Detroit artist Judy Bowman celebrates family, black lives one collage at a time

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A massive orange canvas perches on an easel in the basement of artist Judy Bowman’s studio in Romulus as her latest collage takes shape – one sheet of paper at a time.

Remains are strewn around the base of the easel on the floor while a photograph of several men – two of Bowman’s brothers, cousins ​​and a nephew – is glued to the canvas. Bowman, who just started making collages six years ago, uses all the different shades of a special type of decorative paper to create their faces and torsos. A cousin, Red, known for his dapper style, has gold paper for his glasses. The noses protrude from the canvas.

“I like my work to be three-dimensional,” said Bowman, who just turned 70 this week, standing by the easel. “Depending on where the light hits, it changes the picture.”

After nearly 30 years in teaching, Bowman is embarking on a new career, this time as a collagist. His work is pretty much everywhere these days: in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, on digital billboards downtown, and as part of an auction next month at the Detroit Artists Market.

A retired educator, Judy Bowman started making collages six years ago.  She works from her home studio in Romulus.

She won a Kresge Artist Fellowship in 2021 and an Alain Locke Local Recognition Art Award earlier this spring. And in October, she will have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

“It all happened in such a short time,” she marvels.

Bowman said she never expected her work to take off the way it did, but she thinks people are drawn to it because there’s an emotional connection.

“I believe people are drawn to colors, textures, but also themes and messages — of family, community, relationships, support,” she said. “…Everyone loves. Everyone has a mother. Everyone has fond memories of how they grew up, or less fond memories.”

Bowman is working on a collage depicting the men in her family - cousins, two brothers and a nephew.  The background is painted orange.

Family and the celebration of the black experience are an inspiration for Bowman, who retired from education in 2009. She made detailed collages of the house where she grew up on Seneca Street in Detroit, his mother, Minnie Mae Matthews, and, of course, the rest of his family.

“Red is in a lot,” said Bowman, who remembers going with his cousin to an art show to sell his work and he was so dapper everyone thought he was the artist, not she. “….Men, in my life, that’s how they dressed. I do a lot of family stuff.”

What sets Bowman’s collages apart is their incredible level of detail and color. She uses a type of handmade decorative paper called Lokta in a range of bold hues and patterns. His collage of his childhood home on Detroit’s east side is so intricate it even depicts the art hanging on the walls, miniature photos of the family and their dog.

His collages transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.

“Judy’s colorful figurative collages focus on aspects of everyday black life in Detroit,” said Valerie Mercer, department head and curator at DIA’s Center for African American Art. “They also reflect her memories of growing up in the East Side of Town and Black Bottom communities, the lives of her family and the friends they loved. Through her use of various types of paper with different textures, she depicts constantly a range of topics that evoke the joy and strength of black people in Detroit.

Matt Fry, director of the Detroit Artists Market, calls Bowman “an absolutely fantastic artist.” He recalls an exhibition at the gallery where Bowman exhibited a piece called “Hanging Out With Lafayette and McDougall” which depicted his mother and aunts “dressed to the nines”.

“It really takes you back to the Black Bottom neighborhood of the 1960s,” he said.

Ultimately, Bowman’s collages are about storytelling. In fact, she describes herself as a visual ‘griot’, a type of West African historian or storyteller. She said her work is a way to reclaim the narrative of the black community, which is too often portrayed in a “negative and marginalized” way.

“I want to tell the story,” Bowman said. “…I see it as it is for a lot of people – maybe not for everyone. But for a lot of the black community. And I think that’s very, very important for a community member to tell the story rather than something from the outside.”

Not that his work is only for the black community. This is not the case. She remembers being at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids a few years ago, where she presented a very large two-dimensional collage, “The Lovers”, which depicts two couples intertwined in different ways.

Bowman's Collage,

“I was seeing couples and they were starting to hook up” after seeing it, Bowman recalled. “…It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, or Indian. You still have those emotions and those attachments. And I think that’s what people see in my work.”

Art should wait

For decades, Bowman had to put his art aside. She was always drawn to art as a child and first studied it as a student at Clark University in Atlanta (although her art classes were offered at Spelman College), but she left Clark after three years.

She later married, and she and her husband moved to Flint. It was there that she finally graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint. But there was no art program, so she got a bachelor’s degree in general studies and took up teaching.

“Everything was just pieced together,” she recalls.

She taught in Flint and Battle Creek, spending 27 years in education before retiring as principal of the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences. But there was no time to create art on the side. A 10-year-old mom, there were meals to cook, homework to grade, and a family to care for. Art should wait.

Bowman's collages often depict family, community and growing up in Detroit.

Finally, in retirement, Bowman returns to his passion. She had always done pastels in the past but wanted to do something bigger, so she decided to try collages. Years of creating school bulletin boards had served him well.

“I had beautiful bulletin boards, really good bulletin boards,” she laughed. “…I was training. I just didn’t realize I was training for this.”

Her collages naturally start with a thought, then “it comes,” she said. She said her husband threatened to clean up his scraps of paper on his studio floor but she told him not to touch anything. Leftovers could include exactly what she needs.

“I look on the floor and find just the part I need,” she said. “It’s going to jump.”

Lokta is a type of handmade paper made from a Lokta bush or Daphne bush that grows in the Himalayan mountains. Thick and textured, dozens if not hundreds of different shades are stacked on a shelf in Bowman’s studio.

“What drew me to Lokta paper were the vibrant colors, the textures, and it’s a strong handmade paper,” Bowman said. “Each sheet has its own unique texture and has a slightly different hue in its coloring on the front and back of each sheet because it’s handmade. It cuts (and) tears well. And it doesn’t change color. texture when the adhesive is applied to it.”

Some help

Even though Bowman’s artistic career took off, it wasn’t without a little help.

She said the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club – a weekly gathering of artists who come together to share and sell their work founded by Henry Harper and Harold Braggs – played a big role in getting her started, setting her in motion. contact with the right people and other artists. Legendary Detroit artists such as Shirley Woodson also helped out.

Bowman created several collages depicting his mother, Minnie "mae" Matthews.

Bowman remembers complaining once about how much she had to do even though she had started her artistic career so late. Then she remembered all the artists in their 80s or older who continued to progress in Detroit.

As long as she can keep creating her collages, “I’m going to rock it,” she said. “I’m going to do it until I can’t do it anymore.”

And his advice to any new artist, regardless of age or experience? Follow that passion, she says.

“Don’t worry if you’re not good enough. That you’re too old. This gift was put in you for a reason,” she said. “Follow this passion. No matter how old, how young, how inexperienced. And it will blossom.”

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Judy Bowman

  • A former educator, the Detroit native is a collage artist; his studio is in Romulus.
  • His work will be part of the Magnificent Art Auction at the Detroit Artists Market June 7-10, 18. DAM is at 4225 Third Street.
  • She will have a personal exhibition in October at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.
  • Winner of the Kresge Artist Fellowship in 2021 and the Alain Locke Recognition Art Award in 2022.
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