Sara Bowen
Wed, March 7, 2012 at 8:06
Stephanie Hunt

Sally Townley tells me that 46 year old Sara Bowen is the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  Sara is a print maker, creating art using paper and print.  But according to Sally there is more to Sara than meets the eye.  She has studied theology, been a punk, loves motorcycles.  A motorcycle-riding artist…now this sounds interesting.

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Making Sense of Life

Sara Bowen is an atheist.  “There is no justice,” she tells me in our second interview. “Shit happens and then it happens again.”  Art, she tells me, is her way of making sense of a world that doesn’t seem to fit together.

This is not the adrenaline charged, carefree creative that I had envisaged. I realise I’ve got it all wrong when I first sit down with Sara in Cocoa’s.  With her short-cropped straight brownish hair and wire-rimmed glasses she looks more like an academic than a carefree creative.  Her clipped Oxford English accent highlights her obvious intelligence.  She seems serious and intellectual.  But even after two interviews I’m not sure I’ve got to the bottom of this complex woman.

Over the drone of Cocoa’s espresso machine Sara tells me she was a difficult and unhappy child.  But it’s not until our more private second interview that she tells me about the assault. With some of her schoolmates looking on, 16-year-old Sara was seriously sexually assaulted after a party. “I had nowhere to hide,” she says.  Already a social misfit, the trauma of the assault and the horror of being taunted afterwards by her peers tipped Sara into dark depression.

She found no solace at home and sought no professional help.  Art might have been the way out of the dark. “I could get away from everything by doing art,” Sara recalls. But when she was accepted to art school her parents, who had high hopes for their bright child, were horrified.  Sara bowed to the pressure and ended up at Oxford studying theology.

From Speaking in Tongues exhibition, Regional Gallery, July/Aug 2011Eventually, Sara evaded the black dogs by immersing herself in helping others.  She manned the phones for the Samaritans (UK version of Lifeline) and became a buddy for a major AIDS charity. “Somehow grieving for somebody else allows you to own your own feelings and grieve for yourself,” she says.  “I was trying to heal myself and it worked.”

A stronger Sara graduated with a Masters in Theology from Oxford, created her own lingerie business and when this closed, went on to become an executive with IBM.  Things were looking up.  And then at 27 Sara met and married Andy.  “I got over the depression and I married a fraudster,” Sara says. 

Eighteen months into her marriage Sara started to realize that her husband was a lie.  “I didn’t know his real name, I didn’t know his date of birth.  I thought his family were dead and then they call up 3 years later on Christmas Eve.” By the time Sara had had Andy committed to a psychiatric hospital, and managed a DIY divorce she had lost everything.

How do you come back from that I wonder?  Sara says she has her mind and her steely character to thank for her survival.  “I do grim determination well.” She smiles ruefully.  Her early experiences destroyed any sense of the spiritual for Sara.  “But the bit that survived is my brain,” she explains.  “I can still try and figure out the world around me intellectually.”

She moved to Bristol to lick her wounds.  A friend gave her a job and then she moved on to work at the University of Bristol.  It was here that she met Michael, her husband for the last 12 years. 

Michael changed Sara’s life.  First he made her a mother, with his young son Patrick moving in early on in their relationship and their daughter Ella arriving two years after they married.  Second he encouraged her to revisit her love for art.  “You’ve always wanted to do art,” he told Sara after Ella was born.  “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and go to art school?”  And she did, earning a higher national certificate and a Masters and commencing a PhD at the University of the West of England, specializing in print making.

Six years ago Michael sparked another change.  This time a change of location, moving the family back to his homeland Australia to find better work.  In the rolling hills tucked behind Coffs Harbour Sara Bowen has truly come into her own.  “I couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago that I’d have this,” she says.  “I’ve got kids, a vegetable garden and a house that overlooks the sea.”

But she also says,“ I’m an artist” and I feel that this is what has made her whole.  Sara thinks it’s ironic that so many people look at her art and find it spiritual.  “For me art is an ongoing process of intellectual inquiry,” she explains.  Art is Sara’s way of finding truth without faith.

Perhaps her greatest intellectual journey has been her international project BookArtObject, a web based group creating artist’s books. “We take a text, the equivalent of the monthly book club selection, and then all participants make artists books in response to the text,” she explains.

The Rotating TetrahedronThe first “book” they did was a poem by Rosemary Dobson about absence. “The poem made me think of my mother’s death and my Dad in the family home without her,” Sara explains.  So she created a rotating tetrahedron (any solid figure having four plane faces) out of Japanese hand-made paper that had been printed with words about loss, pictures of her mother and the text of the poem.  “The beauty of the rotating tetrahedron is that it really mimics the idea of a hole in your life.  There’s always a space in the middle of it.”

Sara’s homage to loss was eventually exhibited and acquired and attracted more artists to the project for round two.  The group now numbers 100 and includes artists from Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Norway, Iceland, China, Canada and the United States.  “I’m not lonely anymore.” Sara smiles.

We are about to leave the café when I remember the motorcycles.  Yes, Sara explains, she did learn to ride a motorcycle in her early twenties, in the midst of her darkest days of depression. “I was terribly afraid and very depressed, but I managed to go and do it anyway, and I felt great!” Sara explains.  “For me motorbikes have always been about freedom and being a brave person.”

The motorbike turns out to be a metaphor for Sara’s life.  Sara has found happiness by staring down her fears. “I kind of feel that I’ve looked at the worst of a lot of things that can happen and so life doesn’t scare me anymore,” she says.  Without fear or blind faith to yoke her, Sara is free to explore the world on her own terms through her life and her art.

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Sara Bowen’ work is being exhibited at the Nexus Gallery in Bellingen from 4 – 30 March.                         The gallery is open from 10am to 4:30pm 7 days.

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The most interesting person Sara knows on the Coffs Coast is Willis…just Willis, no one uses his first name apparently. Sara tells me a colleague in the UK had given her Willis’ name before moving to Coffs. “Meeting him in the flesh was something of a shock,” she says.  “He had a Mohawk at the time and was only wearing board shorts!”  This rather wild sounding man takes two things very seriously: his art and his surfing.

 

 

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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