“I love Clay. It’s kind of a chameleon material, you can make it into anything you want and really convince the eye that what they are looking at is not a raw material that came from the earth. It’s now wood or fur or cloth.” Kelsey Bowen has a very tactile relationship with clay, through which she is able to process her thoughts, emotions and memories. “Working with my forms and creating these brief moments for myself are my last lingering stitches of childhood and a way to connect myself to what is no longer my tangible reality. For a moment, the fantastical objects in my world are alive and the storiesI am telling are curiously real.”
Kelsey Bowen’s main subject matter is the human body telling a story, especially the imagery of children. Her work is nostalgic, with an implied innocence that enables her to address mischievous or difficult narratives with empathy. She also works with a lot of rabbit imagery. She had rabbits as a child - so it is a direct link to her own childhood, and she employs their gentle appearance to evoke a more forgiving response to the behavior of her protagonists.
Kelsey Bowen grew up in the rural California foothills. Her love for figurative sculpture began in high school. She went on to gain her BFA degree in ceramics at the California College of the Arts, a school once attended by her great-grandfather in the 1920s. As a graduate she became a resident artist at the Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana.
She was fortunate to get a job that allowed her to be in the studio full-time, giving her opportunity to find herself as an artist and establish her career. The physical act of making is very important to her. She comments, “I love the hands-on learning, every time we make something we make it better”. Of her time at Red Lodge Clay Center she recalls, “I tapped into making what I wanted to make, not because I was learning in an academic setting, but because it was finally my time to just create work purely because I wanted to.”
Following her residency, Kelsey stayed in in Montana. Her studio is now a nook behind her kitchen. She tells how, “As a studio artist, there is no day off. I don’t clock out or go home mostly because my kitchen is full of half-sculpted rabbits and wolf heads, so the professional side of my life blends into the rest of it. I’m always sketching, thinking, emailing, planning, scheduling and building.”
This dedication has brought her to the attention of collectors and gallerists, and in 2020 Ceramics Monthly named her Emerging Artist of the year. This year she received a grant from Montana Arts Council to assist with the creation and transport of work for her exhibition at Brumfield Gallery.
Much of Kelsey Bowen’s sculpture serves as a conduit through which she is able to reflect and tell stories. She draws inspiration for her own memories of youth and the shared anecdotes of family and friends. She is aware of how interpretation moves recollections from fact to become legend, and embraces a fairytale sense of reality. The viewer is comforted by the playful characters, as they are led through a surreal landscape, and sometimes presented with an unsettling detail.
“When I’m working on a piece, I feel in fleeting moments that it’s come to life. I give them bright bows and dark memories, bringing them to reality with whispered stories. I work with my own personal narratives to develop a darkly whimsical illustration by building a new story that reinvents a past moment or a current truth. I see a beautiful darkness in childhood and nostalgia, in the way memories shift and shudder as we grow farther apart from them.”
For her exhibition at Brumfield Gallery there are a number of works that reflect on the recent passing of her grandfather. “I Think You Should Get Here” depicts a figure running with a larger bunch of sunflowers. The sunflowers range from vibrant full color, wilting into cooler earthen tones and browns. It shows the urgency and need to say goodbye to those we love, while observing the full spectrum of life. Another work depicts an empty chair – her grandfather’s favorite chair.
The artists reflections on childhood, have always been a commentary on grief – what is remembered, but lost to us. She explains, “Childhood is my metaphor for grief; a way of continuing to feel love and conjure memories of the past, a calm heaviness that holds me in a place of both sadness and nostalgia. Memories of times before the recent passing ofmy grandfather are sacred spaces, while others that uncoil can be unwelcome. My metaphor is a recurring theme in my work, drawing on childhood simultaneously as both the fairytale and the nightmare. My sculptures are often vessels that capture the echoes of small children playing; sometimes the echoes are of my own voice borrowed from the time and place they were created years ago.” While much of her work originates from a single strong emotion or a memory that weighs persistently on her thoughts, sometimes there is no initial meaning or intent. Having developed a visual vocabulary of symbols and characters, she is able to begin a work with a simple form or gesture in mind. Through the act of making, the work reveals itself to her. Sometimes she will recognize the narrative and other times she is happy to manifest a rabbit in a pretty dress. She is drawn to sculpture because she can create a physical entity that occupies our space. From an inanimate material she creates an object that conveys a feeling, and a personality with whom we interact.