Part 3

I was struck by the power of the image to reveal God—a very reassuring affirmation for a visual artist.

– Sandra Bowden

Gilded Drawings

In 1997/8, after nearly 35 years working as a studio artist and being around so many from academia, I had this brilliant idea that I needed a sabbatical. A sabbatical is a change of focus, and I had come to the place where I needed a break. I had been traveling in Europe for many years, learning about art history by studying art and musing upon the rich visual heritage of our faith. Now I wanted to devote some time to create with more freedom outside of my now-familiar tropes . . . not to give up anything, but to find new energy by celebrating something new-to-me.

In 1997, an encounter in Italy with crucifixes that hung above the altars of early Italian churches made a lasting impression. The magnificently beautiful structures prompted an entire body of new work. In these pieces, I very carefully used the exact proportions of the cross form, transferring it to paper, painting a burnt sienna underlayment, then gilding the surface, and finally adding line to suggest the body of Christ and some of the delicate patterns in these crucifixes. My purpose in doing this series was to cast these early and beautifully shaped crosses as a kind of contemporary icon, because in fact, they had their roots in early icons.

Adoration After Fabriano - Sandra Bowen

The story of the conversion of Saint Francis in front of a cross-shaped icon that hung above the altar in Assisi moved me deeply. In response to this experience, St. Francis wrote:
All Highest, Glorious God,
Cast your light into the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith, firm hope, perfect charity, and profound humility,
with wisdom and perception.
O Lord, so that I may do what is truly Your most holy will. Amen.

Coming from a religious tradition where only the spoken or written word was recognized to be a means of grace, I was struck by the power of the image to reveal God—a very reassuring affirmation for a visual artist. Little did I know that 20 years later, I would still be creating these gilded drawings, chasing over and over all those wonderful gifts of “what ifs” and the recurring questions that emerge.

Encaustics

In 2008, I embarked upon a new technique—encaustic—that would help me more fully follow some of the ideas floating in my mind. I had been using a lot of gold, and in the process of experimenting, found that gold leaf instantly clings to the surface of encaustics. Could I use both mediums together? What would the effect be?

Instead of drawings on paper, I started to experiment with the shaped panels in the proportions and shapes of historic altarpieces inspired by my experiences in Italy, such as Bellini’s Nativity Tryptych or Michelangelo’s Tondo. For the 2015 CIVA conference, I entered three small altarpiece prototypes, and to my amazement, they were all accepted into the exhibition. This was confirmation that I was on to something.

40 Days/40 Nights - Sandra Bowen
40 Days/40 Nights - Sandra Bowen

This new blend of mediums and focus gave me the opportunity to create installations with multiple panels. That is, after all, how most altarpieces are structured. One Hundred Percent, with its one hundred 6-inch panels, celebrates God’s perfection. The Twelve reflects on the meaning and associations of that number in the Bible. In some of the pieces, the written word resurfaced. In Forty Days and Forty Nights, for instance, 40 gold panels reflect brilliant light, and 40 black panels are inscribed with the John 1 text, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome the light.”

My first show of these pieces was in 2019 at Liberty University. Then the full body of work, now titled Reflecting the Glory, opened at the Center for Art and Spirituality in Barga, Italy, with Monsignor Timothy Verdon giving a talk at the opening. Reflecting the Glory will be shown at other universities over the next several years. You can find the Reflecting the Glory exhibition schedule on my website.

Following the Work

You can see how over nearly fifty-five years, my art practice has unfolded into a body of interrelated work. I believe this is because I let the work lead and guide me, and my job is to prayerfully follow where it goes. It has been my deepest desire to create art that illuminates the Scriptures and brings glory to the Lord. I believe that this requires two things: faithfully working at my art and being in a close relationship with the Lord. This process of exploring the questions raised by one work of art in the next one is not forced and is not always even a conscious process. It flows naturally from following my interest, deepening my studies, and integrating my experiences. I have trusted that the work will magnify the Creator and give me great joy in the process.

I wish all of you an exciting journey as artists—with all the struggle, sure-to-be setbacks, and significant advances along the way. But most of all, let the work teach you what it has to offer and allow yourselves to be Following the Work.

Author Bio

Sandra Bowen

Visual artist Sandra Bowden has been interpreting Scripture and her own spiritual walk through mixed media for more than forty years. She has been acclaimed as one of the most unique, impressive and inspiring Christian artists in America. Bowden’s work has been featured in books, magazines and gallery shows across the United States, Canada, Italy and Jerusalem.