CSUS or American River would have some.

JM I’ve looked into and I’m not nearly as busy as you.

MB Well I have contracts now, things that I have to commit to, so I read it and then double check with my wife to see if it’s legit.

JM Well you get a certain number of zeros behind a painting, and it takes on a new meaning. With the potential of a lot of money going toward either party…

MB There’s that “flake on galleries” thing that artisst tend to do or are known for. I’m on both sides, I’m not against galleries or for them, but there’s a lot of artists that have a real grudge against galleries, and I don’t really think they take it seriously. You have to have good communication, it’s a relationship. And you have peoples’ income there too, they’re people who make money off of you, but they have to, that’s the understanding, they have to pay rent and utilities and all of that. It’s a hard business; I would never want to run a gallery. I represent myself here in Sacramento; I don’t have a gallery here, and don’t need one.

JM Yeah.

MB There are some galleries I pay more attention to than others because I have a better relationship with them. And there are some galleries I get asked into, which was very cool when that started happening. That adds a little bit of stress when it’s new, but you gamble and take chances.

JM Yeah and now you have to factor in the question, “Is this gallery honest.”

MB I think the ratio is 80% of people tell the truth; the other 20% are just full of shit! I used to think that 100% of people tell the truth; they don’t. That’s still a hard concept for me to get, but there’s a lot of people out there that are just for themselves.

JM There is a certain gallery in Davis, which may or may not have a Greek sounding name, which has a horrible reputation. I’ve heard horrible things about the gallery from artists, who have shown there, and some of them continue to show there and the place is still in business! I just don’t get it.

MB Well in those type of situations you have to hire a lawyer, and if you live far from the gallery, you have to hire an out-of-state lawyer. I got all my work back from a gallery in Atlanta Ga. after a year and I had to pay for return shipping too.  Although I wasn’t involved, I got contacted by attorneys for other big artists to see if I was ripped off at all, because there are some huge losses being reported. But when you’re talking big name artists and huge sums of money, lawyers have to get involved, and lawsuits are never fun. Plus it’s emotionally draining, and most artists I know would rather not go through all of that.

JM I agree.

MB Let’s move onto happier topics!

JM Do you still paint with your hands?

MB No, almost never. I use brushes and I love really cheap brushes like a $1 a piece ones that fall apart. So some of my canvases are full of hair, and someone asked me if I had a cat, and I said yeah, and he said there is cat hair all over your paintings! I replied, no those are just bristles from the brushes. He said no it’s cat hair, and I said no I know exactly what it is; it’s from the brushes. I like cheap brushes for two reasons; one they’re not expensive that you have to worry about taking care of them, and two I just like the way they work. Sometimes I’ll use just one size brush, and three colors just to see what I can come up with. 

JM Is this one of those experiments?

Mark Bowles- Vibrant Sky- Acrylic On Canvas- 50 x 40 inches- 2012

MB It was. It has this metallic tint to it, but I’m not sure if I like it. It’s impossible to photograph, and it has interest, but it’s a gimmicky interest. You can look at it from different angles and it changes and it has the light and motion thing, but I don’t know if I want to go there. Right now it seems popular that people are coating their paintings with shiny, heavy surfboard material. It kind of becomes a gimmick, so instead of selling your artwork, you’re selling a gimmick, and the gimmick will run out, it’s just a matter of time.
JM It comes to mind the early 1980’s when Julian Schnabel was doing those plate “paintings.” He made quite splash, very gimmicky but then the plate thing kind of faded away.

Julian Schnabel-Bob's World-Oil, Plates & Bondo On Wood-96 x 144 inches-1980

MB He’s actually quite brilliant. I don’t know if you’ve read his writings or heard him speak, he’s brilliant, way over my head. I think he has a good understanding of what it’s about.

I’ve always enjoyed his movies more than I did his other works.

MB Yeah, good stuff.

JM He often says he has an ego the size of Texas:

"I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this fucking life" 

MB Well he kind of took his whole game to the top of everything.

And he still shows internationally, like Hong Kong and Spain with paintings that are a $1million plus. He’s done very well for himself.

