Gallery One opens the year with new and unusual talents
By Adrian Hedden
When Ben Cowan’s son was born in 2010, the graduate of Washtenaw Community College’s graphic design program found his artistic inspiration re-ignited. The resulting works, massive, 10-foot paintings are now on display at the college’s on-campus art gallery, Gallery One.
“Having kids was an incredible influence,” Cowan said. “A person of my own making, growing in front of me – it affects how I assert the meanings behind certain images. I’ve become more critical of the metaphors.”
Cowan began teaching drawing classes at Washtenaw last year after gaining a master’s in fine arts from Indiana University and studying art abroad in Italy. But the 26-year-old first earned an associate degree in graphic design from WCC in 2003.
The locales of Indiana and his native Ann Arbor were comfortingly similar to Cowan. He said his work reflects the domestication of the towns, but also the natural beauty they have been able to retain.
“It’s about the experience of living in a neighborhood town that is still a little woodsy,” Cowan said. “You could go play in the woods but still hear your dad calling you for dinner. It’s about expressing the stories that arise there, visually.”
Cowan’s latest work includes large paintings of houses and other domestic locals, using a multitude of color paints with other attached, found media. The paintings debuted on Sept. 6 in the initial, Ann Arbor segment of Gallery One’s Emerging Artists series. They will be up through Oct. 10.
“I’m thrilled to be involved,” Cowan said. “It’s exciting to come full circle. I hope to inspire students to continue their work as well. I’m on the path and just looking to get my work out there.”
The event was organized by Gallery One’s director, Anne Rubin who was recommended to include Cowan by WCC art instructor, Elaine Wilson. Wilson served as instructor for many of Cowan’s courses and also recommended him for his teaching position in 2011.
“He (Cowan) is one of the single, most-talented artists that WCC has had in the last 12 to 15 years,” Wilson said. “He was one of the most engaged, insightful and charming students I’ve had. As an emerging artist, his work is a little rough around the edges, but he is certainly an artist to watch.”
Rubin hopes to organize two more segments of the Emerging Artist series later in the year. She will be pulling talent from Detroit in January and Grand Rapids later in the spring, but Cowan still stands out to her as an artist with a future.
“Ben is a fantastic painter, everyone should watch his career closely,” Rubin said.
For her first show of the school year, Rubin also enlisted the talent of Reed Esslinger, a May 2011 graduate with an MFA from the University of Michigan. Esslinger, 31, studied abroad from 2006 to 2009 on Reunion Island, a former French colony off the coast of Madagascar.
She had journeyed to the island to teach a term of English, but Essinger ended up living there for three years, engaging in the native culture and struggling to make friends. As a result of the trip, she said her work expresses the challenges and differing perspectives of immigration and isolation.
“I did adapt a bit, but the longer I stayed there, the more alienated I felt,” Essinger said. “I’ve pulled a lot from that experience in my work. It’s not necessarily a political statement; it’s more about general human experiences. We’ve all been outsiders.”
An installation art piece, constructed by Essinger, now occupies the back area of Gallery One. A winding corner is adorned by a thin, fabric screen as projections of anthropological documents are splashed onto the walls. Audio recordings of immigrants discussing their voyages are played over the gallery’s sound system in conjunction with the dim lights.
“It’s meant to be a dialogue between the institution of studying people and the actual lived experiences,” Essinger said. “It (the piece) creates a dichotomy between the immigrants and anthropologists.”
Essinger has staged three performances this fall, moving about the dark installation as she adds materials to it, growing the piece before audiences in the gallery metaphoric arm and body gestures. Her first performance was held on Sept. 6 and the second was on Sept. 17. The last performance will take place on Oct. 10 at 5 p.m. in Gallery One.
“We’ve never had anything like this (Essigner’s work) before at Gallery One,” Rubin said. “People seem very intrigued. The first performance went very well.”
And for the rest of their time together at Gallery One, Rubin is certain that the two artists’ works will continue to complement each other physically and in their chosen subject matters.
“They (Cowan and Essinger) are both talking about place, community and how the individual fits into all that,” she said. “Thematically it was a good fit, but I’m not unhappy with how it turned out visually either.”