I first met Bruce Lowney last Christmas day at a party in Taos. We were introduced, as I recall, in the kitchen over eggnog. We talked about what it was like to live in a boxcar on some land in the middle of nowhere. You see, Lowney lives in a railroad boxcar on his land near El Morro, and years ago my life’s fantasy was to live in a caboose in the middle of Nova Scotia. We also talked for a bit about his lithography and his more recent endeavors in painting. I’d only seen a few of his lithos – surreal, almost allegorical landscapes presenting strange situations, conundrums, coincidences in nature – and a black and white reproduction of The Suicide, from his Tree Series. This lithograph, which is absurdly haunting, hilarious and unforgettable, depicts a tree leaping from the edge of a precipice. I told him I liked it and was looking forward to seeing it in the flesh. The large, shy, placid faced man with the pipe sipped his eggnog and smiled. He introduced me to his wife, ceramic artist Beverly Magennis-Lowney, and they invited me to their joint show at the Governor’s Gallery in the State Capitol in Santa Fe a few days hence. On a cold, clear early January evening, I attending the opening viewing of Beverly’s stately and delightful multi-colored ceramic pieces, and Bruce’s somber and quietly comic (to me anyway) lithographs and large oil paintings. The Suicide was there, along with The Ascension (see cover) and The Sacrifice – a most disturbing image of a tree nailed upside down on a wall of granite edifice, a snake departing in the bottom right hand corner of the work.
Bruce and I talked about doing an interview for ARTlines, without setting a definite date. Soon after, we began a sporadic nine-month correspondence until, finally, after a flurry of letters and one phone call from Bruce in Albuquerque, I had a date and, more importantly, directions to Lowney’s Peace and Quiet Ranch about ten miles the other side of the Continental Divide and 40 miles west of Zuni.
In the tree dotted, rolling mountain landscape near the Divide, I recognized the clear, harmonious and infinite beauty I had seen in Lowney’s work. I finally pulled up to the gate beyond the “Lowney” mailbox on the side of the road in the late afternoon, and drove up to the boxcar/house to be greeted by Bruce, now sporting a neatly trimmed beard, and Jack, his three-legged dog.
But for its length, the boxcar had lost any resemblance to its former life, what with its natty flat green paint, attached shed at one end and solar greenhouse along the back. Inside it was neat as a pin – lithography studio set up at one end, sitting area and painting section in the center, and a tiny kitchen/sleeping room at the far end. We went outside and took a short walk in the early autumn twilight. I was introduced to his 40 newly acquired rabbits, and he showed me the concrete foundation for the large T-shaped house with studios he built for himself, Beverly and her daughter Erin. In the meantime, he explained, he lived up here 80% of the time, and visited on weekends with Bev and Erin who live in Albuquerque. A little ways behind the “house, “ he pointed out The Plain of Felicity, a long, flat, open swale in the terrain running between clusters of small lava rock promontories which arise here and there amid the ponderosas, piñon, and gamble oak.
We headed back into the house as darkness fell and talked as he prepared a dinner of hamburger, green chiles, and green peppers on a bed of rice. I noticed a tv suspended hospital style from the ceiling in front of his bed, and commented on it. He said he watched the news, woke up with Good Morning America, and watched a ballgame now and then. In fact there was one on that night, I said, and he said we’d watch it.
Lowney is a thoughtful man, born and raised in the fruit laden valleys of northern California – Watsonville, near Monterey, to be exact. He was educated over the years at North Texas State University, San Francisco State, and at UNM where, in 1966-67, he was a graduate assistant and studied under the renowned Garo Antreasian. Lowney has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Ford Foundation Grant for study at Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles (1967), the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award in Printmaking (1969), two artist-in-residence grants from the Roswell Museum and Art Center (1970 and ’74), and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in ’74, among others. His works are in major collections throughout the United States, and his work has been exhibited from the Whitney in New York to the San Francisco Art Institute and, most recently, at Santa Fe’s Elaine Horwitch Gallery where he opened a show, along with Douglas Johnson, on October 15th last.
