Sally Bowring hated canvas and oil paint because she couldn’t handle more than one relationship at a time.
“It wouldn’t dry as fast as I needed it to dry and it drove me insane,” she says in her cozy backyard studio on the North Side. “I couldn’t leave something to dry and move on to another painting because I can’t think that way. It’s one relationship at a time with painting for me.”
It had taken the former printmaker years to discover she was a painter. Decades after that mid-’70s discovery, she still paints by placing wooden panels flat on a table, occasionally hanging them on the wall to determine their progress before returning to her horizontal easel.
Her tools are as experimental as her methods. As a devoted admirer of painter Gerald Donato, she says something clicked in her head when she learned that he never limited himself to paintbrushes. “That opened up a world of possibilities for me,” she says — “rollers, squeegees, it’s no holds barred. It’s however the mark needs to be made.”
“Weather Report,” Bowring’s latest body of work, is the result of documenting the seasons and weather during her 70th year, which culminated recently in taking a full-time position at Virginia Commonwealth University as interim director of painting.
Acknowledging that the weather may seem mundane to a 20-something, by her age, it’s a topic of conversation and worthy of note.
“It’s about getting out and feeling the weather, being inspired by it,” she says of the 22 large-scale works that will be split between the show at Reynolds Gallery and another in January in Tidewater. “I have no interest in being current. I want to be timeless and make universal works.”
“Restless Rain” shows a symphony of grays with yellow undertones, illustrating the subtleties of what water does to the manmade environment. For her, “February Blue” reflects the hopefulness of a late winter sky. “That blue has a little gray in it,” she says. “It’s not a cerulean, summer blue, but it’s optimistic enough to remind us there’s hope.”
Walking by the hydrangeas in her yard in early summer, she says she was inspired to paint “June Mopheads” with washes of blue because she “wanted to capture the essence of them. Just seeing them made me want to go paint and open up some doors.”
By June, she was working on “In the Pink,” damned with faint praise by a student as “the first pink painting that hasn’t made me want to vomit.” Bowring has a history with pink paintings, having been informed by a grad school professor that she should refrain from using pink in her work because she’s a woman.
“Don’t tell me I can’t, because I will,” she says, laughingly, of “Life on the James.” The two 4-foot-by-8-foot panels in self-described “Pepto Bismol pink” became her final thesis. “And I was young. These have much more subtlety. This is where my pinks are now.”
Inspired by a quote from environmental activist Joanna Macy — “Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?” — Bowring says she secretly wishes “Weather Report” had a fragrance and a play list to help document the impermanence. But “not in a greedy, holding-on kind of way,” she adds.
Her soundtrack preference would be for composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass or Arvo Part, all of whom she plays in the studio while working, “because they create not so much music as sound, with periods of silence which I always really like,” she says. “There are moments like that in my paintings, where you can rest here and then move on.”
It’s all about getting up, having a day and finding as much time to paint as possible around her new full-time teaching position. She sees in the current generation of students a budding awareness of issues, but also the arrogance of youth, parts of which she admits enjoying.
“It’s simple stuff,” she says, “but it all amounts to something worthwhile. I don’t paint for shows, I just keep working. I haven’t made my one great painting yet, so I’ve got to live a lot longer.” S
“Weather Report” runs through Dec. 23 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. reynoldsgallery.com.