North Carolina-based artist Bowen Grayson’s paintings drip with color and emotional content. And they’ve been an important part of Bowen’s ability to achieve recovery from a serious mental illness.
This “classic” story originally appeared in North Carolina Health News on May 22, 2012.
By Rose Hoban
Canvases drip with bright colors, images of buildings peek out from behind layers of lushly applied paint, a clown-like figure seems to distribute hearts, a lone tomato on a vine hangs next to a pair of high-top sneakers – these are just a few of the colorful, emotional images created by local artist Grayson Bowen, 30, a northeastern transplant who now calls North Carolina home.
Click on any one of the images to start a slide show)
Urban images blend in with those of mountain moonrises inspired by his time in Cullowhee, where Bowen earned a master’s in fine arts at Western Carolina University in 2008.
Bowen’s work is informed by his love of 20th-century abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning, whose influence is visible in Bowen’s canvases. In his paintings, one can easily see buildings, and faces, and abstract landscapes. But look more deeply; there are visions of horse heads, jagged lines and faces that have an emotional impact.
“I think that the viewer has a big role in the artistic process,” said Bowen during a recent tour of his works. “I think that were I to look at this painting without the knowledge I have of this painting from making it … it would give me a completely different impression. To see that reaction in the viewer – it’s important to me in the process of building a painting.”
Bowen’s work is also influenced by the fact that he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder when he was a teenager.
Schizoaffective disorder has been described as a cross between schizophrenia, which can be marked by psychosis, and bipolar disorder, which is marked by dramatic mood swings. Bowen said painting can help him when he’s going through an emotional period, and, often, his paintings are a record of his moods.
“If I’m having inner turmoil and it sits with me and I don’t know what to make of it, and then this [painting] may be a reflection of something that I was going through that may have been painful,” Bowen explains, motioning to one of his canvases. “When I create it, I can look at it, it’s outside of me, I’m looking at it in a direction that’s away from me and separated from my problems. It can also make some of my challenges seem beautiful.”
Bowen started appreciating the power of art when he was a teenager, attending a therapeutic boarding school in his native Connecticut. He said he realized he wanted to be an artist, and started working on his portfolio then. And that work helped him calm his inner voices.
Nonetheless, Bowen said sometimes he’s surprised by the emotions that emerge while he’s creating a painting.
“It actually happens more often than not,” Bowen said.
Bowen often employs a technique known as automatism, where an artist attempts to suspend thought while painting, in order to tap into the subconscious. A number of prominent 20th-century artists practiced automatism, including Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, and even Pablo Picasso is said to have used the technique in his later drawings.
“Sometimes if i get into the zone, it can feel really great,” Bowen said. “Sometimes I get into an argument with my painting in my head and look at it this way and that way, and try to force it one way or another. I think I tried to get rid of that when I was doing my automatic work.”
Bowen said he now uses art in his current job as a peer-support specialist at Wellness City Recovery Innovations in Durham. He teaches several art classes to people who are working to recover from mental illness, and also works on a telephone support line.
“It’s important to me to work there. I get out into the community and help other people who would like to learn or overcome challenges,” Bowen said.
“I think a lot of people lose a little bit of hope that they can’t recover,” he said. “I love working as a peer-support specialist, because I get to help others see that they can can recover and that it’s expected.”
Bowen would like to take that work further as an art therapist. He is taking courses towards a master’s in art therapy, in part because he wants others to feel like they can have recovery from mental illness, the way he has.
“I sincerely believe that recovery happens, and it’s expected, if we help it to grow.” he said. “I think I want people to know that art is accessible to anybody. It’s everywhere you look, and I’d encourage people to take what you can from the art world.”
One thing Bowen doesn’t particularly like about his current situation is the fact he doesn’t have a studio to work in. Making large-format paintings is out of the picture for him for now. Instead, he’s working in his apartment, making small pen-and-ink drawings, a process he describes as claustrophobic.
“Even if I’m not working in my prime format, I’ve not quit art. I may have stopped doing this,” he said, motioning to his paintings, “but there’s a difference between stopping and quitting. And I also think that when I do go back to that, I’ll have a bunch of drawings to work from.”