Visual artist Sandra Bowden has been interpreting Scripture and her own spiritual walk through mixed media for more than forty years. She has been acclaimed as one of the most unique, impressive and inspiring Christian artists in America. Bowden’s work has been featured in books, magazines and gallery shows across the United States, Canada, Italy and Jerusalem.
Her work fuses the vivid yet traditional imagery of the Old Testament – stone tablets and artifacts, Hebrew inscriptions, architectural depictions – with images of Christ’s passion, important music scores, and God’s natural creations. She has issued several series of artworks over the years: crucifixion scenes, artistic use of text and color, new interpretations of classic religious artwork, even altered books with applied textures and hues. God’s grandeur and creativity shine through in each piece of her art.
“My Christian faith has been the driving force behind my art,” Bowden says. “I look at the making of a piece of art as a kind of doxology, a prayer or conversation with God. I don’t mean this in any mystical way, but my ideas come out of my theology and thoughts about God. I am somewhat of a theologian, but one who translates those interpretations into visual form.”
As soon as Bowden realized her artistic gifts, she set forth to serve God through them. “My gift determined my calling. I cannot remember any time when there was any question. Every day I have awoken to ‘do art.’ I cannot imagine life any other way. It is a way of life. When I had children, I did the work around the house, then allotted time in the studio. When they were in school I worked while they were gone, and after they were out of our home, my studio work only intensified. I would say it is the ‘calling’ that determined my career as an artist.
“My art is a visual record of my spiritual and artistic journey. Each work that I do seems to beg another question and then leads me to the next work. My job has been to ‘follow the work’. Early on my work was very abstract, only alluding to a vague theme. But over the course of time I have come to realize that my work focuses on the WORD, both the written word and the Word made Flesh. This has become more clear over time so the work very directly reflects this understanding. That is why at this point I am working on three-dimensional books as the painting surface. I have gone from using letters, words, blocks of text, to finally the book itself suggesting the theme of the work.”
One of her specialties is the intaglio collagraph method, which Bowden taught briefly in the 1980s. It involves arranging and gluing materials onto board stock to make a collage, applying ink where desired, placing paper over the collage, and using a roller to make a print. This is the method Bowden used to create her Israelite Tel series, for example, which visually interprets several archaeological finds at ancient Biblical sites. The method gives some of her works a distinctive 3-D texture. “The collagraph medium was chosen as an extension of my collaged oil paintings from the 70s and 80s. I had to make few changes to adapt to the technique and I was afforded the opportunity to have multiples to share with others and to sell. Texture has always inhabited my art, probably because I sewed my own clothes as I was growing up and loved the touch and tooth of fabric.”
Above: Sandra Bowden, Moon Endureth (collagraph)
Besides collagraphs and altered books, Bowden has worked with oil paints, collage, and is now delving into encaustic (heated beeswax colored with pigment). “The methodology has changed primarily as a way to express the new ideas that I want to explore. Sometimes the media is also an inspiration. There is a need to explore new areas of interest, both in method and topic… however, my work has pretty much stayed on topic. From a very early stage the written Word has been the area of exploration.”
Some of her changes in methodology have come about from travel, curiosity and even affliction. “After back surgery I had to curtail working with the etching press, so I began to cannibalize my previous collagraphs, combining them with some wonderful handmade papers that I had been collecting… therefore the birth of the collage. So in this instance, physical limitations gave me a new medium. The collage which I have worked with for over ten years will continue to feed my imagination.
“In the early 90s, after having traveled in Europe many times and having been enthralled with the beautiful early illuminations (lavishly colored and gilded book illustrations), and at the invitation to participate in a show called “12x12”, I started on a series of my illuminations using acrylic and iridescent pencils to add luminescence and beauty to the surface of the images. Then, around the late 90s, I decided I needed a break or a sabbatical from all the normal work that I was doing in the studio. I embarked on a series that related to the history of art. This is the ‘Art History 101’ series, and it was started by a trip to Italy where I fell in love with the large elaborate crosses and altarpieces that hung above the altars in medieval times. I loved the shapes, the delicate woodwork and sheer beauty of these works. I still continue to do the crosses and an occasional new art-historical work.”
Above: Sandra Bowden, Arrezo Crucifix (San Domenico) after Cimabue (mixed media drawing with gold leaf)
The rich history of Christian art has been as inspirational to Bowden as individual artists. “I cannot say that any one person’s art has inspired my art, but I have been profoundly inspired spiritually and artistically by the long history of art. The artists of our rich Christian heritage have left a record that their faith was alive and well, and now it is our turn to convey that to our generation and for generations to come. Georges Rouault is an artist from the 20th century that I collect and deeply admire. He was faithful to his calling, even against the trends of the time. Many contemporary artists have encouraged and therefore inspired me: Ed Knippers, Bruce Herman, Mary McCleary… all artists who have visualized their faith to our generation.”
