3 Margaret Bowland
"I am drawn to the tangle of life, the beauty and the grace I find in people who struggle but cannot finally be annihilated. I place my beloved characters in a world I create that reveals the particular struggle of his or her life and then I watch while the very truth of each of them rises to meet me or anyone else who cares to look back."
Prof. Margaret Bowland is an incredible painter and installation artist from Brooklyn, New York. Her work asks the question, what masks are we wearing, and who are we really, underneath? Her work focuses primarily on children. She tells John Seed in this article (Huffington Post, 2015), “Children are born into the whirlpool of conflicting ideas making up the world in which they live, but they don’t know they truth of any of it.” Margaret teaches at the New York Academy of Art. She's won a People's Choice award at the Boochever Portrait Competition in the Smithsonian Nat. Gallery in DC. She's also been featured in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and magazines like HiFructose, Fine Art Connoisseur, and Art Daily. She holds the Florence Gaskins Harper Chair in Art Education at the Maryland Inst. & College of the Arts.
'Murakami Wedding, Kenyetta & Brianna'
Margaret Bowland was born in Burlington, North Carolina. She found her love of art while on a school trip, as she explains on her website:
"The first time I saw a painting was as a small girl in the N.C. Museum of art, courtesy of the Burlington school bus which had brought us up for the day from the small town in which I was raised. I was 9 years old. I could not believe the wonders of the paintings. These paintings were portals through which I could enter worlds as real as my own. Looking at these paintings I knew that I was time traveling, literally seeing through the eyes of those artists who had created these works. At that moment I knew that I must learn how to do this in order to tell the stories about the people in my own life. These techniques were not taught, so I set about spending my life learning them."
She graduated from the Governor’s School in Winston Salem, NC and then the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
'Tangled Up in Blue'
Margaret explains her paintings in this statement on her website:
"I have long been fascinated, as a woman, at how much we must disguise ourselves to be attractive. Do we then have a clue as to what we really look like or who we really are?"
'Las Meninas', by Diego Velazquez, 1656
"When Velasquez painted his masterpiece, 'Las Meninas', the center of the painting shows a blond child being offered a terra cotta vial by a lady in waiting prostrate at her feet. That vial contained a “whitening solution”. Why was this the moment Velasquez chose to depict? He is painting a child who embodies the ambitions of other people’s projections in the royal court."
'Someday My Prince Will Come'
"Painting on skin is by intent a metaphor to expose basic questions of self-identity, which all people undergo internally as a part of the maturation process.It is also reflective of the last 500 years of global cultures, who sought to cover their women in make-up, powders, paints, even mud.This painting’ on skin dates from ancient times to the fashion houses of Paris, New York and Los Angeles."
'Babes in the Woods'
"Psychologists have learned that at about the age of 7 children become aware of the fact that they are not truly unconditionally loved. The lucky ones have known unconditional love from a parent but all must soon face this fact. So begins the time when looking into the face of a stranger, many ask; “whom do you wish to see when you look at me? What does it take to earn your love?”
"In many of my paintings I have depicted both Caucasian and African Americans involved in what I see as a struggle to express the “self”. My subjects triumph. They look back at you through all the make-up, the costumes, the times in history in which they are placed, completely whole. Their eyes hold their unique souls and stare you down. None of my subjects are ever victims."
'They Say It's Wonderful'
"I stand within the history of artists who paint complex subjects. The job is to do so with empathy. The men who painted the crucifixion were not advocating that we nail men to crosses and watch them die. They were using the visual language of beauty through rhythm, geometry, line and color to make it possible for us to gaze upon tragedy. Those paintings depict a specific act, the paradox that the Son Of God suffered so we would not. Kara Walker is a living artist who depicts difficult subjects. She does not advocate lynching, but continues to remind us of the violence in contemporary times and what might lie latent within some of us."
"As an artist, I try to use the visual history of art to expose the maelstrom into which we are born —innocents all— and how this innocence is universally challenged by the “egg beater” of history as we desperately try to become our actual selves. Artists imagine what it is like to be “the other”. This is literally my job as an artist, my self directed responsibility and choice."
'From the Series: Painting the Roses Red'
"Being an artist, in any medium is a form of synthesis. You are, yourself, a collision. You are the result of every decision that you have made. The images that imprint themselves upon your psyche are not chosen; they demand to be seen. Always these images surprise the very person who created them. In the midst of a painting one is being pulled, as if through a fog. When the fog breaks and one beholds what has occurred it is often a shock. They are the messages from your unconscious laid before you, bare."
