Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Poetry and Memory



Third Elegy  2007
acrylic paint, beads, thread     
970 x 1220mm


Below is another article written about my Distant Elegies exhibition. It is by the amazing Ramona Barry and was published in Craft Culture a publication of Craft Victoria.

Poetry and Memory, the new work of Katherine Bowman
By Ramona Barry

‘But who are they, tell me, these travelers, even more transient that we are ourselves..’
Ranier Maria Rilke, Duino Elegy #5

On a warm Saturday morning I drove from the city to the country. I was off to the Warrnambool Regional Art Gallery for the opening of Katherine Bowman’s latest show ‘Distant Elegies’. I would drive inland through towns like Winchelsea, Colac, Camperdown and Terang. Before arching towards the ocean. Signs proclaiming country fairs and races, firewood for sale and fruit and flower stands by the side of the road. The land still drought- stricken but beautiful with canola fields, low stone walls and storm fronts gathering in the distance. I am a stranger to this countryside that Katherine Bowman knows well. I was not alone on the road either. Her family and friends were traveling from all over Victoria to support her and to see what she’d been up to this past year.

I’d been lucky enough to visit Bowman in her home studio the week before. Trained as a jeweler with the soul of a fine artist her home reflects her work. White washed walls contain treasured objects, her work bench is clean and ordered. The kitchen smells of lemons and earl grey tea. Her production jewellery sits beside paintings of birds on tin, sculptural pieces from her masters work (felted and beaded house structures that stand small but resolute). It is clear that Bowman’s work practice is truly integrated into her life. Each day spent at the bench, or, as is the case this past year, facing the canvas.

It is the long corridor I was most interested in. Lined with 9 large canvases. Simple paintings of anonymous black and white figures floating in white space. On closer inspection sections are beaded and stitched. Tendrils, nerves, tree roots extend out from the figures as if their externality is being revealed. They evoke feelings of nostalgia and poeticism and with good reason.

The starting point for this body of work came many moons ago. In the final year of her Masters work (2003) her grandmother entrusted Bowman with a box of photographs. A collection of 50 odd images from her grandparent’s time in Warrnambool in the 1930’s as itinerant farm workers. Photos of men and women in their Sunday best standing in muddy fields, working, living, playing and being on the land.

Sometime later Bowman began reading Ranier Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, poems that examined the individual’s response to being human. Complex and dense, these are poems that need to be read and reread at careful pace, perfect for the mind of a jeweller. For Bowman they held resonance with the photos. Bowman instantly saw paintings in her head and it began her journey that lead to the creation of a new series and style. Bowman had always made objects, and tinkered with painting – but now embarked on a year long endeavor of facing the canvas. She selected ten images for the ten elegies and began work

Why does a jeweller become a painter? As Bowman says “I always work from subject, not material and I think you have to honour your subject”. Paintings had been what appeared in her mind so paintings they had to be. That is not to imply that the maker in her was suppressed by the brush. As the images emerged so did Bowman’s desire for embellishment encroach. Simple skirts became encrusted by bugle beads, tree roots came alive with chain stitch And finally, with Elegy Number 10 Bowman returned to the object – as simple wedding band on a table with all the secret desires and imagined dreams of the wearer extending out of it. Interesting that as the final work neared completion Bowman returned to a desire to create an object as if refocusing herself after a long period of working in a radically different way.

And what of the poems? There is no denying the impact they had on the work as you read them and then attach meaning to the work it does make sense but I think it all too neat to just equate meaning from one to the other. I felt there was much more a connection to Katherine’s own personal history, and the history of her family. The figures, despite their finery, could not hid there inner lives. They seep out of them like an aura, something that is barely visible but cannot be contained.

“Look, trees exist; houses,
We live in, still stand. Only we
Pass everything by, like an exchange of air.
And all is at one, in keeping us secret, half out of
shame perhaps, half out of inexpressible hope’

Rilke, Elegy #2

In the gallery space the work was transformed. The figures hung together as a group, a gathering of memory, history and poetry. As Katherine’s friends, family, colleagues and admirers moved around the space they became a part of the work – a continuation of her history. The warm light of the gallery revealed the intricate stitching and beading – the repetitive and even chains that threaded along tree branches and nervous systems. The work became more celebratory, less melancholy more a celebration for the human spirit. A desire to reveal the emotional rather than conceal it with anonymous faces and uniform elegance.

A photographer moved through the space to capture the occasion. And I imagined these images, almost all in attendance dressed in black and grey, mingling in with that original box Bowman’s grandmother had passed on.

Katherine Bowman Distant Elegies
Warrnambool Regional Art Gallery until December 9.
Flinders Lane Gallery Feb -5 -16 2008

click on images for more detail