We sat down to dinner with our beers, and proceeded with the interview with a few interruptions from the ballgame.
You live a pretty monastic life.
I was just reading Henry Miller and came across a passage in which he says the artist must “dive deep, and never stir again . . .”
That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? There is a religious element in your work. Maybe not in your work, but certainly in your life, and that gives the work that depth, that tonality . . .
Well, I’m hopeful that . . . like that little chime went off. (Earlier, a door bell-like chime had gone off and when I asked what it signified, he said little.) You know, that’s meant like a call to prayer. I’m in the clutter and garbage of my mind, and sitting down painting I can’t be thinking about, you know, God knows what. And you get on jags, personal relationships, things like that. (Pause) Did you ever read the novel Island by Aldous Huxley?
There were these myna birds that were trained to say, “Here and now.” (Laughs) And they’re wild on the island. Instead of cawing or saying, “Screw you” or something, they say “Here and now.” So that’s my myna bird in a way.
Does it go off every day?
Yeah, but it’s not on any schedule.
It could go off at two in the afternoon or it could go off at six in the evening, like it did just now?
That’s right. It’s not on the hour. (Pause) If I had a proper bell, on this proper bell tower out here (referring to another building project Lowney has planned – to build a large bell tower out in front of the house), then wouldn’t that be somethin’? (Smiling) In this clear air . . . I mean the projection is that it would be like a chapel, like a house of prayer.
But this is enough. You’re alone.
Yeah. (Silence) I have nothing bothering me here except myself, my own mind. So, the prospect is what I can do with my spiritual growth. (Pause) A hermit is either a madman or a saint. Right?
(Long Pause) No judgment on either, you know.
Right. Maybe it takes one to be the other. (Laughter)
You know it’s funny, but I was sitting in the other room and all of a sudden it struck me that you look a lot like Max von Sydow.
I have been told that a number of times.
This is a conscious decision on your part . . . to live this way?
My life is directed to it, I think. I was a Boy Scout, a bird watcher, liked the outdoors, building things . . . and always being essentially introspective, introverted. (Pause) I’m not going to say I’m doing what I’m destined to do, but there’s nothing really incongruous in my life or my present.
How does the whole business of art fit into your life, into your primary concerns?
Well, it’s a concern . . . ah . . . (Pause)
Let’s change the subject. Do you have a definite schedule for working in the print shop or at the easel? When do you make time to work?
I more or less got on a schedule where I get up at . . . This thing (the tv suspended from the ceiling of the kitchen/bedroom) goes off at 7:30 with the news and weather. I get up and have breakfast, go out and feed the rabbits, drink about a quart of coffee in the course of a morning, and work outside. This or that, zingin’ along, chores, you know. About 2:00, I have lunch and start gravitating inside and by 5:00 I’m generally at work inside here. And then I work until 12:00 or 1:00 or so. The light is controllable at night, that’s been a big thing with the painting. There’s no outside glare. It’s hard to stay inside in the morning, and I just seem to be more centered on myself in the evening, where I can sit and get into something. (Silence) Have you had enough? (Referring to my dinner)
Ah, can I pick at this for a little bit? I was wondering if the ball game might be on. Do you mind if we . . .
No, no. I’d like to see it.
(He gets up and turns on the tv, flicks channels until we find a fairly hazy image of the first game of the American League Championship series between Milwaukee and California.)
Are you a fan, a baseball fan?
Yeah. White Sox . . . I’m an American League Fan.
I’m not. I’m a National League fan. I broke into baseball, as they say (smiling), with the Giants – Willie Mays, the Alou brothers . . .(Pause) I was always for the underdogs, I think. And this year, all summer it was the Red Sox, every Monday night. Geez, one night I called up the station – I was in Albuquerque – and said, “This is a National League town. We got the Dukes, right? What’s this American League?”
(Watching the game) Oh my gosh, that guy just made an error . . . and a run’s gonna score!
That’s an American League play right there. (Laughter)
Did you used to play baseball?
No. I could hit pretty good, but shit, I couldn’t catch it.
