Margaret Bowland: Beyond Orthodoxy

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.

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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.”

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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?

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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.

-Sharita Gilmore