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When I first encountered Margaret Bowland’s paintings, I didn’t understand them. Sure, they were beautiful and very well done, but something seemed off about them. They offered no easy explanation. As I learned more about the artist, I realized she’s more than comfortable with these discrepancies, in fact, she thinks they are beautiful. Bowland is a realist, from North Carolina, she does not paint for her viewers to experience visual harmony. Instead, her paintings are illustrated narratives of what happens to people.
Although she readily admits that her work is always about beauty, Bowland acknowledges it’s almost never beauty in the traditional sense of the word. For her, beauty, only makes sense when it has suffered damage because then it has entered a broken world and has sustained value. Consider a diamond for example. When first discovered, the diamond is rough and most likely tarnished by coal and mining. Though a diamond, it’s value is not yet maximized. However, upon continued refining by fire and heat, the jewel’s worth grows exponentially, making it one of the most desired gems the world has ever known. So it is with beauty according to Bowland.
Bowland’s philosophical and realist perception of art and the world mimics her childhood and education as a young adult. Describing her “contrarian” lifestyle she explains to the Huffington Post that both her parents and college professors could not understand why she didn’t believe. Whether God or Abstract Expressionism, Bowland’s lack of resolution with belief systems is the catalyst for her art. She later admits, “the paintings I make are what come to me. They are born of my searching through this world for a belief system.”
Perhaps Bowland’s most notorious paintings are those of “Anna,” a dwarf, and young black girls with white faces. In each painting, traditional ideals of beauty collide with life’s scars. “Painting the Roses Red,” for example depicts a young black girl adorned in a white dress topped with white roses. Her face is painted white. But to the shock of viewers, she’s covered in what seems and looks like blood. There is no immediate consolation. As viewers gaze at the image, they are left wondering what possible orthodoxy could explain such an image. Without a connection to any particular belief system, the art feels impolite, incomplete and even crude, but the piercing eyes of the young girl and her beauty can’t be denied. The strain for tradition and normality is more than evident. But again, there are no easy answers. After all, why is the young black girl painted with white face? Why is a white woman painting such a controversial thing?
While Bowland never directly explains the use of white face in her paintings, she’s quick to point out the flawed yet socially accepted ideals of beauty: European, fair, long legs, and equally proportioned. As a realist though, she’s very aware of how untrue such a perception is. As such, she paints what her eyes deem beautiful. In an interview with Blouin Artinfo, an online global publication dedicated to understand art, Bowland talks about being a white woman painting black faces. “I am a Southerner raised in the time of desegregation. This is my heritage. The struggles of race were what I lived. There are African-American men and women who loved me and taught me as a child in North Carolina. The mad disparity between the way they were treated and the way they treated me molded my character.”
James Baldwin once said that artists disturb the peace. Whether she intends to or not, the same is true of Margaret Bowland. It’s the misfits, the oddballs and the overlooked that capture her attention. In turn, she captures our attention with white faces on black girls and paintings of nude dwarf women. Whether an instant admirer or not, the unique artistry is compelling. It forces us to questions our beliefs? Why do we find certain things beautiful and certain things disturbing? Why do race, gender, and politics matter? Do they matter? Margaret Bowland creates art that shocks the eye, triggers the psyche, and makes you think again and thinking again, reevaluating and reconsidering is surely a beautiful thing on a white face, black face, or any other face.
The parking lot buzzed with activity as cars pulled into the Mason Fine Art Event Space one by one. Jazzy music beckoned casual yet uniquely dressed individuals inside as the sun retreated into an orange and purple sky. The gallery’s large windows provided glimpses of what awaited visitors inside. Bright green graffiti broadcasting the “ATL” was displayed on one wall while smaller portraits were placed on another. Following the bustling crowd inside, a group of white lights caught my eye. Decorating the window adjacent to the door, the lights spelled out the night’s event: ARTiculate ATL. Whether a first time participate or an ARTiculate ATL veteran, the event’s aim was clear: come see, learn and experience the growing Atlanta art scene.
Located in the Armour Industrial District, the rustic, factory-like design added to the modern, creative ambiance. Almost every corner of the space was covered in art. The music, a nice blend of hip hop, soul and pop, paired with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, made the event feel very much like a contemporary urban museum. The night, curated by Ball-n-Co. LLC and Urban Art Expression, was the organization’s 3rd annual event. Created by a group of four visionaries, proceeds from the event benefit the UAE Youth Artists Program, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and encouraging young emerging artists with financial challenges. Simultaneously, the event allows local artists to broadcast, sell and talk about their art.
Ron Smith, a mixed media artist, talked about the importance of the event. “It’s all about freedom of expression. I’m out here just expressing what I feel, what I think and what I believe.” With a city as diverse as Atlanta, you can only image the vast range of artwork displayed throughout the night. There was art made out of glass, photography, animation, tattoo artists, body art, paintings, portraits, soft sculptures and mixed media. Despite the many different kinds of art on display, Smith was right: there was freedom and there was expression. Jamaal Barber’s bold expressions compelled a lot of people to ask questions about his art. Using techniques the combine text, paint and screen prints, his pieces have an African, ethnic and historical feel to them. Inspired by blackness and stereotypes, he stated, “At what point do I become Jamaal? When do I stop being another face in the crowd?” But not all the artists’ expression were as specific. Angela Ferguson admitted she simply wanted to be different. A quick glance at her Afro-Centric soft sculpture dolls and hanging quilts hints at just how different she desires to be. Other artists were more drawn to telling visual stories.
“Every artist is a storyteller,” Sean Mulkey said as he explained to me his love for jazz. A self taught artist, Mulkey believes the creative process is an artist’s power. With that power and authority, they tell stories and ask questions. As his art told story of a treasured legacy of jazz, Ruby Chavez questioned the many things influencing young children in today’s world. Her paintings showed young children going to war, smoking and drinking. Simple yet controversial at first glance, her work makes you think about choices and influence. “Robo-artist” Marcia Dietz had a different kind of story. Her art, colorful and abstract, was not only created by a robot, but was featured on HGTV’s “Property Brothers” as well.
As the night progressed on, more and more artists put themselves on display. Dance photographer Shoccara Marcus not only told her own story about her love for dance and identity, but displayed her elegant photographs as well. Visual Artist George Galbreath sold a well-loved piece from his collection titled “Bridges.” The piece, a colorful depiction of a bridge, reminded me of the entire night. The event itself was a bridge between artists and their community, between thoughts and questions, between urban and eloquent.
Created for the purpose of emerging artists, ARTiculate ATL is also a bridge connecting generations of artists together. But most importantly, the event was a bridge connecting people with other people, sharing and inspiring each other. One of my favorite pictures of the night was a huge picture of Gandhi placed high up on the wall. As the music played and people mingled, I thought of his quote, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” That’s exactly what these artists were doing – speaking up for the changes, the beliefs, the hopes, the dreams and the aspirations they wish to see in the world.
-Sharita Gilmore & Shannan Rivera
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