Making art within the given constraints

Barbara Kowalski in her studio with “Chinese Takeout Box.”  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Barbara Kowalski in her studio with “Chinese Takeout Box.”
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Artist Barbara Kowalski presents new and old work in BAC’s ‘Boxes.’

Barbara Kowalski prefers not to live life inside a box.

Still, when representatives from Bainbridge Arts and Crafts toured her studio last fall and viewed a painting she calls “Disrupted Box #1,” they asked her to participate in its upcoming summer show, “Boxes.”

Kowalski said while she doesn’t always do her best work within the confines of a given theme – and that “Disrupted Box #1” was in fact an older piece – she was game to see where the subject led her.

“I decided it would be fun to try it in a two-dimensional manner rather than the three-dimensional,” she said. “I know that some artists would prefer to do something three-dimensional for that show.”

The boxes depicted in this set of Kowalski’s ingenious range of pieces are themselves two-dimensional, that is to say, un-folded rather than closed and upright. This concept mimics the conceptual and creative process Kowalski undertakes when moving a painting from its initial idea to completion.

For “Disrupted Box #1,” she began with the idea of the Great Wall of China, with its “zigs and zags.” That led her to think of folding screens. The box in the finished painting snakes horizontally across the visual field against what she calls a “very explosive” background of dusty reds and oranges along with smoky grays.

“The box is being disrupted, or exploded, because of what’s happening in its environment,” she said.

“Old Box in the Rain,” among her favorites, follows along the theme of disintegration and unfolding, this time against a far brighter background. Another favorite, “Prickly,” explores visual texture.

“Chinese Takeout Box,” the most whimsical and Kowalski thinks probably crowd-pleasing of the four because of its thematic accessibility, cleverly explores the flower-like geometry of an empty food carton.

“I tend to do things that are radically different from each other, even if they’re within a series,” she said.

Kowalski allows that just as “Disrupted Box #1” explodes as a result of what’s happening behind it, circumstance and environment can also have a strong impact on an artist’s work.

When she was a child in Los Angeles, Kowalski’s mother, an art teacher, exposed her to artistic experiences at every opportunity. A highlight was a trip to Union Station to see Diego Rivera painting a mural; the artist stepped down from his ladder to shake her hand and chat.

Kowalski followed her mother’s footsteps by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in art education and embarking on a teaching career, followed by a master’s degree in studio art. Meanwhile, amidst work and her own studies, she made art, participated in exhibitions and went about the business of raising six children as a single mother.

She says she’s not quite sure how she did it all.

“Sometimes we have challenges that we know we have to meet,” she said. “There was no choice there as far as I was concerned. I had to continue with my (master’s) degree, and continue with my teaching, and of course I had to take care of my family.”

Kowalski thinks the art she made during this period of intense activity, including “Disrupted Box #1,” was perhaps some of the gutsiest of her career.

“It wasn’t gutsy for the time,” she said. “But it was maybe gutsy for me.”

And professionally rewarding. She describes that period, from the 1960s through the 1980s in Denver, Colo., as the one where she reached the pinnacle of her career. She had strong responses at gallery shows and a “seeming acceptance” of her work, whose expressionistic style fit into Denver’s growing appreciation for abstracion.

“In the 80s, I really hit it,” she said.

Kowalski moved to Bainbridge in 1994 largely to be with her children and grandchildren. She met a few artists and began teaching adult art classes through the Bainbridge Park District. She also began showing at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts, which has remained her sole venue on the island.

While she thinks any artist would find “strokes from the public” important, she’s also not a big self-promoter, which is part of why she’s enjoyed her relationship with BAC.

“I do it because I like to do it,” she said. “It would be wonderful to paint and then have the public come to me. But very few of us have that.”


See what unfolds

Barbara Kowalski’s work will appear along with the work of numerous area artists in the group show “Boxes” from Aug. 3-Sept. 4 at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts. An artists’ reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 3. For more information, call 842-3132 or visit

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