Recognition Through Repetition


by Margaret Price

For a moment we sit in silence as Jennifer Bowes ruminates on my question.

Undoubtedly, she is asked one like it quite often. After all, when one has produced such abstract and visually stimulating work as Bowes has, others become inquisitive, probing into the landscape of the creative. What are your biggest inspirations and influences? What medium do you gravitate towards? How do you describe your approach to art?

Today, the question is modest, inherent: “Why are you an artist?”

After a few moments of quiet reflection, Bowes replies, in standard form, with an acute awareness of herself and her work and the cognitive processes behind both, her vocal presence at once soft spoken and commanding, deliberate yet effortless.
“Everyone asks why I do what I do and I answer that I just feel compelled to do it,” she says. “A lot of people say I’m compulsive but that’s not true because I choose to do this. Compulsion is when you don’t choose. I just need to do that repetitive behavior.”

It is this repetition that informs and defines Bowes’ work; work that is most assuredly process-driven. Each gesture, no matter how small, is significant, quietly imbued with reiteration and slight variation, capturing a moment, thought or silent pause. Through repetition, Bowes reaches a sort of contemplative, trancendental and grounding state; a state of recognition and awareness, a state balancing delicately between two experiences of time, an active moment and an extended period.

Ski Tracks, Inspiration for In Silence

As with many Peace Region artists, Bowes is influenced by her physical environment and draws upon memories of her childhood landscape. When not at school, Bowes would escape to the mountains for four months out of the year to work on an organic farm. It was here that she first became acquainted with the process of repetition that would define much of her later work. Then: plowing, sowing, planting, walking, hiking, breathing – now: knotting, knitting, carving, marking, stitching – perpetual movement attempting to achieve, in the artist’s own words, a balance between control and chance.

More recently, Bowes cites travel as being influential to her life and work. After graduating from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting and Drawing, Bowes spent a year teaching English in northern Italy in the small town of Sondrio. It was here that Bowes transitioned from figurative art to abstraction, taking a keen interest in textures and printmaking. Amongst the stunning, towering, textural aged wall reliefs and architectural motifs that almost seemed to have voices, Bowes became interested in the fact that, within each work, there exists a duality of both silence and vocality. “I found that trying to find voices within silence was really influential to my work, and trying to bring that into the work where the piece I was making had a voice of its own and didn’t necessarily need me to be there to explain it.”

In Silence Companion Piece Detail

Perhaps this duality is best illustrated in The Dream of Scipio, one work in a series Bowes completed for her MFA Thesis Exhibition. In a sort of collaboration with the writer, Bowes took a book with hundreds of pages and, using white thread, ran a double stitch over every letter of the book, inflicting an element of illegibility and forcing the viewer to approach the work in a different way. Instead of perceiving the work with our minds, we perceive the work tactually, with our hands. “It’s a book of hundreds of thousands of stitches,” she says. “I was trying to impose silence on the book so that you could put your own thoughts into it because I find when I hold a book, I’m not necessarily interested in the text itself but the presence of the book.” The resulting piece, more than just an amalgamation of meaningless alterations, is a record of the touch and intent of the creator, impregnated with the opinions and emotions with which the material was altered, thus serving as a container for thought. “Even though you couldn’t read the words of the book, the voice was still there and the reference of the book was still there.” Sometimes, through silence, we hear the loudest voice.

Another work illustrating Bowes’ awareness of and reverence for stillness is In Silence, a sewn paper piece inspired by her work on the organic farm. As part of her job, Bowes learned how to drive horses, becoming interested in the resulting furrows in the soil. In the winter, Bowes would replicate those furrows by skiing parallel lines into the field and she responded to her environment by bringing those lines back into the studio. “In the morning I would ski in the field and in the afternoon I would come back and fold the paper and sew it, so it was always this back and forth between the landscape and the work,” she says. “I was trying to respond to the silence I was capturing and then trying to bring it right back to the work.”


LEFT In Silence - detail CENTRE Suspended - detail RIGHT Suspended

A work Bowes completed for the 2007 Alberta Biennial, Suspended sees Bowes perform a number of transformative labor techniques to impart a subtractive and reconfigured aesthetic to her work. Again taking inspiration from her environment in the form of an oriole’s nest she found during a walk, Bowes adhered to her repetitive processes to create a contemplative environment through which one can experience a profoundly different connection to an object. “For me, using repetition, and sewing and knitting the paper was kind of like creating a home for my thoughts, so the shape of a nest was fitting.” A piece two years in the making, Bowes meticulously cut each line of text out of a book, ran the disjointed strips of text through a sewing machine and knit the shreds back together, creating what looks to be a large, interconnected, albeit slightly abstracted, finely-woven knit garment. “I wanted to create a piece that, when you stood far away from it, looked like a cohesive object and when you got closer, it fell apart and started to look like it was unraveling. So you have two experiences of the same object, and you yourself become suspended between those two perceptions of the piece, so you have to figure out how you feel about it.” Bowes forces the viewer to come to terms with the appearance of a work of art juxtaposed with its actual meaning by presenting a coherent shape composed of small, quiet gestures. In Suspended, Bowes’ subtle gestures alter the physicality of the object in question, and what remains is a devotional record of the gentle interaction between creator and object, and by extension the interaction between object and viewer. “I read the book every time I manipulated it, so the process is kind of honoring the book, taking it apart and then putting it back together.”

After Suspended, Bowes returned to the comfort of figurative art and portraiture for a brief period of time, yet still never deviated from repetition. Taking inspiration from an Italian window shutter with handles depicting a man’s and woman’s face meant to represent Janus, the Roman god who looks forward and backward into the future and past, Bowes set off on a project to complete 200 carved porcelain double-sided heads, entitled Head Project. “I really was interested in how closely the faces looked to my other work when you looked at them from a distance,” she says. “They’re still dealing with repetition but with repetition you have variation, and at the same time they were very quiet, responding with this silent voice. So the same thread ran through this piece even though my work isn’t dealing with a stitch any more, it’s dealing with faces.”

Head Project

Of late, Bowes has explored the relationship between labour and destruction, and the resulting humility. In her In Silence Companion Piece, Bowes approaches the material in the same way, attempting to alter its physicality by folding and sewing the paper. However, she takes the process one step further by cutting all the stitches away, framing the piece of paper so viewers can see not only her initial alterations, but the absence of the marks she’s inflicted upon the paper. “I think this piece was influenced by when I was trying to ski the parallel lines into the field,” she says. “It’s so windy up here that all those lines kept getting blown in and I was really frustrated. But there is something really beautiful about that, too, and I thought that I needed to capture that humility on paper. What if I destroy my labor, and what kind of voice is left behind?”

For Bowes, a work is never really finished until the seemingly arbitrary duality between silence and vocality is realized. “The piece tells me when it’s done,” she says. “Making a piece is like having a child. There’s a certain point where the child starts to talk back and have its own voice, and I feel it’s the same way when you’re making work. When the work starts to speak for itself, then you have to back away and try to figure out what it’s saying.”

As an artist, one can impart vocality to a certain extent, achieve recognition through repetition, but only once a piece has realized vocality can one respond, in silence and humility. “I think as an artist, as a teacher, as a student, you always have to be willing to venture in the part that is unknown,” she says. “I think it’s more important in the process not to know how it’s going to end, for the work to have its own voice, and I think for me, the more I step back and let that work become its own, the better. Allowing humility to filter in and determine what the work is going to be like is really important to me.”

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