Based in Oracle, Arizona, Barbara Kemp Cowlin is a painter whose current acrylic works layer rich colors and textures to create complex images inspired by architectural spaces. Her paintings are energetic and dynamic, simultaneously inviting the eye to wander and explore the lines and curves within each composition while encouraging the viewer to take in the larger, vibrant picture.
Barbara earned a BFA in printmaking and a Master’s degree in community college education with a major in printmaking from Northern Arizona University. She’s completed post-graduate work at Arizona State University in letterpress printing and bookmaking and was the recipient of the 2019 Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Individual Artist Grant. Her work has been exhibited recently across the Valley and in New York City and is included in several national and international collections, including the City of Phoenix Arts Collection; the University of Arizona Special Collections; Baylor University Medical Center, Houston, Texas; and Edison & Sprinkles Architecture & Design, Vancouver, British Columbia, among others.
Here’s Barbara Kemp Cowlin, in her own words, on her first inspirations, her use of color, and her most recent series of work.
“Color has always been the first thing that draws my interest—how light and shadow affect color, the vibration between complementary colors, how to make color luminous in a painting, how color and space interact…”
Portrait of Barbara Kemp Cowlin in front of a painting in progress (Askew #101). Photo credit: James Cowlin.
PhxArt: Tell us about where you’re from and when you first knew you wanted to be an artist.
Barbara Kemp Cowlin: I moved around a lot when I was growing up but I have lived in Arizona for my entire adult life, except for 2 years when I lived in Melbourne, Australia, between my BFA and Master’s degrees. Flagstaff was home for 10 years, Phoenix for 23 years, Ajo for 2 years, and Oracle for 12 years.
Some of my first memories, when I was 3 or 4 years old, are of drawing and wanting to make stuff. My parents were always baffled by me, since neither understood my need to create. My mom was a good sport and tried to provide me with tools and materials I wanted—usually immediately or I’d have a tantrum. I’d want to make something nebulous and had no idea what shape it would take, so my mom would flail around desperately trying to accommodate me. I made cities out of milk cartons and sculptures of our dog and other animals out of clay. My poor mom had to find out where to buy clay and then figured out it needed to be fired and glazed because Play-Doh just didn’t cut it for me. I remember once absolutely needing to make a picture of an apricot orchard in bloom, on a hillside, from the perspective of looking down on it. This required oil pastels and the proper paper to do what I wanted. Since I had no clue where to get these materials, it required a lot of driving around. Once we found what I needed, I worked for hours while my mom read a book in the car. I have no idea what happened to that drawing. It didn’t occur to me that what I was doing was related to something so foreign as being an artist. I was just driven to make stuff—something from nothing. It was like an itch that needed to be scratched.
In high school, my dad took the family to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City. I was enamored by the visual aspects of the displays but most especially by Michelangelo’s Pieta—the real thing. It was viewed via a moving sidewalk (a new invention at the time), and I remember standing in line and getting on it over and over again, stunned by the warmth and radiance emanating from the marble. I had to be torn away by my parents. I’ve never forgotten how it felt to view that masterpiece.
It took two years of taking random classes in college before I realized that being an artist fit what I needed to do with my life. I became an art major in my junior year, and since then, I’ve lived my life working in art-related professions, making art, and having art as a focus of my life, in addition to my family.
Barbara Kemp Cowlin, Askew #101, 2021. Acrylic on panel. Photo credit: James Cowlin.
PhxArt: What inspires you to create?
BKC: I’m at home in my own skin when I’m making art, looking at art, talking about art. I’m inspired being in my studio, surrounded by my works-in-progress, with all those art supplies at my fingertips. I’m inspired by my art books, artist friends, and art museums and galleries. As a 70 year old, I’m also driven to take advantage of every minute, building the momentum of my art career.
PhxArt: What are the media that you prefer to work in?
BKC: As a printmaking major, I loved intaglio and lithography. The processes fascinated me, and I loved the drawing aspects. My focus was on creating figurative narratives. However, when I graduated I switched to painting since I no longer had access to printmaking equipment.
Using acrylic paints was a steep learning curve until I started using professional-quality paints. Now, I love using acrylics. As a Golden Artist Educator, I’ve had intensive training in using acrylic products. There is a freedom in using acrylic because there are virtually no rules when it comes to using the various media, gels, pastes, and grits. I build my surfaces and if (when) I change my mind, I just add another layer or sand an area down. The mastery of the materials frees me up to achieve the effects I want without interrupting the flow of working—I just grab what I need without thinking about it.
Barbara Kemp Cowlin, Askew #108, 2021. Acrylic on panel. Photo credit: James Cowlin.
PhxArt: What are some topics you explore in your work?
BKC: Over the past 4 years I’ve been at work on a new series. This new group of paintings was inspired by a consultation with artist Barbara Rogers. She gave me several assignments, which challenged me to extend my work in a new direction eventually becoming the Askew series. These works combine the washiness of water with the hard edges of the built environment, teetering between abstraction and realism. As I’ve continued working, the paintings have become more and more focused on color and on imaginary fanciful additions to an initial basic framework. The paintings address the dichotomy between reality and fantasy. They represent my reaction to the contradictions in life and the way in which circumstances can change in an instant.
The paintings balance on the edge between happiness and anxiety. Walls imply solidity. Corners suggest the uncertainty of the future. Opposites coexist: solidly colored shapes verse textured, hard edges versus ragged, and angles in which I contrast accurate perspective with inaccurate. These inconsistencies relate to the uncertainties of life. I use problem solving in my paintings to move forward.
