Interview with 2015-2016 Tournesol Award Winner, Elizabeth Bowler

by Admin on 03/16/2016

The cacophony of the city of San Francisco and Sausalito gradually gave way to the hushed, rural landscape of Fort Barry and finally to Headlands Center for the Arts, where San Francisco Art Enthusiast met with current Tournesol awardee, Elizabeth Bowler. Her studio, a bisection of a larger room, was a hub of activity, which contrasted greatly with the silence that surrounded her. A series of her artworks lined the walls, each emanating a warm glow that lit up the studio, now in afternoon shadows. There were no couches or comfortable spaces for a moment of conversation, reflection, or respite; only workbenches with rows of neatly organized, cleaned brushes and paints, and a vintage writing desk with books and a laptop that goes to sleep moments after we arrive. “I don’t really find myself sitting, thinking,” she says later. “I am always working. Even when I’m reading I prefer standing up, walking around.”


Artist Elizabeth Bowler in her Headlands Center for the Arts studio

She certainly never seems to stop working. A native of England, Bowler moved to California to attend San Francisco Art Institute, arriving with nothing but two suitcases. Two years later and just weeks after graduation earning a Masters of Fine Arts degree, Bowler was notified she had won the Tournesol Art Award, one of the most prestigious local art prizes awarded by Headlands Center for the Arts to one Bay Area-based painter each year. Past winners include Leslie Shows, Christ Ballantyne, and Clare Rojas. “I think I am still processing that I won it,” she confesses. “Honestly, I wanted it so much; it’s terrifying when you do because you don’t want to be disappointed and you want to feel believed in, so there’s this element of preparing for a ‘No,’ so it has been a whirlwind of excitement.” Access to a private studio for one year, surrounded by a vibrant arts community at Headlands center, a generous cash stipend, and a solo exhibition at the Luggage Store Gallery comprised of work created in the past year will provide Bowler with critical support, unique opportunities, and invaluable experience. “This is been one of the many fuels for the new work,” Elizabeth adds. “ ‘It does what it says on the tin,’ assisted in the continuation of momentum in making. There wasn’t a pause, I just have continued to push harder.”

When we meet up with Bowler it was early October and she had just begun to work at Headlands, but with the amount of work she had in the studio it seems like so much more. “At Headlands thus far I have been working with natural light. Creating pieces that are installed in front of the windows, and I am painting them in response to the changing light,” she explains, pointing to several works hanging in these windows she now treasures. “I have been researching into the connection of the philosophy of shapes and the mathematical or scientific justification of shapes.” One of the dark green pieces in the windows looked a little worn, with spots of diluted color, as if it had just been in the rain. She confirms she has been experimenting with the work in the outdoors. This brings the discussion to an interesting analogy she remarked about this work, the idea of the painting as a ‘skin.’ I ask her what she means by this choice of words. “Human skin, our surface, can be scared, bruised, marked, saggy, stretched, weathered… The surface is a container, both for painting and humans. The painting holds moments, thoughts, choices a soul, just like a human,” she says. “A painting encapsulates as skin does, they are containers to the framework, or skeleton. The DNA make-up of a human exists in the painting itself — as a human, my make-up is in the creation of the work. It is left exposed and raw.”


Elizabeth Bowler’s studio at Headlands Center for the Arts

The grounds at Headlands Center for the Arts have encouraged Bowler to delve further into her interest in light. Having no windows in previous studio spaces, and now exposed to a greater landscape where the light is more pronounced, Bowler is eschewing artificial light for one that aligns more with her practice, which is heavily influenced by the organic and natural processes. “The natural elements of light reference the organic in multiple ways. The biggest difference is one always changes, and the other stays the same; the absent moment of the past light attributes the present.”  And this interest in light, she says, follows into an interest in absence and presence, distance, and shape. “Witnessing the motion, and the interchanging moments of light, is engaging me into an exploration of varied geometrical forms that lie on the boundaries of the man-made and the organic. The Cartesian coordinates is a coordinate system that specifies each point uniquely in a plane by a pair of numerical coordinates, which are the signed distances from the point to the two fixed perpendicular directed lines, measured on the same unit of length,” she explains. “Perpendicular projections are an element of real and space, and this is a core concept I’m investigating: understanding the limbo of absence and presence and how to visually create this. The natural light provides a more powerful way to understand and experience this in a phenomenological way.”

Looking at her suite of works in the studio, there is certainly a pronounced emphasis and thoughtful consideration to the shape and space her work occupies, particularly with use of florescent and natural light and labor put into the surface of the work. A particular recipe of rabbit skin glue and calcium carbonate applied over the cloth material– a tool of the trade originating to the Renaissance, she tells us — rigorously tightens the cloth material around the artist’s unique use of stretcher bars, which create shape and space rather than simply supporting the painting surface. A jutting corner invades the assumed safe space of the viewer. The paintings test and play with the viewer’s preconceptions and own definitions of painting. “Highlighting the stretcher bars is referential to the history, and the traditions of painting. Before paintings marked the wall, they were on the ground. The grounding of the painting is weighted by the gravity; this includes the downward pull of paint. The infrastructure creates tension, and the inner-working holds continuous energy.  Integrating painting and sculpture pushes both mediums,” she says. Placement of the work into the formal space it occupies as an object she says, “Concealing and revealing the structure is like a glimpse through the window into a moment. The skeleton, or architectural properties provide a presence within the painting. The painting conceals it with a skin. They aid one another in communicating this sense of being.”


Art by Elizabeth Bowler 

Bowler implements these multiple aesthetic applications to explore the major subject matter of her work: the multiple ideas and concepts surrounding memory, time, and experience. She uses her own personal memories as a font of this exploration, which her artwork broadens, translates, and abstracts to share with her audiences. “My intention is to signify not symbolize,” she begins. “Life experiences are an input and art is an output. The abstraction I speak about in translation is in a sense a moment or moments. The Abstract is to suggest, not to order. Forms, gestures, and marks take the viewer on a journey through the moments in their own personal way. It is not about a singular moment or person; life is about constantly engaging in new beings — therefore, new moments.” As an artist interested in the way it will fade or change, but not necessarily erode; the cyclical nature of time; and the natural processes, she is interested in the manner in which memory will change as time continues onward. “As memories deteriorate through moving forward in time, so do the moments that have been marked in the work. With each moment forward, each new life experience is already in the past, as we never stop,” she says. “Solvent has dissolved pigments. You can see that in a comparative mark that is full and thick; this is a signifier of this concept.”

As the wind-swept hills and the single-lane roads that surround Headlands fade away and the Golden Gate Bridge grows larger in view, SF Art Enthusiast looks forward to returning back to Headlands to see her further progress, and attending the upcoming exhibition that will culminate her residency in June, 2016.


Meet Elizabeth Bowler Sunday, October 25 at Headlands Center for the Arts Fall Open House. More about Elizabeth at