Margaret talks about the creation of one her her pieces, 'Gilt' (Seed, 2015):
"One day I was walking in the Park near my house on Memorial Day and as I approached the path that would lead back to my house I looked up and saw Matthew Davis. I did not know his name at the time. He was just a beautiful young man on a bike and the way he looked back at me, his great height and the rise of the ground conjured up in my memory the way it felt to be on horseback looking across at another rider. I looked past his handlebars and there was his childhood friend, Sherquane, equally beautiful and mounted on a bike. The sight of them lifted me back into the great beauty of the world. I walked up to the boys, asked them to model for me and we made a time to meet in my studio, with their bikes.
"I had a friend, Frank Turiano, come into my studio at the given time and photograph the boys as I directed and moved them and the bikes about. I did this two more times and was not getting what I needed no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much we interacted. I wanted that feeling of mounted riders and was not getting it.
"And then I found myself alone with Matt one afternoon while he was waiting for a friend. We were talking and then he turned from me as if looking out the window. When he looked back at me I could see that tears were streaming down his face and he began to tell me of the funeral service he had to attend that week. Two months back, a kid he had grown up with had caught a stray bullet from a drive by shooting.
"Matt told me that he had been there and that the police and EMT trucks arrived very quickly. He then said he had stood there, pacing with anxiety while it took the ambulance 30 minutes to drive away. He looked back at me, his face full of tears and asked me why? “Why did it take them so long to leave?” I had no answer but the obvious one, Matt lives in a poor neighborhood. His friend, whom he had talked to in the hospital the night of the shooting, whom Matt believed would be fine, never left the hospital. He died three weeks later of complications.
"Matt looked to me, an adult, for the answer. He was terrified of seeing the boy’s mother at the funeral because Matt felt responsible. He kept asking himself over and over why he had not done anything? Why had he not spoken to the cops, the ambulance personnel and demanded that they get his friend to the hospital. I knew, of course, that no one would have listened to him that night. And as I talked to him, trying to remove the guilt on his young shoulders and place it back upon the white establishment I represent, I watched as he shook his beautiful head, watched as his eyes darted in terror and then grabbed on to a smile, saying: “Thanks, I am better, that’s just life.” Then his friend came and the two left.
"Matt and I live two miles from each other at most. A park separates us. The neighborhoods on both sides are mixed racially now, but as Matt was growing up, a black child, his mother had stressed upon him the fear of going onto the streets of the side of the park in which I live, even as I had stressed the same fear upon my children as to the danger possible if they ventured into his neighborhood. Matt is 6’ 5 inches tall. And yet the first time he came to my studio he had asked me to meet him at the park and together we walked the half block to my house. Even after living in my home for 28 years, this was the first time I really understood that the fear families on both sides of that park had were mutual.
"When Matt left my house the day that he had broken down he was not “better.” What I had seen in his face was a reckoning with the truth that had resulted in the neglect of his friend dawn on his face and then get driven back down within him. His youth and his beauty supply him with the hope and sheer momentum now that keeps truth at bay. Just like all soldiers, who are always young and anxious to board planes to adventure, we know where those planes lead. I had just seen, twice, the movie “Straight Out of Compton” and as I sat there with Matt scenes from that movie and a Poussin painting in the Met where the golden armor of the soldiers feels oddly made of their own skin, collided and the first of the paintings of Matt was revealed to me.
"The next time he and his friend Sherquane came, I had them pour gold body paint upon themselves to emulate the Poussin soldiers, and had one wear a necklace made out of five dollar bills to resemble the gold braided necklaces worn in “Straight Out of Compton.” Neither of these high school students has one thing to do with the drug trade at all. But I had come to see that they all believed themselves to be soldiers in a world in which they had been raised in an atmosphere of wariness. And the only way out is through gold, through money. Both boys want to become fashion models and even as I work with them to give them photos for their “books” I know how brutal that world is and how easily it chews up and discards thousands of beautiful kids every single year.
"So I made my first painting about them and called it Gilt. Yes I am playing on the double meaning of the word but am also asking the viewer to see that even though the main character, Matt, is covered in gold, believing it to be a protective armor his face still shows you what I saw the day he cried in my home, great vulnerability that is not overcome but held in check. His eyes show you what this costs him and the sheer courage he is capable of finding within himself. He is a soldier on a battlefield that is a stacked deck. For me, his courage amidst this tragedy that is real life, is Beauty.
