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Art&Seek Q&A: Visual Artist Camilla Cowan

by Tina Aguilar 20 Oct 2011 3:19 PM

The painter and printmaker talks about her current show at SMU and how she draws inspiration from around the world.


Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities at El Centro College.

On a recent evening while doing research in the Hamon Arts Library at Southern Methodist University, I came across “Camilla Cowan: Prints and Paintings” at the Mildred Hawn Gallery. Cowan’s linear orchestrations, vibrant palette and printmaking techniques engage the eye. Her intricate markings mesmerize and, as I wandered closer to each work, the possession of lines and colorful reverberations offered a respite from the clamor of the day. Her earlier prints resemble what one might find under a microscope. Marveling at the numerous extensions and clusters of shapes can be trance-like. One of Cowan’s teachers, Meadows school art professor Larry Scholder, talked to me about the nitty-gritty of printmaking and said of Cowan’s the larger prints: “Her work gets more and more complex, different kinds of networks of lines. It’s a really interesting exploration.” Some of you may know Cowan from her writings in The Dallas Morning News about faraway excursions. Through a personal tour and brief e-mail, I had the opportunity to learn about her latest artistic journey.







Camilla Cowan






Tina Aguilar: How do you get started with a concept or design idea?

Camilla Cowan: I will see something or remember something that sparks an interest. Like molas, which are [hand] sewn pictures made by Kuna Indians on an island off Panama. I’ve seen these and have a few at my house. I got the idea to make some painted “molas” and became sort of obsessed with that image. I painted a number of them and also did prints. When my show opened at the Hawn Gallery, an SMU security officer, who I don’t know but happens to be from Panama, walked into the show and said “these look like molas.” I thought this was a great compliment.

T.A.: What are some inspirations for you?

C.C.: I’m interested in pattern . . . both man-made and that found in nature. If you look down a residential street, openings in the curb for driveways form a pattern. If you look down a stretch of highway, telephone poles form a pattern. Really, they are everywhere.

T.A.: I was taken with your work and drawn into the gallery because I respond to textures and colors.

C.C.: See, I do, too. I have been taking printmaking for a long time, and Larry kept saying, “You need to work bigger, you need to work bigger.” What happens when you work larger, I would make the design and it was too big for the plate – so then I started thinking, “OK, I need to make smaller designs and more repetition of them because that’s what I like.” Maze-like and labyrinthine are words that come to mind to describe the work, these black and white ones are vine-like. I just tried to vary my lines. I would work on one for a while and get tired of it and would start doing something else. And then with this one [pointing to Idol] I was watching American Idol. This took me a long time to do. And I would sit there and watch it, and etch some more, and then turn it around.

T.A.: These have an aspect of time that is interesting. On some level, it’s very soothing to consider the act of making lines over and over again. I was trying to imagine just how long it took you.

C.C.: It took me hours – I don’t really have a good idea of how long. I would work on it for an hour or even two; then my eyes would go and it would be like I can’t do this anymore. I would say six weeks, two or three hours at a time, maybe 20 hours total. And then you’ve got to print it. The thing with these big plates is they are not easy to print. With some, the black isn’t even or it’s fraught with all kinds of possibilities, of things that can go wrong.

T.A.: There is an attraction with the opposite negative-positive space, it evokes a response. Did you experiment with that idea before? How did you know you wanted to do it that way?

C.C.: I like relief, and I had seen it, and I like it. Maybe because I don’t cover up enough for there to be enough black. There’s not enough black for me if it’s printed the other way. So after I did all of these, I remembered my mola book [Magnificent Molas: The Art of the Kuna Indians by Michael Perrin] and thought, “I’ll make some prints a little smaller.” The other pieces are 12”x12,” which is much easier to print and much easier to handle. These are chine collé, so this [Mola IV] is red ink rolled on the plate and there’s a green piece of paper in there. You use wallpaper paste on the back of the paper and put it in between the plate with the ink on it and the base paper; and you roll the whole thing through the press.

T.A.: What about your paintings?

C.C.: The big one may have been my first one. Then I had a bunch of canvases the same size, so I thought I would use them. I am not sure what order they were in, but I did one that really, really jumps out at you. Then I wondered what it would look like if I toned it down a little. Sometimes I’ll start them and I don’t like the colors I’ve chosen. Then I’ll either abandon them or start over.

T.A.: You also used something else on the plate, right.

C.C.: Yes, I took a blank copper plate and I drew whatever I wanted with a Sharpie, and I put it in the acid. The acid ate out everything where there wasn’t Sharpie. Then I rolled the ink on and that raised surface is what catches the ink.

T.A.: When did you first start experimenting with printmaking?

C.C.: I decided to go back to school for art and was laid off at The Dallas Morning News, all at the same time. That was in 2001. I took a lot of studio classes trying to decide what I would like to pursue and ended up liking painting and printmaking. I’ve taken several classes with Larry, and SMU is a great resource. The Hawn Gallery is a great gallery, and I was very lucky.

T.A.: You have traveled to many spots around the globe, where you shared places and history. What are you seeking to share or explore with your art?

C.C.: I have been fortunate to travel to many places and see a lot of things. I am continually amazed by the amount of beauty in the world. I want my art to be interesting. In my art, I am searching for something but don’t know what it is . . . so I just keep searching. It is a way for me to relax, sort of a therapy, and helps me organize my thoughts.

I’m now pondering working on some prints that look like mosaic tiles I saw in medieval churches in Italy.

T.A.: I heard you have some new equipment. Can you tell me about that?

C.C.: Well, my mother had her undergraduate degree in piano. As her children grew up, she went back to school and got her Master’s of Arts at UT Tyler. Among the things she learned was how to do printmaking, and she got real into that and bought a press. Now she’s not doing printmaking anymore and my sister and I moved the press to Dallas, literally two months ago. It’s very exciting to have a press. It’s a whole new world.

Camilla Cowan’s installation is on view until Oct. 30. This exhibit space is supervised by Sam Ratcliffe, head of the Jerry Bywaters Special Collections. Gallery proposals are submitted throughout the year, and in the spring a committee, comprised of Hamon Arts Library staff and art faculty, decides the exhibition list for the following academic year. He says over  the next four years there will be an effort to connect with other locations across the SMU campus because of the Centennial celebrations. More about this to come. The Mildred Hawn Gallery, Hamon Arts Library, hours are Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to Midnight; Friday, 8 a.m.– 6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 p.m.- Midnight.