Ronan Bowes, currently based in the US, is originally from Northern Ireland, where the political and civil unrest in the country has influenced his stunning work. I'm so happy to share this thoughtful interview -- and a little bit of a history lesson! -- along with his gorgeous work. Be sure to check out more at the links below!
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You describe the "catalyst" of your painting practice to be that you are Northern Irish, and having grown up in a sectarian society that has been and is affected by political unrest and terrorism. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Yes, I was born in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.
As a youngster, I would always go to work with my dad. Dad’s work required him to travel to different parts of the country and when we were in Belfast or Derry he would bring me to see the murals of ‘The Troubles.’
‘The Troubles’ is the term given to the civil war that occurred in our country between the Nationalist Republicans (Catholics) and The Loyalists (Protestants - of England). These murals really impressed me because they had the power to express the people’s beliefs and identity within their segregated communities.
My five sisters and I were growing up in a socially and politically divided Northern Ireland. The British Army patrolled our streets sporadically, sometimes they stuck knifes in our footballs and pointed guns at us out the back of their patrol wagons. This wasn’t an everyday occurrence but it did happen at times, aside from that we had a ‘normal’ childhood; it was relatively peaceful in comparison to what our parents and grandparents experienced. It’s important for me to state that the good people of our beautiful country wants nothing only other than peace and the peace process has been a success since the late 1990’s.
However, you are always conscious of a divide in your community: an “us” and “them” scenario. Unfortunately, that is the nature of sectarianism no matter how much you desire to sit on the fence, in the back of your mind you know something isn’t right.
In 1998 a Peace Agreement was signed, our home town was simultaneously bombed by an IRA (Irish Republican Army) splinter terrorist group, in what became the most lethal terrorist attack of the entire conflict. This event transmitted us children into what the ‘darker’ days were like.
Myself and my friends were angry teenagers after this; always getting into all sorts of trouble. But luckily due to my friend’s older brothers and cousins, who created the now internationally renounced b-boy group ‘Bad Taste Crew’, we began to get into hip-hop music, breakdance, graffiti and skateboarding to express ourselves.
Living in the rural sectarian north of Ireland, we were lucky to be exposed to these modes of expression. The ‘Bad Taste Crew’ taught us to do good in school, and for me personally, they gave me confidence to pursue something that was unorthodox. As did my older sister Paula, who was making amazing textile artwork at the time.
When I was 15 years old, I realized I was getting confident at making large paintings on walls with intricate details and color schemes through graffiti. I also remember our group of friends, all of us mad into this sub-culture we discovered disappearing on buses to the cities across the country: Derry, Belfast, Dublin. Our favorite event was the graffiti festival in Drogheda- ‘The Bridge of Peace’.
I began studying Art and the History of Art at GCSE and A-Level. I was very lucky to have such great teachers, and artists, Mrs. Nuala Grew and Mrs. Terry Sweeney who focused on Irish Art and our countries history. Terry exposed us students to Irish artists; Rita Duffy, Dermot Seymour, Basil Blackshaw, Mainie Jellet, T.P Flanagan, Louis le Brocquy, Jack B Yeats, David Crone and Willie Doherty.
These artists reflected on the Irish landscape and responded to the political and social climate of our country with intense effect. For me, these artists were/are free spirits and respected. They had their voice through a medium they loved. This artwork was different than the murals; it wasn’t coined as ‘propaganda’ but deemed intellectual and cultural- I was hooked.
Nuala Grew reinforced my confidence and ability to draw, paint and make sculpture that expressed Irish identity and British oppression. I didn’t have to risk getting arrested painting on walls anymore. An entire world began to open in my mind. All I wanted to do was make art.
Ironically, I went to England in 2005; to study Fine Art at Liverpool John Moore’s School of Art. There I studied under the late Roy Holt (painter) who sadly passed in my second year at the school, and Rick Creed (painter) who took me under his wing; helping me to develop a painting practice that graduated me with a 1st Class Honors (Valedictorian) in 2008. A visiting tutor who had a positive effect on my development at John Moore’s University was a Manchester based artist Andrew Bracey.
Since then I post graduated as an art educator in 2010 at Northumbria University, UK, whilst consistently pursuing my painting practice; which has taken me from Ireland, to England, to Australia and now America.
For anyone interested in further reading, there is an interesting article by Declan McMullan on the mural artwork of Northern Ireland; published in ‘issue 8’ of ‘Turps Banana’ Painting Magazine.
What is your process like? How do you start and progress through a piece?
My process is something I’m still experimenting with. I do have habits in the studio but I don’t think I have a concrete process at the moment- I believe this will come to fruition the further my practice evolves.
Recently, I have been working on multiple pieces at a time, drawings on paper: in mixed media and collage, paintings on canvas, panel or found materials: in oils and acrylic, and sculpture: in wood, plaster, concrete, steel and other found materials.