Did you play many sports when you were a kid?
Basketball, because I was tall, I guess. Volleyball, I love volleyball. I waste a lot of time. I’m not saying putzing around and sitting at my drawing table there, but I just couldn’t sit around and do nothing. I need to build that bell tower chapel where I’d make myself meditate.
(We talked about his life as a student and in the army, his work at Tamarind, and his eventual move back, with his son and first wife, to the Monterey area.)
Anyway, I was running a little Italian restaurant there – pizza, spaghetti, cannelloni. There was that program The Millionaire on tv. You know, where the guy comes by with the sack of money? (Laughing to himself) And I could look out the kitchen and see the line of people at the bar, and say, “Where’s that guy with the satchel, ‘cause I’m hurtin’.” Payin’ dues, you know. And then I quit there and got a job at this little public airport there, and I was there a few months and I got this letter in the mail and it said Garo Antreasian had nominated me for this Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (awarded in 1969 to Lowney) – 5,000 bucks! Incredible. So with that I bought the shop, that I still have, and worked there for a year, and house painted with a friend on the side, and sketched it out. And then I got the grant to Roswell, the artist-in-residence. So that set me free, and then after that thing in Roswell expired, I went and taught in Minneapolis for a year at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. And three months into the fall and winter of Minneapolis I realized I had to get back to the Southwest.
(A long rambling conversation ensued about sports, the ballgame, his early years, Beverly and Erin, his son in Oregon, and religion.)
My father was from family of five and he was the eldest, and the youngest was the only girl and she became a nun. It was an Irish-Catholic family, and he always felt that the Catholics kidnapped her, you know. So he was bitter against them his entire life. So I never had . . . there was nothing Catholic in my life, in my home life. My father liked this Presbyterian preacher, a pretty articulate preacher, the pastor of where we went. I’m sure they took us for a little moral instruction, which I’m thinking of doing for Erin. Because how long are they going to believe you, the parent? (Pause) What was that? The guy took third and the umpire called time or . . . what?
Have you ever been involved with Eastern religions, or religious practices?
No. I did some yoga out of books and some meditation out of books, but that’s . . .
How did you look upon your stuff after you’ve done it out here and brought it into the city, to the Horwitch Gallery in Santa Fe, say? How do you react to that whole process?
(Pause) I feel my things are lonely in many galleries. I’d like to go where I felt like these things (the paintings and lithographs) had friends. I mean, hopefully, I give them life, and then they‘re apart from me. If the work succeeds, whatever, if the people buy it and take it home, God bless it. And if it’s in a gallery, why can’t it be with friends, you know? Kindred spirits.
Where would that be?
I have no idea. (Pause) I don’t know how to define what I do. But I think about surrealism, and Surrealist galleries, wherever they are. I wouldn’t mind if my work would turn more surreal. I can see the paintings turning more surreal, just within the painterly process, but I hope they always have the character that I think they have now.
What is that? What kind of character?
Maybe that’s not what I want to say. I’m not sure, but I live with this thing that the paintings are different, and I’d like to bring ‘em together. The print has its limitations, and the paintings, of course, are bigger. There’s more room in terms of scale. In the prints, there are more solitary images.
More solitary images? I’m not sure I understand what you mean. In other words, you can throw more elements into a painting than you can in a lithograph?
(Pause) I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s just my habit not to put as many in. For years the work was symmetrical – with a vengeance almost. Symmetrical for emphasis.
What about Surrealism? There is, of course, an obvious comparison between you and Rene Magritte, his imagery, his settings. Do you feel an affinity to him? Or do you feel a little defensive about that kind of comparison?
I feel less defensive in recent years. In ways of handling, I think there are similarities, and in something of the look. The detail, smoothness, pretty minor things. And there’s a wit in his things, and I’ve done some things with wit in them . . .
Other than that, you think it’s all pretty much barking up the wrong tree?
