Piecing a Life

—Bunny Bowen, January 2, 2017

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. —Virginia Woolf

I’ve built my career as a fiber artist, making images by brushing wax onto cotton and silk to resist dye. My work has been in galleries across the Southwest and often I travelled to as many as ten national shows a year. In 2005 I was registrar for the Boston World Batik Conference and twice presented papers at the biennial World Batik Convention in Kuala Lumpur. Wax resist has taken me to Japan, Bali, Malaysia, and Europe, and I’ve studied with artists from Africa, Australia, Japan, Belgium, and England.

But now in my eighth decade I’m moving back to earlier skills. Media long set aside have come back into my hands and head, and I find joy both in rediscovering and in reinventing them.

At nine I was given my first oil paints… the tubes were tiny, the brushes short. I began to paint and kept it up through high school and college, resulting in a BA with studio major in oils. I wanted to go on to graduate school for an MFA in painting, but the (male) head of the art department at the University informed me that I would be better off with a major in Art History, as “Art Departments do not hire women to teach studio.”

Reluctantly I set aside my paints and slogged through three long years of art history classes, eventually earning an MA in Art History in 1970. During the next ten years as a textile researcher for the Museum of International Folk Art, I decided that I would much rather be on the other side of the page, making art instead of writing about it. In 1980 after eight years of mom-time, a path back into the creative world appeared. An Australian artist-in-residence at our local elementary school offered a week-long class in batik. Batik suddenly gave me a way to combine textiles with image-making. It was an epiphany.

For the next thirty-five years I concentrated almost entirely on fiber art: batik, rozome, “wax resisting dye” on silk and cotton. Life was enriched by friendships with artists from other countries where fiber art was fully integrated into the culture.

Recently I have returned to an early medium: wood. I had always loved wood, and in the late 1960s and 1970s had worked in large scale, carving doors and furniture. In early 1981 I put away my chisels and converted my studio space to fiber art. Lately I have discovered that the surrounding juniper forest provides unique forms from which to hang my silk rozome. This year I’ve spent more time making hangers than hangings. One can get lost in colorful bark, in swirls of wood grain and knots, as beauty just below the surface is revealed.

So, perhaps I was ready to pull back from silk and dye in October 2016 when Ghost Ranch offered a class in painting with oil and cold wax. Though choking at the cost, I signed up. I dug out the steel paint box I’ve had since I was twelve. Dented and splotched with colors, it held scrunched tubes of oils, some still soft after nearly half a century. A few brushes were good too, though others were eaten down to the ferrule by chemicals or insects. My palette was there, as was my carefully typed list of favorite colors.

The week at the ranch went well. Happily, decades of layering wax and dye on fabric segued nicely into the layering of oil and cold wax. After years of removing wax from dyed fabric, now it must remain part of the finished piece. Digging down through yesterday’s paint to reveal another color, building up a new layer of texture, all become metaphors for the years of my life. Mark-making in soft wax is done with random tools—dental tools once used to carve wax to be cast in silver, old palette knives, kitchen gadgets, many more.

I don’t know where I will be as an artist next year, or even next month. I’m not done with silk and dye—certainly not with wax. Weathered juniper and green aspen still seduce.

Perhaps there is a way they can all come together in one piece, but if not, then they have done so in the making of my body of work, my creative life. I can’t wait to get back to the studio to find out what is next.