In the last few months I have been working straight onto un-stretched canvas; this was a financial decision because I haven’t been in this studio for long and I had to budget after the move. So, I decided to purchase paint and canvas and stretch the work later into the process.
This way of working (un-stretched) allows for aggressive mark making and pours of paint. Something I hadn’t explored before; I can work it on the floor, pin the work up at different angles to be worked further; it has been a reviving way to approach the painting process.
The past few weeks I have been stretching these works, and I’m loving the results. I’m not sure whether to leave them, or keep working; this ‘looking’ period of the studio practice is where the tension lays for me. All sorts of emotions and thoughts run through my mind when I am at this point. It’s a fragile place because when I’m painting well, I don’t think about much, I enter a solaced frame of mind and hours pass by. Then when I stop and take the time to look, I enter a more conscious frame of mind; decisions have to be made, memories or small notes of past paintings be referred to, risks be taken; there are times I leave them, returning to rework them in a month or sometimes over a year.
Do you plan your pieces ahead, or work more intuitively?
I make all my stretchers and panels from scratch which requires planning. This side of the process I don’t enjoy. It’s hard work and it takes up a lot of time but for now it must be this way.
I don’t plan the work to the extent I know exactly what the result will be, that would bore me; coming to the studio is my remedy where I can have my voice and allow my practice to develop organically.
Although, there is practical habits in my preparation; before I leave the studio, I will clean all my brushes, tools and utensils. I will also organize the work I have been in process with so when I come in the following day I have a clear mind and I know where things are.
There will usually be canvas, panels or wood set up on the studio wall and the floor; recently the sculpture work has been becoming dominant in the studio space.
I will have a color scheme in mind or a scheme already prepared on my palette; which doubles as a studio trolley, where I store my brushes, buckets and mediums. I made this from found wood as well as my seating area and drawing bench; where I will set up small paper pieces that will be worked into throughout the day as I float from surface to surface.
Before I get started I will look through the drawing works from the previous few days or I may refer to an archived collection of works on paper and make some connections or decisions with the work in progress. I also have my laptop hooked up with all my digital files organized and available for reference.
The drawings I view as an arsenal of various mark making techniques that I have been obsessively practicing. Some of the little compositions that I achieve are so refreshing; the objective is to achieve these outcomes on a larger scale. Some painter friends I know use projections and it is something I may consider later but for now I’m happy experimenting with various homemade implements and brushes.
Do you do any research of any kind in preparation?
When I’m waiting on paint to dry I will catch up on some reading. Some of my recent titles have been taking from reading research. “Anastylosis” 2017, for example, is a small wooden construction made with acrylic, oil and plastic. The materials used in this work are all connected to the studio process. The wood I got from off-cuts of making panels and stretchers for other paintings; and the plastic is literally just a pot of oil paint I used for a large painting a few weeks back.
The title is a Greek archaeological term for the reconstruction of ruined, usually religious historic monuments that I came across when reading about the debate on how best to respond when these historic monuments are targeted by extremists, now that digital technology enables monuments to be reconstructed. I relate this terminology to the painting process; the construction, the deconstruction and the reconstruction of materials.
You live in the US currently... how has the transition or immigration to a different country influenced your perspective on your work?
Yes, I am now living in the US. I met my wife Amanda, back in 2008 while visiting my cousin in Vermont, she had been attending University of Vermont at the same time as him. We became friends and always stayed in touch, and now we are happily married.
Regarding immigration, since the Irish famine in 1845, this subject has been a major part of our history. I first experienced immigration for myself when I travelled to Australia in 2011 in search of work and a new life.
I was qualified to teach Art in Ireland and the UK, however, I couldn’t find permanent work at home. I also couldn’t get teaching work in Australia because I was deemed ‘unreliable’ by the various agencies since I was in the country under a ‘Working Holiday Visa’. AKA a ‘backpackers’ visa which got sensationalized as young people who don’t care. Maybe that was true for some but for the friends I was with and the people I met along the way we did care. The financial crisis had hit home hard and these visas in the UK and Ireland were marketed as being a pathway to employment and opportunity.
I spent six months in Sydney working many odd jobs as immigrants usually must do to survive. My first job in Sydney was cleaning peoples’ gutters. From there I worked construction mainly, and after six months of financial struggle in Sydney, a good friend helped me out with work in Mackay. It is a rural area up North in Queensland; when you work 3 months in a rural area you are eligible to get a 2nd year visa to stay and that was the only option I had at that point.
There I worked as a bricklayer’s laborer to 5 bricklayers, in the hottest conditions I have ever experienced; in the middle of nowhere with the hope that next year will be different, and I will get to make (art) work eventually. In the evenings, I would obsessively search the internet and apply to artist residencies and other opportunities. After the three months, I had enough money saved and I had done the ‘rural work quota’ to be warranted a 2nd year visa.