Yeah. I’ve never looked at Magritte as an example. I have one book on Magritte that someone gave me, and I didn’t know if I’d accept it. (Laughter) I didn’t want it on my bookshelf and somebody saying, “Hey, I see where you get these ideas.” (Pause) there is that fellow Delvaux, another Belgian, I like his stuff very much. Magritte is – I don’t want to say cute, but . . . There’s ideas that I’ve had that felt like Magritte, and I’ve avoided them, because there is a cuteness. He can be cute, right? I mean, I’ve done some cute stuff, I suppose. Heck, I’ve done some stupid things. An idea happens that I have to follow for some reason and . . . I try to pull it off. And at the end of it I say, “What’s the importance of this, what’s the meaning of this?” (Pause) But there was a guy who was Belgian working in a shop where I did a print, and he was talking of Magritte and Delvaux, and my work , and he spoke of my work as “Lyric Romanticism,” and saying how that was a quality of Belgian work, or style. And that I’d never disclaim.
There is certainly that romantic lyricism in the little painting there (small painting of solitary, pregnant woman on wall done in the late ‘60s) and the Maxfield Parrish influence in it.
Well, I would trace him to maybe Thomas Cole, Church, or Bierstadt, and the Germans you spoke of, Caspar David Friedrich, the landscape painters with heroic views. What I’m trying to say is that there’s an old world . . . I mean an old word – “sublime”, a word like “felicity” that we don’t use anymore. We don’t use that whole sense anymore. It means heroic, as well as noble. You know, the big words. Those landscape painters, I think, tried to paint the sublime. And that’s sort of a romantic word, a romantic sensibility, and I have tried to make sublime paintings before and after I knew the word. (Pause) An image of peace, blue sky forever, infinite landscape, trees going back, every tree over every hill going back . . . a sort of fidelity of space. And in that I want to encompass that feeling of peace, or the sublime. (Pause) And beyond trying to paint as much space as I can, I am trying to enclose some of that quality. That’s the thing I get suckered on in the paintings. They don’t have that more graphic, expressive element, let’s say, that I find in the prints, like the solitary trees and those sorts of things. (Pause) Right now, I’m moving from . . . well, the skies are darkening. The bluer skies that I used to do, they’ve deepened, deepened, deepened. I’m an old man, I’m going to be 45. There’s a difference, and I don’t know if it’s age or any sort of negative or less than optimistic thing, I really don’t want to say. (Pause) There’s something that I’m dealing with in my maturing where there’s a slow unburdening, like fallout from time, like dust. Every day (running his finger across the top of the toaster on the table) it’s dust again. And there are those burdens, and it can’t help but affect you. This sounds maybe negative, but I think it’s natural. And I’m sort of awake to it. You know, Maxfield Parrish’s final things are almost all twilight shots, which is curious. (Pause) Well, maybe that’s it. I’m ready to speak with more content. Ten years ago maybe I wouldn’t have thought of this Suicide, say. (Referring to his litho, The Suicide) That I think of it now, that I do it now, speaks mainly of where time has taken me. Not that I look for images like that, or that I’m obsessed. I really don’t like to talk this way.
Maybe we should change the subject then.
How come you don’t put people in your images?
Well, I was just thinking of these ones with people in them. (Pause) Okay, what has haunted me has been a three-quarter back view, and as an art teacher of mine said, to show a back view of someone becomes the figure of death.
I don’t know if I should say this or not, but on the way here as I was driving, I thought of taking a photograph of you with your back to the camera. It was just a passing thought which I completely forgot about till you just said that. Also, when I come up here the first thing I really saw, focused on, was the picture of the C.D. Friedrich painting on your bulletin board in the litho shop, the one where the guy is standing on the mountain top, back to the viewer, overlooking the heroic landscape.
(Laughs softly) That’s interesting. There’s one I did of a back view of a man who has a rifle in one hand, and over his shoulder is the same figure in the same clothes. It’s called The Return of the Hunter, and he’s resting at the top of the hill, and in the distance is the cabin with the smoke coming from it. You know, the real struggle being with yourself and with our nature, and we conquer our own nature or not.
There are all these religious themes when you get down to it, and they are outside the realm of everyday concerns that people have. Or are they?