MB (laughs) Yeah…

JM But back to the art, I could see the need to stay away from shiny, slick looking, trending kind of finish

MB Because I want my substance to be painting, and that’s important to me. There’s so much changing in art, and some people would consider landscape painting dead, in a lot of art circles it is, but that’s fine, I still love it.

JM Every time an art critic declares something is dead, there’s always a group of people that say, ”Oh yeah? Well fuck you! It’s not dead to me!” It’s like saying water is irrelevant to human beings now. It’s so idiotic to say things like that. And if someone says, “It’s dead” that’s the perfect time to reinvent it.

MB And that’s what an artist should be doing, reinventing and working with whatever fits with them. I certainly don’t want to be painting for critics, there’s was a point in my life where I thought that was the most important thing; to shake up the art world and be the whole Andy Warhol type thing, I think every artist on some level wants that. I had success in college, then it went away for a while by my own doing, which is sometimes what happens, but I’m very glad that it did. And now I’m very happy I that I’m where I am now. Persistence has paid off.

JM A long term investment view…

MB  There’s the option of teaching, I thought about that, for a few minutes!

JM (laughs)

MB I just didn’t think I had it in me. Some people can do it, but I couldn’t just work all day and then come home and paint. I would be very, very frustrated. So my beginning was fortunate, to be married to someone who understood it. I was very upfront about it, “This is my journey, and I’m going to be a painter.” It wasn’t negotiable, so with that said, she knew that wasn’t going to change. So I was fortunate in that way, I’ve been married; this year will be 30 years.

JM Congratulations! Not only did you find someone that loves and supports what you do, but also you have been married 30 YEARS! Nowadays…well, that might be the headline of this interview!

MB (laughs)

JM Something else that people don’t realize, especially among my age group, is that a marriage, and a relationship aside from marriage, is WORK. IT IS A TOOONNN OF WORK AND COMPROMISE!

MB It is! Communication and not bailing when times gets rough either.

JM Talk about the Art In Embassy’s program that happened recently. How did that come about?

MB There’s an Art In Embassy’s program that Jian Wang told me about. He was in it and he explained it to me; basically it’s a program through the State Department that you apply for, and as the ambassadors turn over, they’re able to fill the residencies and public spaces with art. So they choose through websites, and this is the third time I’ve been chosen. So I’ve been to Mexico City, Mexico, Katmandu in Nepal, and now Mauritius, which is off of Africa. And then I was invited over there by the ambassador in the next year or two, so I’ll probably go do that since that doesn’t happen that often.

JM That’s on the State Department website?

MB Yeah, and I know they have a Facebook Page. You could find it through the State Department in Washington DC.  So there are different parts of it, mine is an art loan program, and they send a company from New York to get it, they crate in front of you and then it’s off to wherever. It’s a very cool program to get involved in.

JM It’s an honor, like you’re representing the United States in a different country.

MB  Exactly!  And there’s other parts of the program where you can go teach or give seminars, but I’m not involved in that. You should look into it.

JM Yeah why not? The worse they can say is no, which wouldn’t be any different than a gallery saying no!

MB (laughs) Exactly!

JM Any parting words of advice for younger artists? Or any age?

MB Well you have to do what you love to do. And you have to do it for the right reasons, if you’re in the business for money, then there’s no real point. 

JM Be a stockbroker! Manage a portfolio or something, but don’t be an artist!

MB (laughs) Right, no, don’t!

JM Don’t let Miami Basel fool you.

MB And you can never guarantee that you’re going to make a living off of it, you can just never plan on that happening. So as long as you can accept that, and are ok with it, it should be an easier road to follow. And no one is going to make you do it, if you want to be a painter, be a painter, but you have to have a reality check of what it can be. It can be very difficult, but very rewarding, and that’s the bottom line. It was worth the gamble to me, to make sure I got what I wanted out of life.

I have no regrets. 

See more of Mark's work at his website, Mark

*At the rate I type, one interview a month might not be doable. Maybe one every other month.