In some of Bowden’s works, such as “And In Earth”, a layer of Scripture is visually buried beneath layers of earth that have accumulated over time. She says, “The text from Psalm 85 has been the guidance for my use of geological forms and visually exploring and scientific ideas. It says that ‘Truth springs from the earth, but righteousness comes down from the heavens.’ I saw this as the earth giving up its secrets and allowing us to uncover truth embedded physically and metaphorically in the layers of the earth. Many of these works were conceived as a kind of message buried deep in the earth to be revealed if we searched.”
In many of her works, Bowden almost conceals the Hebrew texts among other elements of the painting instead of bringing them front and center in an obvious way. As she explains, “This is perhaps comparable to why we wrap presents. We want to veil for a time what our secret gift is from the receiver. If the words were easily legible, then the viewer would be totally caught up in reading the text and not in reading visually. I want to excite the eye, open the imagination and let the viewers play with the image to give it some of themselves.”
The very idea of language set down in permanence inspires Bowden to play with it. “I don’t think it was the form of the words that is so important as the very idea that these small ‘squiggles’, shapes or graphic ideas have allowed us to communicate and converse across time and place. They are the means to a wonderful world of sharing ideas and thoughts... And they were the device that God chose to tell his story to us, how he has chosen to communicate through the written word, then through his Son, the Word made Flesh.
“I think my work is pregnant with meaning and content. A good book leaves things for the reader to discover and become engrossed in. My work is in a way a treasure hunt, not immediately revealed, but within reach. Each artist has a visual vocabulary and once you have discovered or learned what the keys to an artist’s work are, then the sky opens and discovery and the imagination are wonderful aids to perceiving another world… the world beyond words.”
Bowden prefers to work in series, letting a core idea develop in several different directions at once. “I nearly always work in series. So usually the ideas for the series are thought through in a sketchpad, with many variations quickly suggested in the drawings. Then I decide what media will best help convey the idea. I work in series because the work is usually done in stages and it is fine to keep several pieces going at the same time… It would be impossible to tell you how long a work takes because I so rarely work on only one piece at a time. I start a series and work them through the various stages somewhat together: sketching out many ideas, preparing the surfaces, gathering all the materials, then working with them individually. I start with an idea to chase; then, of course, the ideas change and there are new, somewhat refined pursuits to follow.
“I use series because one piece would not flesh out all that I hope to discover in one piece. There is no way that creating only one work in a given series could have possible explored a full range of ideas that flow from the original concept. Another reason is purely a physical one. These pieces take many days to complete and it is more fulfilling and better economy of time to have several pieces under construction at the same time… Each individual work is not dependent upon another work to be complete. The seed for the concept is fully embedded in each piece, however subtle variations and suggestions are more fully realized with the series.”
Bowden’s faith is deep-rooted, an extricable part of her life and art, and her creative explorations have helped to augment her faith. “How does my art shape my faith? Whenever I am reading Scripture I visualize the various images from my work to help understand the text. My art has made me a deeper person, always challenging me to think, to find ways to put into form what I believe. I think and see with images.
“I was raised in a conservative New England church that my mother’s family had built generations before me. I was taught to memorize Bible, to believe it and to love it. At Berkshire Christian College I studied Old Testament, and then after college studied Hebrew, first with a tutor and then at SUNY Albany. I studied both modern and biblical Hebrew. I also studied biblical archaeology and geology. From there I have less formally continued to study on my own the things that interest me.”
This profound knowledge of the Bible’s ancient languages has greatly informed her art, and has led to some unusual commissions and opportunities to showcase her work. “My work was in a Jewish gallery in Boston from the late 1970s and that exposed me to many Jewish connections. For some time the Jewish community was more interested in my art than the Christian community because of the Hebrew text in most of the work. But that has changed since my book (The Art of Sandra Bowden by James Romaine, Square Halo Books, 2005) came out, and the Jewish galleries are not willing to carry the book because it has too many Christian images. Christian colleges in the United States and Canada have been very supportive of my art, and many churches have commissioned work or have purchased art for their congregation. Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) has given my work national and international visibility, and I am truly blessed.”
The organization has given Bowden the chance to see how Christian artists across the nation and world are expressing their faith through the arts. “I have worked (volunteered) for Christians in Visual Arts for over 30 years and have come to know literally hundreds of Christian artists whose work is stunningly beautiful. I have organized and coordinated all their traveling exhibitions and was president for 14 years. I am still on the board.”
Recently, Bowden worked with CIVA to put together a CD-ROM of Christian art, entitled Images of Faith. “Attending a church in Kansas City three years ago that had screens to project images and text, I could only dream of the possibilities. I contacted the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and asked them for a grant to partly fund the project. After looking at over 4000 slides of art I finally settled on 100 images that I thought could be used for projection in churches, seminaries, and in teaching environments. I hired an art historian to write about each work and then compiled the info for the CD. When downloaded onto one’s computer it functions like a separate website. My hope is that this will be the first of many such offerings.”