I think of that . . .well, let me show you a few things. (He goes to the paper drawer and takes out a few lithographs.) That’s the last of the trees. It’s called The Departure. This is a real old one that I keep wanting to redo. As you see, the idea is that it’s piercing itself. The Tragic Flaw. But this idea, that I’ve never really been able to draw, that we all have this flaw, this limitation, this cap, like our destiny. Our illnesses, our propensities that we have that keep us from doing what we potentially could do.
Do you believe in destiny?
And there’s something in the romantic that loves the tragic, too.
Yeah. But that whole complex is not an element of our age. Well, I did just hear something about that. In the programming of concerts the taste is more for romantic music, and the comparison was true just before WW II.
What about the return to romanticism in the visual art itself, in terms of Western Art and realism in general that’s going on in the U.S. today?
That’s where our society is. We are almost wholly material, and that’s been an evolution. That’s coming from a long way off. (Pause) I’d like to say something on behalf of the spiritual. I need a reason to make art, and it’s that reason, to have some content like that. I can’t pin it down real tight for you, but I think you know what I mean.
In all this – people running their heads off, human conflict, tragic flaws – is there any resolution to all that . . . besides death?
(Pause) Well, I don’t extend it that way. Humanity is always oppressed. It’s only under a different mask and different appearances. And I think about political situations, and liberal causes, I’ve always been a liberal, but . . .
You’re a little defensive about it, I’ve noticed.
But they want the human condition to change. They expect the people you saw in prison to change their nature and walk out a positive member of society. Forget it. Human nature won’t be changed by a government program, or a liberal, socio-political ideal.
What about Civil Rights legislation? Didn’t that do that to some extent in this country?
Didn’t the government legislate morality in that situation?
Through the impetus of economic stability. Like the Greeks giving free corn to the populace, to stop social unrest. To maintain order. That’s the purpose of the government, and they do it however they must. If they’re smart.
Do you think there is any resolution to the human condition? What is it? Each man tending his own garden?
(Nodding) That’s the most sublime. You know, the epilogue. And he should have known, huh? Voltaire should have known.
Yeah, the end of Candide.
His premise was that this is the best of all possible worlds. Do you consider yourself an optimist? Do you think that this is the best of all possible worlds?
(Pause) I think I’m a dreamer. And it’s hard not doubting my dreams here. Completing my place out here, getting Bev out here, the stone house done, a nice studio, etc. I gotta believe in it. So I’m sort of a . . . what would the word be? I’m a qualified optimist I guess.
Who works hard.
I don’t work hard enough, so I can’t say that. I think you have to be an idealist to . . . to live with yourself in a way.
But do you think it’s always gonna be like that? The human condition?
(Softly) Yeah. Yeah. As I say, we’re unequal in endowment, despite social change, Civil Rights, voting rights. I don’t want to get into all that. (Pause. Finally) I’m a romantic, and I believe in trying to get what you believe in, the dreams that you believe in. And . . . maintaining the dream. You know, we’re born, we suffer, we die. That’s the human condition.
Do you think that it’s a struggle of good versus evil? (Pause) There’s that sketch you have on the board there of the satanic figure poking his head between the limbs of a tree, and I was just wondering . . .
I saw that once. One of those things you see beyond your . . . I saw that vision.
In Monterey. I was working on this front gate that had fallen off a hinge, and it was a beautiful day, an uncommon day, and I looked out and a Navy jet was flying in and I knew the pattern of flight ‘cause I worked at the airport. I didn’t work there then because I had the grant. And I looked up at that, and I was working on the gate, and just then, in a very quiet tranquil state that you just have to be in, I think, when you see those things . . . it’s interesting. Nothing in my mind, I wasn’t attached to anything.
But you did see this ominous presence?
