Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Life Into Art: The Installation Art of Pam Bowman

Artist Pam Bowman at the Central Utah Art Center, July 2006.

by Brian Christensen

I have known Pam Bowman for a number of years now, and during that time I have seen an exciting transformation in her work. When I first met Pam, she was already very accomplished in the fine crafts as a weaver. As a sculpture teacher at Brigham Young University, I was interested to find such an accomplished artist who seemed to be looking for additional meaning in her craft. Pam’s baskets and other weavings clearly existed as expressions beyond utilitarian function, yet she always pushed their boundaries to new levels. I could see that Pam was transferring a great deal of her own aesthetic and work ethic and value system into the objects which she produced, yet she seemed dissatisfied with their ability to convey a broader meaning to the viewer.

Pam’s desire for this broader dialogue with her audience was achieved when her art became less about composition and design and more about the act of making, more about the act of living and more about the act of transferring life experience. She found this ability though the medium of installation art. Her installations draw on personal experience, personal images and personal artifacts. These factors lend an authenticity to her work that gives the viewer a rare candid window into the emotions and concerns of a modern Mormon woman.

This modern Mormon woman — mother, wife, sister and daughter — grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1977, the same year she earned a bachelor’s degree in interior design from Brigham Young University, Pam married Jerry Bowman. Together they have raised three sons (finding identity as a woman within a family of men in the context of Mormon faith is a recurring force behind her work). When Jerry retired from the Air Force and became a mechanical engineering professor at BYU, Pam decided to return to school. She received a Master of Fine Arts from Brigham Young University in 2005 and it was during her years at the University that she began to use installation as her medium for expressing the value of the human experience.

With her metaphorical installations, Pam addresses the space and rhythm of home and domesticity: repetitive work, labor-intensive processes, gathering, and materiality are common threads in her work. I recently asked Pam about her connection with installation as her chosen artistic direction. “For me, installation is the most expressive medium. The viewer can more closely experience the meaning of the work in the context of a total environment.” Installation art is new for many people and Pam receives a lot of feedback. “Some opinions matter more than others,” she says. People who spend time with the work and come to it with an open mind have more reaction to it. “Some comments that have encouraged me equate my work with beauty and spirituality. It really meant something to me when someone said, ‘your installations give me joy.'”

One of Pam’s recent exhibitions was “Renascent” at Old Main Art Museum, Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, Arizona. |1| In the exhibition, a plaster cast of Pam’s body sleeps peacefully on a thin canvas mattress and pillow. The body is sifted with a fine pink powder of dried and crushed rose petals. The gallery floor is stretched wall to wall in raw sewn canvas. At the foot of the sleeping figure, mirrored in the opposite direction, is a figurative mound of rose petals, weighted with a net of rose thorns. The two figures are encompassed by a figure-8 of pink footprints, stained into the canvas with an infusion of ink made from rose powder. In the corner is a slate slab set with a pile of rose petals, a bowl of rose stems, a bowl of rose powder and a mortar and pestle.|2|

There is an implication of ceremony surrounding the installation; indeed, ceremony was implicit to the making. The roses were harvested by the artist, and dried, ground and processed by the artist, personally. Even the pacing of the footprints seemed a part of a highly personalized ritual. Yet the viewer is not an outsider or a voyeur. The traces of activity invite you to project yourself into the performance and interpretation of the ceremony.

I asked Pam to comment on the recent installation: “The reaction there was positive. The Museum director perceived the exhibition as a reverent and moving experience. Many people who visited the installation automatically removed their shoes as a sign of reverence” (even though they were not required to do so).

Utah art lovers will have the opportunity to experience “Renascent,” which will be reinstalled at Gallery OneTen in Provo, Utah, beginning July 7th. They can also see another of Pam’s installations this month, Big Ball of String, which opened recently at the Central Utah Art Center in Ephraim.

Pam hesitates to be too specific in defining the meaning of her installations. She wants the viewer to “discover the meaning” as she has to discover the meaning as well. With this in mind, I will make a few comments and observations about Pam’s life in the context of her work.

Pam is very influenced by faith, family, music and poetry. She plays the piano, and, at one time, performed regularly as a concert pianist. The poetry of a friend played an important role in her installation “Perennial,” which focused on live, growing things. |3| Her husband and sons have played another role in her connection with nature by physically challenging and spiritually energizing her on long technical river trips in the Utah canyons. They have also collaborated in her installations through engineering consultation. I see the strength in Bowman’s work as a synthesis of these influences and an indefinable feeling that the work evokes though formal relationships and spiritual introspection which create a sort of universal symbolism in their own right.

