High on my living room wall, above and left of the TV, is a drawing depicting three rectilinear shapes distributed randomly on the white paper. Below them is, handwritten, “These are not birds flying, nor are they boomerangs.” It’s a work by Michael Bowley from 1977. I first saw it on his apartment wall when it was brand new, and we lived a few blocks apart in Northwest Portland. I was immediately intrigued by the piece because of the caption. It first made me think of folks who look at non-representational art and ask, “What’s that supposed to be?” And Michael was saying what wasn’t depicted. A few years later Michael saw a small simple found object sculpture of mine and suggested that we trade artworks. I immediately knew what I wanted and I’ve had These are not birds flying, nor are they boomerangs for about 40 years now. It still makes me think and it makes me smile.
It was Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving that I learned of Michael’s passing at age 72. I appreciate the invitation to remember him here. We met in 1975—both young artists, he 28, me 26. Only a few seeds of the now burgeoning Portland art community had sprouted. Portland Center for the Visual Arts was founded in 1972. Blue Sky Gallery would open in the fall of 1975. There were a couple interesting commercial galleries, and a few college spaces. It was Michael who initiated two-person shows for us at the Wentz Gallery at the Museum Art School (now PNCA, 1977) and Buckley Center at the University of Portland (1979). We made artworks especially for those spaces. It was the thing to do back then.
In 1976 a new “artists’ space” non-profit gallery opened, kind of a local art version of PCVA. It was the Northwest Artists Workshop. It was founded by a handful of young artists fresh from the Portland State University art program. Michael was one of them.
It seems like it was in the late 70s that Michael was a studio assistant for Mel Katz. Mel was working on his “Post” series, tall wall-mounted fiberglass sculpture/paintings. I remember Michael talking about sanding the pieces. That was an insight for me—that Michael might just enjoy the monotonous meditative meticulousness of the sanding process.
In 1979, for an outdoor exhibition at Marylhurst Education Center (later College, later University), Michael made a work called Walking in Circle Until a Mark is Made. In a grassy field at the entrance to the campus he walked in a 20-30 foot (as I remember it) diameter circle for hours until a clear path was revealed. Another meditative process, maybe.
Michael and I spent quite a few evenings getting cheap soup and bread, or coffee and pie (at Quality Pie on NW 23rd), and conversing about stuff I don’t remember. But it might have been on one of those occasions that in lamenting the lack of a local publication for the arts—and as a couple of naive guys—we decided to do it ourselves. We published three issues of a small format quarterly magazine, Prologue, between summer 1979 and spring 1980. We tried to distribute it in Portland and Seattle by hand carrying it to bookstores. I think we sold one copy (it was $2.50). It was “typeset” by us on the IBM Selectric typewriters at PCVA—Michael was working there at the time. Looking at the magazines now they are interesting documents of the time: Much of the 40-60 page issues involved artists’ projects and writings, not critics’ criticism.
I was writing for Willamette Week back then, and at some point I learned that Buckminster Fuller was to speak at Linfield College. I wanted to interview him. Buckminster Fuller appeared to be a big subject, and I enlisted Michael to help me as there was a lot of preparatory reading to do. When we finally met Fuller for an interview in a room at the airport, Michael asked the questions. We had an hour. We’d carefully prepared a list of questions. He got in four questions among Fuller’s loquacious answers.
Michael was the rare artist (at least back then in Portland) who actually enjoyed reading art theory. In the early ‘80s he went off to the MFA program at the University of California San Diego. I think it was a great fit for his intellectual curiosity.
Sometime after his return he joined the art faculty at Marylhurst to teach a class that was called Composition at the time. Over the few years he spent at Marylhurst, Michael managed to transform the course to one on art theory and criticism, and it eventually became Critical Response, a key part of the college’s strong BFA program.
It seems like it must have been the early 1990s when Michael joined Nine Gallery. One of the most memorable pieces of his was in A Response to the Gulf War, a members’ group show in 1992. Michael set up a dot matrix printer with a continuous paper feed, and it loudly printed out, over and over, war sounds onomatopoeia like “Bam! Kapow!”—the relentlessness of the printer, going on and on, with its own clattering, and the relentless notation of war.
In 2000 I had a retrospective exhibition at The Art Gym at Marylhurst, and I wanted to build three big pieces on campus. I knew I needed help and luckily for me Michael was available. We spent hot summer weekends from June to August working together. On one of those days I experienced another Bowley brilliancy. I had an old Volvo station wagon, and because I was moving tools in and out of it all day, I left the back hatch open. That kept the dome light on. Over eight hours or so, that’ll drain your battery! It was toward dusk and neither of us had jumper cables. I thought about calling AAA when Michael noticed the metal strapping from a big bundle of 1x4s. We clamped the strapping to the battery terminals, probably with vise-grips, and by golly the car started up! Michael was a guy who liked to figure things out like that.
That’s what made Michael a great “handyman” and that’s how he made his living for at least the last couple decades. I think he gained his skills in carpentry, electrical and plumbing by observing others and by reading how to do it, and then following the directions. He had the requisite patience for methodical work. He was also a fan of This Old House.
The Dadaist Marcel Duchamp turned to chess late in his career. For Michael the game was poker. He was part of our regular Tuesday night game for more than a decade, and he was a regular in a series of semi-annual poker tournaments involving a couple dozen players. In October he won one of those tournaments for the third time—most wins of any of our group. He was quite proud of that.
In March last year Michael had a show of “napkin drawings” at Nine Gallery. These were little sketches on restaurant napkins—maybe as notes for himself or when he was explaining something, like he did back in the ‘70s when we were having coffee. He’d been saving them for years. They have the kind of intriguing modesty that I identify with Michael. He never sought the limelight, never had a show in a commercial gallery. But he was THERE when needed over the history of art in Portland during the past four decades. He was the kind of artist that artists know about.