"Beauty is being exactly who you are amidst all that the world does to fracture and destroy you. Beauty is courage that some people are born possessing. They do not even know that there is an option called giving up. They hold amidst it all. This is the common denominator in every person I paint. There are no common physical attributes, just this courage. This courage is grace and I know when I am in its presence. My job is to record it."
'15 in 2015'
Margaret talks about '15 in 2015' (Seed, 2015):
"I have known a beautiful child, Julia Harrison, for most of her 15 years. She has become preposterously beautiful. She is almost six feet tall, looks like Grace Kelly and is brilliant. This is a young woman for whom no one on earth feels anything but envy. A request for compassion for Julia would bring a smile to someone’s face. And yet that very fact reveals the paradox of her need.
"Julia is like a niece to me. I have watched her develop into this paragon of womanhood warily. I know the world will weigh what she has been given and exact retribution. I put white makeup on her fair face, just as women have been doing in every culture in the world for centuries. I had her hair arranged on her head in the manner of an 18th century lady complete with the white paint and powder that would have been placed on Marie Antoinette, or Josephine, or Queen Elizabeth the 1st. These women were all turned into blank slates upon which the crowd could project its needs, for purity, or lust or even what it thought to be love. But, beneath this mask lived a real woman who was never seen, never known.
"I then placed Julia in a turbulent sea up to her neck, her hand trying to pull away the ribbon that such women wore around their necks. The sea in which she struggles fades in deep space into the sea of Turner’s 'The Slave Ship'. In her hair are the flowers that would have been arranged upon the head of any great lady of the 18th century, but they are made of 100 dollar bills. Those bills carry the image of Benjamin Franklin, the ambassador to France when women were so attired. Overhead are American fighter jets that are igniting the flowers in Julia’s hair and fly over the slaves drowning in the water below.
"This is the world into which Julia was born. For all her good fortune, she still lives in a world that carries this baggage. She was born in this sea. The innocent die every day in wars we conduct and young women are still asked to become projection screens in order to be loved."
'And the Cotton Is High'
Margaret uses money as a symbol of worldly power in several of her artworks. You might not notice at first glace, but her paintings 'Power', 'One Child', and '15 in 2015' all show forms of currency, sometimes burning as it falls from the sky, at times folded into origami flowers, and in '15 in 2015' adorning a figure's hair. Margaret even used $2,000 in real currency to make this installation titled 'The Watchers':
She wrapped the pillars in barbed wire, and then added bills of American, Indian, and Chinese currency, all folded into the shape of flowers. Margaret explains it in this interview (BHOLDR, 2015):
"The idea behind power, for me, is that people don't know what it is. They're born into a maelstrom of powers that affect their lives. What do we care about in this country? We care about money. And, people talk about color. Well, the only color that really matters in this country is green. It's money. That's the only color anybody really cares about. And, if you've got enough money you can, Lord, you can get people to believe anything you say. You can get them to love you. It is the guiding absolute force in the world. And, I did the installation, called it 'The Watchers', because a girl, Sarah Harrison, worked for me, said to me, said she sees when she looks at money, she thinks the face on that bill is watching her. There was something about turning them into flowers, which is something we say we really think is beautiful. Well, really what I think you think is beautiful is money. So, I'm turning this money into flowers, but at the same time, it's crawling all over the ceiling and up the walls of the gallery, and it's watching you, because it controls you. I don't care who you are."
"Throughout history, art used to be a language that people used to tell hard truths. They used it to tell the truth of religion to illiterate people, like the churches would be decorated with beautiful frescoes of the crucifixion, for heaven sakes! Well, that's very dark information. So, what people learned to do was make it beautiful, so that people could look at it. I'm trying to get difficult information to you through beauty."
'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'
Margaret talks about how she works with models (Seed, 2015):
The word “collaboration” is the best one to use for the way that my paintings are developed. But the collaboration is of an odd sort. The person being painted doesn’t sit down with me and discuss his or her conceptions of the work. It begins by my fixation on a particular person."
". . . I work both from live models and from photographs. When I begin with a model many photos are taken. After looking though these photos I develop ideas. Then the work begins, often from the photos themselves. Of course, this is never enough and the models must be brought back in. I set up clothes often on mannequins I have acquired over the years. Sometimes I build mannequins from all kinds of things, from chicken wire and paper towels, even old dolls."
'It Ain't Necessarily So'
'Brown, Black, & Beige'
'Party, Chelsea Gallery'
'Isn't It Romantic?'
'Artist's Wig II'
'Another Thorny Crown 1'
'Another Thorny Crown 5'
'Someone to Watch Over Me'
'15 in 2015'
'Barbie Cake' a diptych, 2018