Before this I created paintings based on three topics: first, Southwestern landscape, then architectural details, and after this, paintings of water.
My husband is a photographer, so many of our vacations during the late ’80s to early ’90s were centered on locations he wanted to photograph. Gradually, I began to view the landscape differently and experiment with landscape painting. This turned into a long-running series.
Then one day while at Phoenix Art Museum, I noticed this odd, spaceship-like vision of a sort of inverted bay window on a stairway landing. It caught my eye enough to take a snapshot of it. I couldn’t get it out of my head—and this was my first in a series of paintings I called Nooks & Crannies of overlooked places in public spaces. These works are realistic paintings of architectural details, many of which were inspired by details inside and outside of the Museum but also from across the Phoenix Metro area.
During ongoing travels with my husband, I started noticing water—lakes, puddles, rivers. The ephemeral quality and how to capture these subjects began to intrigue me and represented a drastic change from the solidity of the built environment. I started experimenting with painting water and enjoyed the challenge so much that it turned into another long-running series.
With each new series, I am able to incorporate what I’ve learned, enhancing my ability to achieve my vision. And on occasion, I return to previous series when I’m inspired to revisit them.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
BKC: Some of my artistic influences are several of my teachers—Robert Frame, Bruce Horn, Nancy Reyner. The paintings of artist friends Merrill Mahaffey and Barbara Rogers have also influenced me, as well as Sharon Louden’s invaluable advice about maneuvering through the art world. My husband, photographer James Cowlin, revolutionized the way in which I see the landscape via his photography, and this is reflected in several of my series, flowing over into the rest of my work. Bookshelves of artist books also reveal some of the artists from whom I’ve drawn inspiration. There are too many to list, but at the top of the heap are Howard Hodgkin, Dorothy Fratt, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, Elizabeth Murray, and Agnes Pelton.
Barbara Kemp Cowlin, Askew #106, 2021. Acrylic on panel. Photo credit: James Cowlin.
PhxArt: What drives the use of abstraction in your work?
BKC: My use of abstraction is fairly new to my artistic practice. When I started my newest series, I gave myself permission to play around with the space, shapes, and colors once I had a basic framework derived from reference photos. Gradually, the paintings have diverged more and more from realism and instead reflect the inside of my head. It feels like all the work I’ve done in the past has led me in this direction, and it’s very exciting. Color has always been the first thing that draws my interest—how light and shadow affect color, the vibration between complementary colors, how to make color luminous in a painting, how color and space interact, the way in which adding a color next to another color makes everything around it change. I love combining oddball colors next to each other to see what will happen. The unexpected keeps me motivated.
PhxArt: What are some works or series you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
BKC: My current Askew series has been included in a number of exhibitions in Arizona, including a solo show at the Eric Fischl Gallery at Phoenix College, a two-person exhibition at Chandler Center for the Arts, and group shows at Garvey|Simon Gallery and The Painting Center, both in New York City. Currently, I have paintings in Color Play, a five-female exhibition produced by Garvey|Simon Gallery in New York City, and XSCAPE: Landscapes, Cityscapes, Mindscapes at FOUND:RE Contemporary in Phoenix. Upcoming scheduled shows are a two- or three-person exhibition at First Studio Gallery in Phoenix in December/January and a four-person show at Olney Gallery in Phoenix in March 2022.
PhxArt: What’s some advice you have for burgeoning artists?
BKC: Be prepared for the long haul—it’s a lifetime of hard work with ever changing goals.
Pursue the arts only if you are driven. Talent is abundant, but having the drive is what weeds people out from the crowds.
Find jobs that relate in some way to the arts if you can, no matter how remote the connection. Eventually all your diverse experiences will feed your art.
Tend to the business side of art right from the start. Tons of good books and online resources are available. Don’t delay—it just gets harder!
Always have something you’re working on, no matter how small.
Start something new before you finish your current work to avoid that dark hole of not knowing what’s next.
Develop a community of supportive artists—some more advanced than you, some at the same level.
Go to museums and art shows and read art books.
Barbara Kemp Cowlin, Askew #105, 2021. Acrylic on panel. Photo credit: James Cowlin.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
BKC: I’m excited about beginning to translate my paintings into sculpture and installation. I’m just in the experimental stages with 4”x4”x4” studies in painted plexiglass, and I plan to pursue this further. It opens up possibilities for shows incorporating painting/sculpture/installation, and it’s a totally new way of thinking and working for me. I’ve just come back from a three-week artist residency program at Ox-Bow in Michigan, where in my studio I was able to create an installation to test out my ideas. I received very positive feedback from the visiting artists who came to Ox-Bow to give artist talks and do studio visits with the artists in residence.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Barbara Kemp Cowlin shares what’s giving her life during the pandemic.
BKC: My life during COVID has, of course, been full of anxiety and change. However, I’ve been extremely lucky to have the company of my husband and younger son (working remotely) with me. I have a beautiful studio. I live in a tiny place with little to distract my work even in normal times, so I’m used to being isolated (but certainly not this much). Oddly, my paintings have become brighter, more colorful, and more fanciful over the course of the pandemic. I’ve even started using glitter! I don’t have an explanation for this.
I’ve also continued with the business side of my art practice during the pandemic—looking ahead, applying for grants, residencies and online exhibition opportunities, watching Zooms of artist talks from galleries around the country (something that was unavailable before COVID). As my husband has pointed out over the years, the down times are when it’s good to work even harder and take advantage of the open slots of time to be productive. This is what I’ve made an effort to achieve.
Barbara Kemp Cowlin, Askew #100, 2021. Acrylic on panel. Photo credit: James Cowlin.