Robert Bowen sits in his studio and paints. The final product is dark. Surreal. Subtle. Funny. It’s done with an easy hand because Robert Bowen’s technique is exact but not tedious. His art has a free wheeling do-whatever-the-hell-I-want look but is also refined. All knowing. I’m blown away by each piece I see of his.
I ran into Robert at an event at the 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco and since then I’ve been emailing him quite a bit (too much?) and eventually got this interview together.
Robert’s work speaks for itself but thankfully he was willing to do some talking on its behalf.
ET: You started in graffiti and street art, and now you mainly paint on canvas. Is there a benefit to working on canvas rather than on property? After graffiti did the canvas restrict your designs at all?
RB: Quite the opposite, I think working on canvas helped me to be more free with my ideas. Being that the work isn’t viewed in public by random passersby it’s subjected to less scrutiny. I think people that come to see work in a gallery setting of their own free will are automatically agreeing to be accepting of the subject matter presented to them. Because people are somewhat forced to look at it, public art is a lot quicker to be hated on, whether it’s legal or illegal.
Pop culture icons from Star Wars to Disney are scattered throughout your work, and unlike other artists it doesn’t seem that you’re doing it to be ironic or satirical – there seems to be an actual love of the imagery. One of my favorite images of yours is ‘Southern Oracle’, where you’ve made Mickey Mouse into some sort of Pagan God. It manages to be funny, dark, and beautiful. A difficult trio to pull off. What attracts you to these images, particularly Disney and Mickey Mouse? Are you actually a fan?
I’m a total fan. Most everything I paint comes from a loving place. Whether it’s animals, people, or elements of pop culture. Disney and Mickey Mouse are some of the earliest happy memories I have.
How much prep work do you need to do before you start a piece? Are there sketches before hand?
Lately most of my ideas kinda just pop into my head, and I see them as the finished painting. I do most of my sketching directly on the canvas, or panel. I’m admittedly the worst sketcher ever, I can cover most of my terrible drawing skills by painting over them.
What’s your workday like? Do you try to paint a full eight hours a day? Is painting your full time job?
It is my full time job, I’ve been lucky enough to be doing it full time for the last few years. My day usually starts with checking emails, packing up any print orders I may have, and then I’m free to start painting. I try to make that the bulk of my day, it’s the best part.
Do you work only in original work or do you commissions as well? Any sort of freelance illustration work going on for you or strictly a fine artist approach?
I love doing commissions for people. I’m always honored when someone comes to me with an idea for something they would like to have but done with my little twist on it. I have yet to do any sort of freelance illustration work but it is something I really want to get into, it’s been a strictly fine art hustle as of late.
How do you decide to price your original pieces?
It’s mostly determined by the size, I have a few sizes I like to work in and found a price range that seems to be working for them, but of course the bigger it is the higher the price.
I saw your work at the ‘Lethal Injection’ show at 111 Minna Gallery earlier this month. Every piece in that show was so strong – just a great group of artists. You’ve also been involved with Sketch Tuesdays at the gallery as well. How did you get involved in that? What’s your process like when it comes to promoting yourself and your work?
Thanks, that show was really fun to be a part of. I went into that show not knowing the other artists involved (Isaac Pierro, 100 TAUR, and Phillip Lawson) and came out of it with some lasting friendships. I was asked to be part of a that show by 111 Minna curator Micah LeBrun, I feel he put us all together based on a certain emotional aesthetic I think we all shared, even though the work is all executed and approached differently, we all shared a love for a certain type a tragic beauty with a slight light warmheartedness.
Promoting my work is probably my greatest challenge, although I want to get it out there as much as I possibly can, I am HORRIBLE at explaining it to people, so I just try to do as much of it as I possibly can so it stays fresh on people’s minds and then hopefully it speaks for itself.
We met at the fine art department of the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and I always wondered why artists like you bothered to go to art school because you showed up already a great painter. What made you decide to go to art school? Did you have any lofty career goals? I know the school has a high drop out rate, did you manage to finish the fine art program?
Well, I definitely wouldn’t say I showed up a great painter. But I did show up with a certain style and aesthetic already in mind. I think I went to art school simply because I thought it was what I was supposed to do. Of course I had lofty career goals, I still do, but school was not the place for me. I barely talked to anyone, and resented teachers who tried way too hard to push their style onto students. I got so frustrated with it I changed my major to sculpture, so I ended up learning things there was no way I could learn on my own, unlike painting, I could study that and learn it on my own, but I could never teach my self bronze casting, or certain mold making. Eventually I made my way back to the painting program, but changed schools, because I heard that the SF Art Institute cared a lot more about their fine art department. Nope, that lasted a year. I just had to face it that school wasn’t for me.
Once you were out of the Academy of Art, do you think your art was better for it? Did you notice or feel a change in your approach to your work?
I think so, no matter what it was part of my journey and get me to the point of what I am doing today. I think studying sculpture helped me a lot with painting, I started paying attention to textures and lighting more.
Whatever helps you get to where you want to be as an artist is great and it must have worked for you. I was in Austin for Mondo Gallery’s ‘Universal Monsters’ show, an exhibit of different artists interpreting the classic movie monsters. The show featured some incredible work including a series from classic Hollywood poster artist Drew Struzan. Opening night even had writer/directors Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption) in attendance. And of course, you had a painting in the exhibit as well. The piece you had in the show, ‘The Bride,’ sold over the opening weekend of the exhibit. When you sell a painting do you try to find out who bought it? Does it matter to you?
I try to find out when I can. Sometimes galleries don’t want to share with you because then they can lose their cut if the collector starts a direct relationship with you. Sometimes people will email to tell me they bought something and how much they like. I like that best.
If you’re in the Austin area or have some time on your hands for an awesome road trip to the glorious land of Texas make sure to check out the ‘Universal Monsters’ exhibit featuring Robert’s ‘The Bride’ and others at Mondo Gallery at 4115 Guadalupe.
For more of Robert Bowen’s work check out robertbowenart.com and if you feel like asking him for a commission or his favorite color why not email him at firstname.lastname@example.org?
On Twitter? Sure you are. Follow Robert Bowen at@bowenstuff.
P.S. Robert Bowen portrait done by Ranson & Mitchell.
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