Words by Ben Bowling
Photography by Toby Coulson
Guyana-born artist Frank Bowling OBE RA is one of the most important figures of 20th-century abstract painting. For more than 50 years, he has experimented with elaborate painting and artmaking techniques, stitching, staining, pouring, dripping, spilling. Bowling is constantly inventing new methods that push the medium of painting to new and exciting places, and these methods have been closely shaped by the presence and contributions of his family.
For much of his career, Bowling produced his physically demanding paintings himself, but for the past few years, he has enlisted the help of his children, Ben Bowling and Marcia Scott, his grandson Samson Sahmland-Bowling, and his wife, textile artist Rachel Scott. Under Bowling’s direction, his family assists with every step of the process. From mixing gold flakes into the paint to spreading varnish across the canvas, they execute his vision like a team of fabricators. Ben Bowling shares stories about the familial love ingrained in his father’s paintings and recount how his father’s work brings the family together.
My father is an artist who has welcomed family, friends, fellow artists, and other visitors into his studio throughout his career. References to our extended family, including those who help out in the studio, appear literally in portraits and photographic stencils Portrait of my Father, 1960 and Mother Approaching 60, 2003, as well as lyrically in the titles of his paintings.
Oftentimes, members of the family will have paintings named after them because of their involvement in making the work, or their presence in the studio while it was being made. The fluidity of their involvement as studio assistants is facilitated by my father’s distinctive work method. He has a tendency to be led by the inherent nature of the materials he uses – canvas, paint, water, paintbrushes, etc, but also by people: whoever is around can be called upon to lend a hand. He doesn’t pre-plan his works beyond an initial sense of the geometry of the canvas and an initial choice of colors. Directing the people present in the studio like an orchestra conductor, he sets out on new work with a sense of what is possible given the resources at hand.
For many decades Rachel Scott, my stepmother, has worked alongside my father in his studios in London and New York. Rachel, herself a weaver and artist in her own right, features prominently, of course, (Rachel’s Gift I, Rachel’s Call) as do my stepsisters, Marcia and Iona Scott, both of whom are accomplished artists (Conversations with Marcia Scott and Iona Miriam’s Christmas visit to and from Brighton) and you can find my brothers and I in Sacha Jason’s Guyana Dreams, Dry River Bed in Memory of Dan and Benjamin’s Mess.
The role of the family could be illustrated through many artworks and there are a great many people who have spent hours, days, and weeks laboring in the studio amid the ammonia fumes, but I would like to share a story in relation to my father’s recent work.
Three Palms and Dawn (2020)
Sacha and I visit with my father and Rachel every Friday to discuss ongoing projects. When we arrived one particular Friday, my father was very excited, complaining that he had been awake all night thinking about something that he needed us all to do in the studio. Suffering from insomnia, he tends to “paint on the ceiling” in his mind’s eye and is often extremely keen to get to the studio as soon as physically possible. On this occasion, being unprepared and not properly dressed for studio work, we postponed and agreed to come to Peacock Yard the next day, Saturday afternoon.
The minute we arrived in the studio, my father instructed Rachel to plunge her hand into the soft gel bucket and splatter a handful onto the canvas. The work at that point was a luscious pool of arctic blue, still wet from the previous day’s work. Rachel splattered a handful with her right hand and he then demanded a second handful with her left. He then called Sacha and me to the canvas to do the same. The result was a pool of blue and pink and green with three pairs of palm prints in soft gel.
Rachel then, on father’s strict instructions, sprinkled the palm prints liberally with gold dust. Once this was done, pure ammonia was poured, by the cupful, over the gold-dusted palm prints, which then turned dark blue in a curious chemical reaction. Chinese tea leaves were then sprinkled thickly into the wet paint (visible in the top center-left) which formed a dark blue mound of tea.
The work then underwent a series of further stages which included pouring pink and green and blue paint which was allowed to slip, drip, and dribble down the canvas as it was gradually pulled up the wall. The addition of marouflage (the strips of colored canvas around the edge of the paintings) has the effect of framing the work and creating a pull for the stretching. The very final stage was the application of a rich varnish coat to the whole canvas, comprised of an acrylic gel called Elvecite, beeswax, and purple pearlescent powder.
It’s a stunning work, but made deeply poignant for us as a family because of the deliberate way that my father brought the four of us, himself, the artist, together with Rachel (who has been in his life since before we were born) and his two surviving sons, to make our mark on his work; six handprints, still visible like fossilized dinosaur footprints beneath multiple layers of paint. It also happens to be jaw-droppingly beautiful work. The “Dawn” of the title father says is just about how the painting looks. I wondered out loud whether it might also signal a new dawn in his career in his ninth decade; he laughed out loud and said, “why not?”