From the "Neighborhood": A2 Native Ben Cowan's Art Installed at Westgate


The Ann Arbor District Library's Westgate branch is filled with new things. After all, it just reopened in September 2016 after a massive expansion and remodel.

But even newer than the computers, coffee shop, and shiny shiny bathrooms are three large paintings by Ann Arbor native Ben Cowan. The video above gives you a guided tour of Cowan's paintings. We also interviewed the artist about growing up in Ann Arbor, his influences, and how he came to create the works from his Neighborhood Views series, which have ended up finding permanent homes in the library.

Q: You grew up in Ann Arbor. Any specific memories of coming to the library as a kid?
A: An early memory I have from growing up in Ann Arbor and going to the AADL as a kid is the summer reading programs. I remember desperately wanting to earn bookmarks and other prizes for reading books. As a middle school and high schooler, in the pre-internet streaming days, the library was the place I discovered all kinds of music, classic movies, and art documentaries. Frequently I could be spotted checking out as many art books as I could carry home. In the video discussing my paintings I describe the library as a place of "equality." I picked that word specifically, not to be buzzword savvy but because I really think it's true. The library is one of the few places that any individual who has a lot or a little can access so much information and resources. I always wander the aisles of libraries looking for things I didn’t know about, take a couple books to a chair and learn something.

Q: What schools did you go to and were there any art teachers along the way who inspired & encouraged you?
A: I went to Haisley Elementary, Forsythe Middle School, and one year at Pioneer High School before transferring and finishing at Washtenaw Technical Middle College (WTMC).

Middle school was when art became a strong focus for me personally and the Forsythe art teacher Mrs. Austin gave me a tremendous amount of freedom and encouragement. Her art class was by far my favorite hour of the day.

High school was an interesting time of life. I found a home working behind the scenes of the Pioneer Theater Guild. I designed a few of the show posters, one stage set, and learned to paint faux-wood panels. Meanwhile, during some of my summers, I was attending Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. It was here I met Patrick Schmidt, a wonderful painter and teacher, and he was the first to challenge me to think and see like an artist.

At WTMC, I was able to pursue an associate degree in graphic design along with fulfilling high school academic credits. The entire teaching staff in the graphic design and art departments were phenomenal. The seriousness of the classes and expectation of quality really pushed me as such a young student. I don’t think you can get away with this at WTMC now, but I was able to craft a schedule allowing me to graduate late and fill my class load with non-required fine-art classes. I was so lucky to study with Fred Horowitz, Jon Onye Lockard, and Elaine Wilson.

Q: How did the AADL come to acquire your paintings?
A: The three paintings are from a series named Neighborhood View. I painted these at the finale of my grad school studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. ... Bloomington reminded me so much of Ann Arbor and I really thought of these works as a hybrid of both landscapes. I tried to put everything in these paintings that I had experienced and remembered. Rather than paint directly from a specific location, I developed these paintings in my studio from memories of views while walking around and paintings of art history. This buffer of time allowed for the more imaginative space, multiple references, and paint handling that is present in the work.

Q: Any particular influences on this paintings?
A: A lot of different art influences inspired these paintings. There is some post-impressionism, mainly Vuillard, specifically a piece at the Art Institute of Chicago called Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller. Plus a variety of more modern and contemporary painters like Josef Albers, Fairfield Porter, Jonas Wood, and certainly David Hockney. I was very interested in early Northern Renaissance paintings while working on this series. Paintings from that period illustrate a narrative across the landscape and will often have what we understand to be distorted spaces and exaggerated proportions. What’s exciting is how your eye navigates through the distant spaces and the artists craft little pockets where separate events of a bigger story are happening. The painting is seen all at once, unlike a movie or TV show, but with sustained time observing the painting can reveal a sub or supporting narrative.

Q: When did you move to NYC? How often do you come back to A2?
A: We moved to NYC in fall 2012 after living in Ann Arbor for a year and a half post-grad school. Moving was a decision to live in a bigger city with more opportunities and more diversity. Then the opportunity to work for Jeff Koons as a painting assistant came and enable me to move with my family to the Big Apple. I try to get back to Ann Arbor about once a year to visit family and friends.

Current AADL Art Exhibits:
2017 AIA Honors Award Exhibit through February 27
Coloring with the Masters: Quilts Based on Selected Artists' Work, Aussome Study Group through February 27
Real and Surreal: Art Teachers as Artists through March 16

Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.