My own search for meaning in these installations mimics the process the artist herself must go through in these works. Pam turned to her involvement in the musical arts and quoted Stravinsky to impress on me how she has to discover the meaning in the work for herself.

Inspiration, art, artist–so many words, hazy at least, that keep us from seeing clearly in a field where everything is balance and calculation through which the breath of the speculative spirit blows. It is afterwards, and only afterwards, that the emotive disturbance which is at the root of inspiration may arise–an emotive disturbance about which people talk so indelicately by conferring upon it a meaning that is shocking to us and that compromises the term itself. Is it not clear that this emotion is merely a reaction on the part of the creator grappling with that unknown entity which is still only the object of his creating and which is to become a work of art? Step by step, link by link, it will be granted him to discover the work. It is this chain of discoveries, as well as each individual discovery, that give rise to the emotion–an almost physiological reflex, like that of the appetite causing a flow of saliva–this emotion which invariably follows closely the phases of the creative process.

One aspect of Pam’s art, which has grown out of her life experiences, is a strong sense of women’s issues embodied by her installations.

“Through my compulsions for gathering, processing and building I create art. The rhythm of the making echoes patterns from my past. As I perform repetitive work, my hands develop skill and memory of the movements. This reminds me of other memories that my hands hold – playing the piano, planting flowers in freshly tilled earth, folding laundry, bathing a child, and washing dishes. The gathering and the processing are a means to resolve the memories of my mind and my hands. The rhythm is a link to the work performed by the hands of women throughout history. The complexities and ironies of women’s choices elicit in me divided feelings, yet I revere the role of wife/mother/caregiver in the home and recognize the value of that role. By exploring more closely my own history, I hope to come to a better understanding of the intricate and conflicting life experiences of other women and their relationships to home and family.”

Pam defines some of these feelings in her 2004 installation, “Endlessly Happy,” which centers around repetitive housework and laundry in particular. The exhibition featured two 6′ long tables stacked with colorful roles of dryer lint, (Pam took a furniture class from BYU Engineering and builds most of the furniture in her installations). |4| A large beaker on a washing machine, with linen magically swirling in the glass with the help of magnets and a hidden motor, and a motorized dry cleaning roller wrapped with white shirts lent an air of mystery to the exhibition. A clothes line with huge hand-turned clothes pins, embroidered messages on white shirts and many more enigmatic objects relating to laundry and traditional women’s work were also present, linking the aesthetics of the home with a kind of pristine minimalism, reminiscent of Shaker aesthetics as well as high modernism. The white linen and white men’s shirts in particular, took on a sort of Mormon iconography in the installation. |5|

To me, “Endlessly Happy” represents a kind of feminism where a woman may choose for herself, and herself alone, what activities in life have value or have meaning. It doesn’t preach. It is an honest parallel to experience for the viewer to interpret.

I see a little bit of Virginia Wolf in Pam and each of her installations brings to mind “A Room of Ones Own,” the early modernist manifesto which stated the artist’s need, whether male or female, for a private space in which to work. Pam’s work, however private, is also about interaction and community and I enjoy the collaborative nature of her art. She has solicited many materials from friends and acquaintances: soil samples, dryer lint and, most recently, string, with which she will wind her latest installation, “Big Ball of String.” |5|

Pam says that her two current installations, “Big Ball of String” and “Renascent” are similar in that they both use materiality as an important dimension of the work, they draw from her personal experiences, and they both reference the work of feminist artists. However, she says, the two installations invoke very different moods, the latter being serious and reflective, while A “Big Ball of String” is lighthearted and playful.

As if creating two installations in a month weren’t enough, Pam is also making preparations to go to China for a year. Her husband will be taking a sabbatical from BYU and will teach Engineering at Nanjing University of Technology. Pam will be teaching English at the same University, but will also be exploring new avenues in her art. “While I am there I will be living in a small apartment without a studio,” she says, “so I plan to develop new work using video. I am excited about immersing myself in a different culture, and seeing the similarities and the differences in cultures, particularly as they affect the lives of women. I think it will be a very enriching experience for someone who has led a somewhat sheltered life.”

However sheltered her life may have been, Pam Bowman has been able to find meaning in it and through her use of installation art has found a medium to communicate that meaning to herself and others. In Pam Bowman we find a great example of art and life linked inextricably together.

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 edition of 15 Bytes.

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