From fine craft to fine art, installation artist Pam Bowman has always been a maker of things
“I’ve always been a maker of things,” said Pam Bowman, who for years worked in fine crafts. “I wanted to do things that were creative and use my hands.” For 20 years after receiving a bachelor’s degree from BYU in interior design, Bowman was primarily a stay-at-home mother to three boys. She was also an accomplished weaver, unsatisfied with the conceptual limitations of traditional basketry. She attended national conferences in the field, where she always sought out the presenter with a background in studio art. Frequent contact with artists working across art and craft elevated Bowman’s creativity, and she started winning awards.
Return to BYU
When Bowman’s husband retired from the Air Force and took a faculty position teaching mechanical engineering at BYU, Bowman took advantage of her tuition benefit as an employee spouse and returned to school. Knowing she wanted to study 3D art, she planned to earn a BFA. But when she learned that BYU allowed only one bachelor’s degree per student, she decided to get an MFA instead.
“I didn’t realize what an ambitious thing that was,” Bowman said, “but it was the right decision.” To prepare for graduate school, Bowman first had to build a portfolio of work. For three years, she attended undergraduate classes part-time to gain the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to advance her learning. Finally in 2000, she was accepted into the MFA program. At first, Bowman assumed she would study traditional sculpture. But upon returning to school and learning the art of installation, she found herself increasingly drawn to that medium. She arranged to have an installation exhibition on campus during her first year of graduate school, and had one every year she was in the program. Due to limited energy from chronic diseases and family responsibilities, Bowman took five years to complete the MFA program rather than the typical three. After five years of shows, she progressed naturally from student to professional artist when she graduated in 2005.
Reflecting on her BYU art experience, Bowman said, “I enjoyed the energy and support of the other students. I especially enjoyed the faculty. They were very supportive of me and my journey as I was learning and growing in the discipline. It was a very happy time for me and it changed my life. By the time I started creating art, I really had a lot to say and I didn't even realize it."
A Lot to Say
As a way of processing her years spent in the home, Bowman initially made art that addressed domesticity — and repetitive work in particular. “I think that by the time I started creating art, I really had a lot to say and I didn’t even realize it,” she said. “It just kind of came out.” Repetitive work remains a prevalent theme throughout Bowman’s work. In 2013, she participated in the contemporary art exhibition “Work To Do” at the BYU Museum of Art, alongside Trent Alvey, Jann Haworth and Amy Jorgensen — where she created an installation with 1,000 strings, each representing a repetitive act, such as cooking dinner, going to work or teaching a youth class at church. On one side of a freestanding wall, the strings cascaded down to the floor. On the other side they stretched toward a tall pillar of rope, meant to appear as a mountain or temple.
“All these things you do seem so small,” Bowman said. “Through a lifetime of doing these little things, your life is built. It becomes a sacred thing.” Bowman described her installation, “Becoming,” as a high point for her as an artist. The piece took many months to build and two weeks to install with numerous helping hands. “The scale of it, the difficulty of it and the level of support I got from the museum was really professional,” she said. “I felt like I put across the meaning I was after.”
While Bowman exhibits mostly inside Utah, several projects have taken her outside her home state, including one in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Her artwork, titled “Missing,” highlighted the murder of 50 percent of the Cham population (a Muslim minority) during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The goal of the exhibit was to convince the International War Crimes Tribunal that these targeted killings amounted to genocide.
"I felt proud to be asked to address such an important topic," Bowman said. “To go to another country and do that took courage.”
Bowman has also exhibited in China, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona and New York.
Upon entering the professional art world, Bowman submitted exhibition proposals during open calls at nonprofit art spaces in Utah. Next, she applied for shows at larger spaces. As her reputation grew, galleries and museums began approaching her to participate in shows. That is primarily how she works now, participating in one to three shows per year. Once an opportunity is secured, Bowman chooses the materials and processes that support the concept behind the exhibition. Natural materials and fibers are fundamental to her work — particularly fiber, as women are traditionally associated with fiber arts, and the repetitive nature of working with fiber ties into the core concepts of her practice.
“The repetitive and labor-intensive processes I use to manipulate my materials reflect the tasks of living and the steady, continual efforts of life,” Bowman said. "The historical association of traditional fiber techniques —such as weaving, braiding and quilting — with work and meticulous constructive processes provide a powerful metaphor for the human experience.”
Most recently, Bowman created a giant friendship bracelet for a group show at Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City, inspired by bracelets she crafted with her granddaughters. The show highlights 21 female artists in its celebration of 150 years of women’s suffrage in Utah, and 100 years in the nation. The bracelet is 20 feet in length, with thousands of fibers woven together, representing community and relationship-building. The show is on display through September 10, after which it will travel to the Southern Utah Museum of Art.