Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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June 25, 2012

Gary Bowling’s House of Art still facing uncertain future

BLUEFIELD — A little more than a week ago (click here for previous story), Gary Bowling, blew up after receiving an eviction notice from the Bluefield Alliance for the Arts, telling him that he needed to vacate the third floor of the Bluefield Arts & Crafts Center by Aug. 1. He called a press conference, and directed his expletive-laced diatribe directly into the waiting TV camera lens of WVVA newsman Josh Frketic.

Bowling’s rant made the 11 o’clock news, and became popular for a time on YouTube. It garnered three calls from Princeton-area supporters, all encouraging him to leave Bluefield and bring the flock of 17 artists who work in Gary Bowling’s House of Art to the Mercer County capital. He doesn’t want to leave his hometown, but he hasn’t heard a word from Bluefield.

“The silence has been deafening,” he said on Friday afternoon, after a full week had passed, allowing him a little time to cool off. The fire was still there.

“We’re artists,” he said. “We don’t know any better. We don’t know you should make money and save it.”

Jamie Powers quietly interrupted him and injected. “And manage it,” he said.

Bowling, 64, a 1966 Bluefield High School graduate who served a hitch in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, doesn’t really know anything but art. He wants to provide a place where young artists can explore their artistic talents. Through the early years of his career, Bowling traveled on the canvas ribbon from community to community in search of open-air art shows where his fanciful images might draw the attention of prospective buyers.

He built a rock-solid reputation for his oblique slant on art during those days when his hometown was essentially a place for him to change socks before heading back out on the uncertain streets. Nancy Reagan chose him to decorate Easter eggs for the White House, and in the early 1980s, he created his own hieroglyphic styled language — Gary-glyphics — and peddled t-shirts imprinted with some of his off-the-wall artwork in words.

As his local clientele grew, he and his wife, Debbie, spent more time at home with Adam who was matriculating through the Bluefield public school system. He spent less time on the road, more at home and eventually tried his hand at his own gallery on Bluefield Avenue — a road less traveled by the art-buying public. Still, they were pillars of the region’s community of artists and their outrageously beautiful creations continue to find places to roost in beautiful homes, stately offices and in public places from hither to yon.

Bowling’s move to the heart of downtown has benefited the city by bringing some foot-traffic into the city. Fire code requirements for multiple exits forced an abbreviation of Gary Bowling’s House of Art in what is now, the East River Arts building, but the expansive third floor of the Bluefield Arts Center has enough space for a popular “open mic” stage as well as ample wall and ceiling space to hang an incredible array of artistic creations including paintings, sculptures and what-ya-may-call-its.

But the real beauty of the Gary Bowling House of Arts concept is that it provides a safe haven where a group of 17 young artists can explore different artistic vehicles, all under the encouraging tutoring of an acknowledged master of the arts.

“All of these kids who come here to paint have college degrees,” Bowling said. “Everyone here does but me. If they want to work on a technique, I can help them. If they want to work on a community project, I can help them. They help me when I work on a project that helps this center or the community. We all work together.

“We’re not mad at anyone,” Bowling said. “Is having us up here a burden for the community or for the Alliance for the Arts. We have been doing our best to try to help out this center. We are just a group of artists who are trying to make a difference in our community.

“We do our part,” he said. “We have brought statewide recognition into this center. Bus tours come to visit us. Are we the only thing in town? No. Are we trying to do the best we can? Yes. Everybody has a God-given talent. It’s a positive thing. We could be out there stealing copper and selling drugs, but we’re in here painting.”

“Art saves lives,” Jamie Powers said, not even looking up from the painting he was working on, but listening to every word Bowling said. Powers, 34, is a native of Canebrake, McDowell County, and a graduate of the Columbus College of art. As a child of the coalfields, he doesn’t have anything against underground coal mining, but he is passionately opposed to large area surface coal mining. Some of his work includes paintings of large dump trucks and other equipment used in surface mining.

“Someone came in here and asked why he doesn’t paint pictures of flowers in a garden,” Bowling said. “Jamie lives in the coalfields and the mountains are his garden. He just paints what he sees.”

Bowling said he took full responsibility for his tirade on local television. “I’m willing to take blame for everything,” he said. “I work for these kids. I have no desire to run this building. There needs to be someone here to answer the questions of people who come in here and have problems. But it’s not my building, and it’s not my gallery.

“What if we have to move all of this?” he asked. “What if we leave here tomorrow? There are kids in the Sudan who are starving right now. There are American boys and girls in uniform being shot at every day, wounded and sometimes killed. Do they make a difference? I think they do. Will it make a difference if this house of art isn’t here? I can’t answer that.

“We’re just artists,” he said. “We’re just one component in the effort of trying to turn things around here. We don’t think of ourselves as the main component. We think of ourselves as one component. We’re artists.”

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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