I flew to Melbourne, in a last-ditch effort to find an opportunity. I lived in a hostel for about 8 weeks while searching for work and a place to stay - which dissolved my savings but luckily on my last week I found work and I got accepted into an artist run residency space at ‘White Elephant Arts’ which has now moved to Perth.
Finally, I had consistent work which made my time at the residency with White Elephant Arts a success because I had enough money to make art work. During that year, I participated in the local arts community through group exhibitions and small community ventures. I also completed enough work to warrant a solo exhibition at Brunswick Street Gallery. After this 2nd year I had no desire to stay in Australia, ‘living the dream’ is what they say at home. But I hadn’t seen my family in 2 years. I wanted to go home.
This experience was the toughest, yet the richest in my life. I learned the importance of friends. I learned how to be alone. I learned how to make my work alone. I learned that creating art was even more powerful than before. This is when I started to think about myself and my work in a different way; I had become an economic immigrant.
After Australia, immigrating to America hasn’t impacted my work yet because I’m still processing the experiences I have had in recent and past years.
Recent work I have completed reflects the topic of ‘immigration’, and how we respond to current issues such as the refugee crisis in Europe. For example, “#immigrants” 2015, “###??L” 2015, and “Unworthy Vessel” 2017, explore through painting and sculpture the use of language that appears on social media and traditional media reports. Are we acting? In dialogue? Informing? Or simply responding and objectifying these humans?
What is your studio or workspace like?
I have just moved into what feels like my first permanent studio. It is amazing. From working in my parents garage or above my father’s shop in Ireland, to working in a studio in Melbourne, where the walls were made from plastic milk crates, to now working in a brick and sheet-rocked space with huge industrial windows that fill the space with natural light and open out onto a creek is something I only dreamt of. It’s something I have worked for, and it’s something that Amanda and I share with great appreciation. Amanda is doing a master’s in environmental policy at the New School and we have set up a little study area by one of the windows in the studio for her to use.
What do you consider the most challenging part of pursuing your practice, whether creatively or professionally, especially as someone who left the university setting within just the last few years?
The most challenging part of pursuing my practice creatively, is learning how to make work for myself. The scariest thing about leaving the institutionalized setting was standing in a studio space that you have managed to get yourself into and having the thoughts ‘what the hell am I doing?’.
Honestly, I have made so many mistakes since leaving university and failed so many times with people and in certain settings but for some reason I just keep going. I probably should have stopped making work along time ago but for some reason I feel possessed by something that I have nothing but passion for; it’s been nearly ten years since I left Liverpool as a Fine Art Graduate and I keep going; I keep learning and I keep getting stronger.
I have never pursued an MFA for various reasons; I always believed to myself that if I can’t do it by myself then I can’t do it ever. Therefore, by learning to do it alone I have reinforced the fact that I can do it always. I am considering doing an MFA in the US but I am still torn.
I believe that making the right professional decisions and who to involve yourself with is the most challenging part of pursuing my practice. I have met some amazing people/artists in New York, there is a buzzing community here which makes it extremely challenging but also so exciting.
I approach this aspect of my practice as positively and openly as possible; as long as I am willing to help people, connect and communicate with people and their work, relationships will flourish and good things will happen.
What is the best advice you've ever received? Have you ever received any advice that you're grateful, in hindsight, you ignored?
“Enthusiasm, is the vehicle, that takes you to the places that puts joy in your life” ~ The late Roy Holt who was my tutor in my 2nd year at Liverpool’s John Moore’s School of Art.
Rick Creed, who was my tutor, after Roy Holt passed, taught me to be free in my approach to drawing and this emancipated approach will enhance my painting practice.
My hard-working parents taught me how to be resilient and I owe them everything.
What does "success" mean to you?
I woke up this morning. Took a deep breath. Looked at my wife. Smiled. Had breakfast.
Now I’m typing this in my studio and ready to get on with some more work afterwards.
I have a long-term substitute teacher position at an alternative high school; teaching art to students who have learning difficulties and various other developmental factors.
I make work every day and I attend as many exhibitions as possible with the hope of contributing to the art community in New York. I think this is what success means to me, love, community and making work together.
What are you working on right now? Any upcoming shows or exhibitions?
I am working on new paintings, drawings and sculpture work. There is no upcoming exhibition this year and I’m relishing in the freedom of creating work with no deadline.
Although I’m in the process of developing a co-curation that is at grass roots stages. The show will be opening in Belfast and travelling to New York. News on this will be posted on my website and social media.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you, Kate! This platform is an amazing venture and your hard work is helping so many young artists to keep going.
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