by Rachel-Nicole Urbach photographs by Nancy Neil
Whether Fred Gowland spends his evenings wooing inspiration or assembling ideas, his whimsical paintings—perhaps a winsome warthog, a lonely Turkish man, or a gaggle of geese honking in the wind—will come to fruition when the morning comes.
In his two-story Summerland in-home studio, Gowland explains the reaction his ever-changing—and semi-eccentric—work often elicits: “People come to me and
say, ‘Oh, why don’t you paint the flowers like you used to…?’”
The oil-on-canvas and watercolor painter credits fellow artists Barnaby Conrad and Jack Baker as influential associates, style mentors, and dear friends. Gowland, 70, has spent more than 35 years professionally merging charming color palettes and cheeky imagery with textural elements such as reused canvases. A Santa Barbara resident for roughly the last 30 years, Gowland has garnered a loyal admiration from his contemporaries and, more recently, their grown offspring. His latest artistic endeavor has been all about what he calls “unlearning”—by disassembling preconceived ideas of how, what, and why he chooses to paint what he paints, he has been able to find a rawer devotion to a more abstract aesthetic. “It may be my age or eyesight, but I’ve found it fun to recognize my mistakes where I used to want it to be perfect,” Gowland says.
His latest art and inspirations have transformed into an appreciation for a grotesque loveliness that accompanies authentic characters with actual flaws. Recently, he showed a series of aging women gazing from their canvas homes with looks of disdain on their faces and cigarettes in their tough hands. To his surprise, they became the most popular pieces during that show.
His sanctuary above the sea is passionately cluttered with painting paraphernalia of every kind and striking souvenirs gathered while globe-trotting—“Most of my paintings have been inspired by exotic trips: India, Africa, Asia,” recalls the artist, who has shown his works in major galleries locally and throughout California. Centering on a memory, he continues, “Ethiopia was so beautiful I couldn’t stand it. And so painful I couldn’t stand it.… It was beauty beyond belief.” His paintings of native peoples, the markets, and their architecture are among his proudest accomplishments. “Upon returning, I have become so changed—and perhaps high—from an experience, it just flows.”
Prehistoric-looking conch shells litter the floor outside his second-story bedroom, where four battered oars stand in as bedposts and his illegible artist’s scribbles adorn the bathroom door. “There is nothing more exciting than an empty canvas—it’s frightening,” says a grinning, gregarious Gowland. “I just do what I do.”
It’s impossible to not notice an indistinct humor in Gowland’s work. It is clear he thrives in wild environments and when asked, “Where to next?” he responds: “I am ready for another dangerous trip…and a camel fair.”
To read other feature articles, check out our February/March 2011 issue on stands now, or available to purchase online here.