Paul Bowen was making art from driftwood long before Al Gore sparked our present environmental guilt trip. But Bowen insists he isn’t a “politically correct recycler.” On the contrary, he says, his raggedly graceful wooden sculptures are “old-fashioned and very romantic.”
“I mean, I recycle,” notes Bowen, a slight 57-year-old with bushy eyebrows and a British accent. “But I don’t do it because I’m trying to save the world.”
Bowen lives in a blue cottage on a quiet lane 10 miles from Brattleboro, near the fresh-water Rock River. But on a warm September afternoon, a reporter finds him in his damp garage picking through beach debris. Judging from the fish-packing boxes on the floor, you might think he was just back from a marine adventure.
It’s a logical assumption; Bowen is no stranger to the Atlantic. In 1977, the Welshman moved to Cape Cod. By the time he met his wife Pam at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in the early 1990s, local fishermen had pegged him as a “beachcomber.”
The couple lived on the Cape until 2004, when they relocated to their Williamsville cottage. Now he teaches at Dartmouth College and she runs the Windham Art Gallery in Brattleboro. As for Bowen’s driftwood, what he couldn’t carry north he returned to the sea. Some of his finished sculptures, though, live in the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
At first glance, Bowen’s pieces might seem related to the temporal, nature-centric installations of fellow U.K. artist Andy Goldsworthy. As the Boston Globe noted six years ago, “There’s something about the rough, splintered quality of wood coughed up by the ocean that can’t be tamed. And Bowen doesn’t try to.”
How, then, to account for the formal elegance of his aesthetic? In part it comes from the spherical, as opposed to linear, materials Bowen salvages from the Massachusetts coastline. (As this story goes to press, he’s back in Provincetown, roaming the beaches.) For example, in one untitled work, an oak ring the size of a car tire encircles oars that are dangling inside two nondescript, wall-hung driftwood “cradles,” as Bowen calls them. Sans ring, the sculpture might look raw and angular, but the oak adds a pleasing note of unity.
The same contrasting shapes are in evidence in three small-scale tabletop sculptures by Bowen at Burlington’s Kasini House gallery. In each, weathered sticks protrude from softball-sized plaster spheres, vaguely recalling a human joint such as a shoulder. The ragged sticks suggest fracture and discord, yet the smoothness of the balls has a calming effect; it’s as if Bowen were trying to provoke and soothe simultaneously.
Ten years ago, when gallery co-owner Ric Kasini Kadour saw Bowen’s sculptures in Provincetown, he was struck by what he calls their “beautiful simplicity.” Kadour says Bowen’s aesthetic reminds him of that of Joseph Beuys, a German installation and performance artist who aggregated such disparate objects as old shoes, typewriters, desks and half-burnt logs.
Indeed, while Bowen considers himself “old-fashioned,” Kadour suggests his sculptures are timeless, in that they grapple with the same questions of “humanity” that interested Beuys and his 20th-century peers. Those are different concerns than the more narrowly focused ones — think “gender, race and class,” Kadour suggests — driving many 21st-century artists.
What of Bowen’s affinity for recycled stuff? Kadour argues that just because an artist uses driftwood in his sculptures doesn’t mean he’s making an “environmental argument.” Whereas some contemporary artists appropriate the “refuse of consumerism,” Kadour says, Bowen works with the “refuse of humanity.”
“Paul’s work is about that dialogue between us and the natural world,” he adds, “how we give things to the ocean and the ocean gives them back to us.”
Not all of Bowen’s work makes one long for a time-share by the seashore. Take “Wheeled Shrine,” a black cart filled with nails and thorns that he created for a 1975 exhibit concerning the concept of crucifixion: Unlike his sun-bleached sculptures, this rolling mass of assemblage is dark and disturbing.
Bowen explains that the Gothic-looking cart stems from his interest in Celtic folklore. He got the history bug from his dad, a Bauhaus-inspired architect who liked to take young Paul around the Welsh countryside in search of Roman ruins. Early pieces such as “Wheeled Shrine” were also a response to Bowen’s financial situation. As he recalls, “If you’re twentysomething and you don’t have a trust fund, what are the chances of using your material of intellectual choice?”
Bowen says he still doesn’t have a trust fund and his art continues to take its cues from the physical environment. That shows during a tour of the cramped home studio where he’s been painting abstract watercolors with ink he siphoned from a walnut tree. The paintings, about the size of typing paper, depict houses, rushing water and a covered bridge. Abstract variations on the view from his window?
Not quite. In one watercolor, a covered bridge perches over an incongruously nautical backdrop. Whereas his sculptures depend on place-specific materials, Bowen’s drawings aren’t hampered by the same logical or practical constraints. “I don’t think about gravity when I make a drawing,” he says. “You can take a covered bridge and float it on the ocean!”
Only time will tell what Bowen’s next set of sculptures will look like, but history suggests he’ll need a few years to fine-tune a Green Mountain aesthetic. After all, he didn’t begin to riff on nautical themes until 1980 — three years after moving to Cape Cod.
“I think there’s a time lag with a lot of artists and writers,” he reflects. “At times it’s been frustrating because I want something new to happen immediately . . . but I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t freak out and say, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”