Because of her travels and busy lifestyle, Bowden does not have many opportunities for her talents to be utilized within her home congregation. “They used to be, but at this point in our lives we live in two places and are traveling constantly, so there is little that we can really do locally. I really feel that my calling is to CIVA, to the Museum of Biblical Art in NYC, and to collecting religious art that I curate into exhibitions that travel to churches, seminaries and colleges. I explained to our pastors that they would need to think of me as a kind of visual missionary to other organizations outside the congregation, that we are there locally upon occasion, but not regularly. My church life is really just attending church wherever we are. We have a community in both places we live and integrate with the people and do what we can in the area of art, but it is limited at this particular point in our lives.”
Bowden’s life is filled day-to-day with the unity of art and faith. “I personally made a decision in 1980 that if it did not directly relate to Faith and Art then I would not do it. This has freed me to be available as a volunteer to give many hours of my time and much of my energy for things that others might not have been able to do… I am a full time artist and have been for nearly 45 years. Every day of my life is filled either with creating in the studio, working on our religious art collection or volunteering on projects for Christians in the Visual Art of the Museum of Biblical Art in NYC. I have dedicated my life to the revival of art in the church and for the renewal of artists of faith to engage within their culture.
“I believe that it is critical that the church embrace their artists, and encourage them to develop. There are different levels of ability. Not all artists are gifted to do all things. We need a community that goes beyond our local one. Since we live is a culture that is connected, there is no reason that there cannot be lots of cross-pollination between churches, denominations and regions. This is the reason that I so like to curate exhibitions to travel to these churches. The exposure to good art can help congregations grow to appreciate their own artists more.”
She takes very seriously the notion of Art as something more than colors applied to paper. “This is a current fad, to assume that if we identify it as art, then it is art, but the test of time, I think, will not support that. Art is created to illuminate is some way, to cast a new light onto ideas of things that surround us as humans. Art has a kind of poetry that allows us to see beyond what just our eyes convey.” And Bowden sees a clear role for Christians in the continuation of art’s evolution. “We live in a visual culture and it is only normal that we would want to express our beliefs and ideas visually. I also feel that there is a long rich tradition of art in the church and that we are heirs to that and must continue to put into visual form our faith… I do not feel that scripture in any way prohibits the use of the arts. The second commandment only prohibited the creation of art that was to be worshiped. Other scriptures in the Torah command the creation of objects that are of things from above and things from the earth… I believe that it is important to have a ‘place at the table,’ to be part of the dialogue that is going on in our culture.”
Still, Bowden doesn’t get into the arguments about what qualifies as “Christian art”. “I see myself as a Christian who is an artist. This is all a matter of semantics, and even if we do not say ‘Christian art’ it is bound to be labeled that. We have no problem with the art history books describing early ‘Christian Art’ by that topic, yet we are uncomfortable with the term today. However, I think it best not to use the term. I sometimes describe work as done by ‘artists of faith.’ I do not, myself, call my work ‘Christian Art,’ but others call it that sometimes. I try not to worry too much about those things.”
Bowden’s methodology continues to expand with her curiosity and new learning. “Each year, month, day I make lists of things that I need to do for that period. I am one who has lived with goals ahead. I have aimed to have work that would add to the repository of Christian faith and think that I have been faithful to that. One goal was to have a retrospective and book to accompany such a show and that was realized in 2005. I would like to continue to work on Exploring the Book, a series for a new show that would include a new series of ‘pages’ that will be created in encaustic and to also continue with the artists’ books that I have been working on over the last few years. There is also another series that I hope the future will hold and that relates to a series of small altarpieces I purchased in Italy many years ago. I would like to paint, more realistically onto their surfaces with images of the sea, clouds, sun, and creation. Maybe in 5 or 6 years I will do this.”
Her end goal, of course, is to glorify God in fresh and creative ways. “I hope that my work as an artist conveys a marvel at how wonderful the written word is to the history of humanity, how important to our relationship to God the words of Scripture have been. These little symbols we call letters allow us to convey sounds, words, paragraphs, entire books with ideas, plus allow us to share these ideas across the boundaries of time and place. But the idea of WORD does not end with ‘words;’ it is also Christ the Word made flesh, the very substance of our faith.”
Above: Sandra Bowden, Reflected Light (mixed media w/ book, collagraph, gold leaf)
Sandra Bowden online: http://www.sandrabowden.com
Christians In the Visual Arts (CIVA): http://www.civa.org
Square Halo Books: http://www.squarehalobooks.com
To learn about other artists who are using their faith to impact their art, click on the names below: