Carolyn Gowdy’s Scrapbook: Life is an adventure… life is a gift
By James Brewer
Illustrator and painter Carolyn Gowdy invites us to board with her what she calls the Dreamboat, so that we can explore together the reaches of human existence. Sound and seaworthy, the Dreamboat’s destination is: A Better Life.
This most imaginative of artists takes us on a voyage pervaded with compassion and fundamentally with optimism for the future of mankind, in her remarkable retrospective called Carolyn Gowdy’s Scrapbook.
The Dreamboat has in her paintings two manifestations, one able to accommodate a motley cast of Citizen of the Planet characters, the other a smaller craft made of sea shell from stem to stern.
Seattle-born Carolyn, who has lived in London for many years, says: “I grew up on the water, and sea shells have been a part of my life as long as I remember.”
Two floors of an Earl’s Court mansion property, Gallery 286, are filled with Carolyn’s captivating picture stories and worlds within worlds. Her appealing images which compel us to reflect on humankind’s personal and universal dilemmas appear at times simplified but are unforgettable.
With her brand of humour, she processes hopes, dreams and compulsions to help us understand what is going on in the world.
A recurrent motif throughout her years in London and this exhibition is the Dreamboat. Dreamboat is the title of a large-scale painting in the main room on the ground floor. It features a collection of figures, including a skeletal being clutching a dollar bill in the presumed hope that money will pay his passage to the better world.
The Dreamboat has a “follow your heart” compass; and sometimes it is packed in a suitcase ready for adventure. Carolyn’s subtitle is her philosophy: Life is an adventure . . . life is a gift.
This is the most comprehensive overview of her work in well over a decade. It features painting, collage, mixed media, sculpture, printmaking, photography and magazine illustration. Words fail to describe these pictures – for all their cartoon imagery, they must be contemplated quietly to be appreciated fully. The paintings are in oil, or oil and acrylic with mixed media collage, and there are hand-coloured etchings.
Inventive and idiosyncratic creatures originated in Carolyn’s drawings for children’s books and magazines at an early stage of her career. They include bird-like beings, angels, hearts with heads and limbs, and a girl carrying a large eye.
Carolyn says: “This is the first chance that even I have had to see my large paintings out together in many years, not to mention in such a such a splendid space as Gallery 286.” The gallery is run by art expert Jonathan Ross, who has been a supporter of Carolyn’s work for many years.
“Many paintings have been so tightly packed against the walls and behind things in the small space where I live and work that I almost forgot they were there,” admits Carolyn. “It is a joy to see various works, created at different points over decades, paintings, sculpture, prints, merging so seamlessly and with space for them to breathe and interact.”
Carolyn says that her panoply of artworks explores “the ongoing experience of life, past and present along with inspired possibilities for the future.”
The ground floor is filled with paintings, many of which have been reworked with new layers: when you ask Carolyn about this technique, she uses a favourite word, a palimpsest. Derived via Latin from the Ancient Greek palimpsestos, this means something changed while bearing traces of the original. “I play with things, and they take on a life of their own.”
Further insight is revealed in compositions such as one of her etchings entitled Listening to the Heart – “I like sensuousness in my canvases.”
On the lower floor of Gallery 286 is a section which features her Poem People at the Seaside photos which were created during a residency at the Aldeburgh Beach Lookout.
Carolyn created ‘magical’ Poem People Portraits of members of the public dressed up in fabrics, costumes, bits of paraphernalia and regalia chosen from her work-basket.
Intriguing are two specific installations: The Museum of Doll Dreamers and The Museum of Magic Timepieces. These “table top museums” have grown out of the myriad of miniature objects and ephemera collected through the years in her studio. Carolyn spent five days creating the current stage of the installations and they continue to be reworked almost every day.
The Museum of Magic Timepieces comprises an assortment of vintage clocks, parts, collage items and print ephemera. “It provides inspiration for my art and for my ongoing enquiry into the concept of time within our world, past, present and future.”
The Museum of Doll Dreamers is another eclectic array, reflecting attempts to make sense of the disjointedness of dreams and emotions. It points to the feminine experience within a patriarchal society.
Carolyn reprises her Theatre of Women series, which consists of 14 hand-coloured and drawn etchings with collage, with each unique in a variable edition. Many of the pieces include references to musical performance: “Music can raise consciousness,” she says, and “music is a metaphor for flow.” Harsh reality breaks through as one collage warns of catastrophe on the planet and bears the title Wake Up Call.
In contrast to the emphasis on time dominating life, much of the work on display has a timeless quality and is relevant to the challenges that are going on in the world. Carolyn’s prescience is evident in Troubled Times between Outdated Computers and their Owners, an illustration commissioned in 1994 to enliven a dry article in a computer magazine. This is seen in a whole section devoted to work commissioned for newspapers and magazines.
People have said that running throughout many of her works is “a gentle feminism; I’m fine with that … though it is mostly sub-conscious.”
She says: “I consider it my job, as an artist, to look for beauty, grace, magic, and wonder everywhere. This gives me a sense of purpose and helps keep me in touch with my gratitude for what is.
“It reminds me that the miracle of life is something to celebrate, document, and preserve. It helps me stay fresh, new, alive in the moment, awake to elements that might otherwise go unnoticed or forgotten. It helps me to accept and appreciate life on life’s terms, to find hidden treasure in both breakdowns and breakthroughs.
“I am fascinated by the subject of consciousness, the ongoing experience of being alive and how this relates to the past, present, and future, of human beings on the planet. Humanity is most definitely a work in progress. It is important to keep learning and to ask questions.
“I am continually in the process of developing wisdom, clarity, and discernment. I choose to align myself with love, light, grace, beauty, truth, magic, and humour as much as possible. I choose to be present, awake and in the now as much as possible and wherever I go. I really don’t want to miss a beat out of the extraordinary adventure that is life.”
Carolyn has a gift for the felicitous phrase. Of one work, entitled Every Cloud has a Silver Lining, she offered the description: “This is a kind of sprint over the rainbow.”
She recently discovered a quote by Picasso “which particularly resonates for her: ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to give it away’.”
Carolyn Gowdy’s Scrapbook is at Jonathan Ross – Gallery 286, 286 Earl’s Court Road, London SW5 until October 31, 2018. Next open day is Oct 24, then Oct 31, otherwise viewing by appointment www.gallery286.com