132 Judy Bowman

Born: 1952, Detroit, MI; Studied at Spelman College and Clark College, Masters of Art from Olivet College/ Lives in Romulus, MI

Trading low saturated pastels for eclectic textures of colored paper and acrylic paint, Judy Bowman’s recent bold and often jubilant collages have been years in the making. After a 35-year hiatus from art-making—a period during which she worked as a Detroit Public Schools educator and raised a family of 10—Bowman describes her return to canvas and to documenting the black experience as a “gift from the universe.” 

In return, her gifts back to us offer snapshots of family, spirituality, community and human interaction that pull from her self-described “La-la land” childhood in Black Bottom, Detroit, and from her college studies in Atlanta during the civil rights era. 

I Kissed a Boy and His Name Was Fred (2019) depicts the artist’s mother at age 90, after a conversation about her first kiss that sparked from a Facebook posting that Bowman read aloud to her. The subtleties amplify the aesthetic: the twinkle and slight squint in the eyes, the shadowed wrinkles, and the pink polished nails–a fashion staple for her mother then and now. The rendering Now I Lay Me (2018) “is a prayer my mom had us saying.” The mother kneeling at the bedside with her children recalls the essence of spirituality historically embedded in black culture and the notion of leaving all your “stuff” behind before going to sleep. 

Reminiscent of the smooth aura of Archibald Motley’s Nightlife (1943) and the vibrations of Ernie Barnes’ The Sugar Shack (1970s), Bowman’s Detroit Swag (2019) collection is an homage to both black artists and scenes from growing up in Black Bottom. You can hear jazz, bottles clinking, and laughter; you can feel the energy. The sharp dress, atmospheric music and coolness also plays out in Night Cap? (2019), where a finely groomed man sits with his legs crossed and his hand teasing the stem of a martini glass decorated with two olives. Men are frequent subjects in Bowman’s work. Recalling her upbringing, she says, “The men were very dapper and they were ladies’ men. They always had drinks around them but they were never drunk. They just had an air about them.” 

Bowman remembers the essence of her world in Black Bottom: church on Sundays (as detailed in Sunday’s Best, 2019), card playing with extended family on the weekends, being indoors before the street lights lit up the block, mothers taking care of home, and the pride men had in being protectors. “This is how I was raised,” she says. “I didn’t see the grittier part of our community.”

She is aware that some may view her art—vivacious, stylish and graceful—as turning blind to the social and political threats black and brown bodies battle. 

“I know it’s there. I don’t focus on the negative part, ” she says. “ I don’t want the world to define our people. I always had this desire to tell my own story … how I see it. I see us as a mighty people. We have skills and talents and we have a history.” The work of the late Toni Morrison comes to light in this statement as it relates to the liberation and power in controlling your own narrative. In this respect, Bowman’s art-making exalts the message that the black storyline can be illustrated with love, intentionality, dignity and value.

And while her work certainly showcases this narrative, it nonetheless does include scenes that evoke vulnerability and fear in direct response to the societal ills the black community faces. He’s Not Coming Home (2016), for example, was conceptualized following the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two unarmed Black men who were killed by police in 2016. Bowman, a mother of six sons, was urgently affected. 

The emotional painting illustrates a mother nurturing her child in the absence of the husband/father. Strips of yellow and blue symbolize the man’s spirit departing. With heads held high, a blue teardrop sits under their eyes as the mother positions herself as the protector while holding onto her child, “even though she’s broken.” Taking in this powerful portrait of a fractured family, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the circular details on the mother and son’s garments.

 “I used these circles because,” —Bowman takes a breath—”You gotta keep going.”  

And in that, there exists power. The circle details communicate strength, suggesting that through their brokenness, Bowman’s subjects have the power to keep moving forward.

“You can’t let things stop you.”

LaToya Cross, November 2019

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