It was either smiling or leering (laughing) and I’ve carried that with me. What was his expression? And I choose to think of it more as a satyr than a devil or something. (Silence)
I saw one nearby here. Down the road this place where this Navajo family used to live, and they moved about a mile west after the father died. And I was over there, and there was this little rise, and I was working on a sunset painting type of thing where I wanted to see that sky. I was taking some photographs. And as I pulled in, there was a hat sticking on a tree, and I knew the story that the people had moved out after the guy had died there, and I thought, “This is his hat.” And I drove on, and I saw him.
What did you see? A human figure?
(Softly) Yeah. Just one of those shots. You see it, you know there is something there. But I’ve never seen anything on the land here.
Did it spook you a little bit?
Oh, yeah. But I’d seen things like that before. (Pause) I mean, you think about evil, the devil. I’ve scared myself sometimes. But I don’t live scared out here. I wouldn’t survive. You can freak yourself out if you let yourself. Anywhere.
(Silence. After a few moments) We were talking about the sublime earlier. This is a pretty sublime environment you have here.
Well, I’ll tell you, I look out and I see a stone house unfurnished, and in the winter I see the snow limiting me, and all this stuff that needs to be done, and I’m wondering when I can break beyond the concern for the physical. But I need something out there that’s just a sculpture, that’s just spirit, non-utilitarian. I can really believe in sculpture, outdoor monumental sculptures. I’d really like to make something like that to spite myself, that doesn’t mean anything as far as getting ready for the winter or anything. That’s what I need to break beyond. In some ways I can’t really appreciate this place until I get all these things on the top of my mind out of the way. The money and the time to build the stone house and have a proper painting studio. It’s like Catch-22.
It’s like the redwood tank outside, huh? That has to be filled with water before the boards swell together and make it water tight, but they aren’t tight so it can’t fill with water.
Well, that’s part of the human condition, right? If only this, you say to yourself. I mean, we’ll go to our graves with that. (Pause) Jung said something to the effect that it’s not perfection we should seek, but completeness. That’s not the whole thing. There’s something like, “and for that a thorn in the flesh is needed.”
Do you believe in luck?
Luck is really almost a matter of will. You can make things happen for yourself. And once I realized that, I knew there had to be a change in my life, and shortly after I met Bev. That was lucky. (Pause) If there’s such a thing as mental projection, you could call prayer that. If you direct your psyche, which is prayer, and you do it with singleness of purpose, things’ll change, things’ll happen. I believe that. You read about those Indian saints, the discipline they would put themselves through in reaching that point where they could move mountains. I believe that happened. I believe the potential of the mind is just incredible. What we use is just a sin. Original sin is that we’re slobs, we haven’t started to realize that potential. You can draw things to you. You think you’d like to make a lot of money. You meet people and that’s their overriding concern day and night. And it happens to them.
Does what’s happening in world affairs concern you much? Does it have much effect on you?
I’m not without emotion. I’m quite an emotional person. I’m not living here in aloof detachment. Things like Beirut, Lebanon are tragedies. It’s a shame. It’s a shame that the United Nations doesn’t have the power to deal with those situations. Where are the great leaders? Where are the people with vision?
Where are they?
None in our age. I mean there’s Joseph Campbell and Bucky Fuller, all these guys in their seventies. Where are the people like that in their thirties where they’re vital enough to impact on our situation?
Well, the momentum and impetus of all the deadening life is so great right now. There is a great negativity in the air. From video games to pro football, to advertising. I’m not saying these are bad, but their sum effect presents great distractions. The deck is pretty stacked these days, don’t you think?
Yeah. The world needs more romantics. (Smiling)
I’ll buy that.
Sort of the dawn of my consciousness, when I was four or five years old, was out in the country, rural situation, with an orchard across the street and all around that area, and I’d walk through that. I was a great gardener and I learned from my mother. When I had situations where I could have a garden, or there was a tree in the yard, I’d prune it and tend it. (Long pause) Before I die maybe I’ll prune every tree on this land. That would be an accomplishment. (Soft laughter). They’d grow a little straighter, might be a few vigas for my son to cut down, or my grandson. (Silence) Long ago I wrote down a quote from Emile Zola who said, “To plant a tree, write a book, to have a child is to have a full life.” That about says it all.
-Thom Collins, November, 1982