November 2007

Getting Inspired with Joe Bowler

Author: Melissa Koch

What inspires you? For me, it’s just about everything. As an art lover and aspiring (though hopeless) artist, I am constantly studying art alongside everyday life. A man once stopped me on the street to tell me I had “strong eyes,” that I studied every little thing with scrutiny. (It was the best compliment I ever received.) I have to go to galleries and museums alone because it takes me as long to study one painting as it takes everyone else to go through the entire room. I always just assumed I was slow. After sitting down with local artist, Joe Bowler, and his wife in his home studio, I realize I am not; I’m just a normal artist getting inspired.

At first glance, Joe Bowler’s paintings resemble the style of the great Impressionists. His beautiful narratives of children and families especially bring to mind Mary Cassatt, and his use of light and color is not unlike that of Renoir. But upon further inspection, one sees more classical elements. If not for the telltale modern fashions worn by his subjects, Joe’s portraits could easily hang alongside Baroque painters Diego Velasquez and Anthony Van Dyck. That said, there is certainly an element of timelessness to his art, something Joe says he strives for.

Joe is self-taught, taking a natural talent that first emerged at age three and combining it with his experiences as a young man who got what he calls a “lucky break,” scoring a job at Charles E. Cooper Studios, Inc. in New York City. He quickly worked his way up and became an illustrator, creating works for the likes of Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. Absorbing art was a 24-hour a day process for Joe. When he wasn’t busy working late into the evenings, he was spending his free time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, practically “licking the paint off” the masterpieces and closely studying the techniques of their painters, he said. When I asked who some of his biggest inspirations are, he quickly named about a dozen artists from three or four different art movements, including renowned turn-of-the-century portraitist John Singer Sargent, the female Impressionist Berthe Morisot, and the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer.

According to Joe, he’s constantly perusing his collection of art books. “I look at everybody,” he said, explaining that every day is a learning process for him. “My knowledge is way ahead of what I can do. I keep saying ‘Someday I’ll get it right,’ but the beauty of it is, I’m probably having more fun now painting than I ever have,” he said. His studio is an artist’s oasis, from the wall of bookcases packed with art books, to the dozens of paintings, some finished and many still in progress. My eyes did not stop moving the entire time I was there. It is so inspiring to sit among the art, smell the oil paints and listen to the excitement in Joe’s voice when he talks about his work.

The Bowlers are inspiring to watch as well. Marilyn and Joe have been married for 57 of the 60 years they have known each other. Theirs is a true partnership in every sense of the word. From Joe’s start to his current business, Marilyn has been with her husband every step of the way. Besides being his wife and the mother of their two grown daughters, Marilyn acts as the artist’s representative, and she also helps him to capture the photographs from which he paints. Joe also hails his wife as his biggest and best critic. “She seems to know what I’m after… She’s taught me a lot, and I needed teaching,” he said with a smile in her direction.

Since their move to Hilton Head Island in 1972, life has slowed down considerably for the Bowlers, but Joe is far from bored. Though he had always planned to create a business of painting portraits, he didn’t really realize how lucrative a business it was in the South until he arrived. After a feature article on the artist appeared in Southern Accents magazine in the early 1980s, the Bowlers found themselves overwhelmed with inquiries. They stopped counting at 1800 and have finally made it through a year-long waiting list. Referring to a painting of a young woman on the wall, Joe said, “Her father started asking me to paint a portrait before she was even born.” The girl, as she is being painted, is now 18.

And so it goes for Joe. Many of his clients are counted as friends, including one patriarch who has commissioned over 40 portraits across three generations of his family. Joe typically uses a photograph rather than a live subject, though he says he gets giddy when he has the chance to paint from life. He works strictly with oil as a medium, because he says there are so many things one can do with it, and it’s a very forgiving medium, allowing him to destroy and rebuild as needed.

Like the people in the paintings, Joe’s works have a life and a story behind them, both in subject and in their creation. He is inspired by all of it: the people, the paint, the process. At one point in our conversation, the Dutch artist Rembrandt comes up. We are discussing his use of white to make his subjects stand out, and I mention that the toothpaste was named for this technique. Joe smiles. “I use it. I figure maybe it’ll rub off on me,” he said.

Beginning November 30, there will be a special exhibit at the Morris-Whiteside Gallery, featuring an array of Joe’s works that span over 50 years. Along with his signature portrait work, the exhibit will include his original paintings of children at play, as well a selection of nudes for which the artist is known. Joe also hopes to include some of the illustrations from his days in New York. Most of the works on display will be for sale and the exhibit will run for about a month.

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