Color vision CoverArtist: Imagination and color are elemental in Mandy Chowen's artwork
"I couldn't have done [my art] 15 years ago, even though that might have been a fantasy of mine. I had to be able to become an artist first." - Mandy Chowen
by Norma Smith Olson
"My inner girl reminds me to be a girl. She reminds me I need to dance, to play, and, I think, most important, to look at things as if I've never seen them before. Like it's the first time I've seen something," said this month's cover artist, Mandy Chowen. "That's really valuable for me as a visual artist. To get into the mind of a 5- or 6-year-old, to look at a scene as if I have no idea what it is and I have to try to interpret it. It brings the subject that I'm looking at to a different level."
Often that level is elemental. Shape, light and color are motivating forces for Chowen when she paints. Her initial response to these elements is always emotional, visceral, she said.
To generate ideas for her paintings, Chowen sketches with colored pencils or watercolors to get a "color inspiration"-a random color combination without a particular subject in mind. She calls it "color vision-because I get these colors that are so vibrant in my head. The trick is to try to get it on paper or canvas," she said.
The sketches lead most often to one of two directions, imagined landscapes or portraits.
Snapshots in time
This month's cover art, "Hat," is a portrait of Chowen's niece, who was around 5 or 6 years old at the time. The painting conveys the vibrancy of a young girl at a picnic on a perfect summer day. "She's very positive, very spirited, very intelligent. I think I captured a bit of that," Chowen said.
When a child herself, Chowen said, she was always drawing. She was good at it and encouraged, especially by her mother who is also an artist. "The family has kind of a genetic tendency to draw or paint ... or whatever." When growing up near Clearwater, Minn., she accompanied her mom to art fairs to sell her mother's pottery and fiber arts.
As a college student, she found herself on a different path however-science. "I was fascinated by science," she said, studying bio-medical science and receiving her degree from St. Cloud State University in the mid-1990s. She taught science at the high-school level for 15 years, and continued painting as a "release," especially in the summer months.
Her love of science and nature often seeps into her paintings in explorations of ecology. "I have thought a lot about the connection between the environment and people's influence on it," Chowen said. She describes these paintings as "'imagined landscapes,' representing what a future landscape might look like, an altered, almost beautiful, kind of a mechanical environment."
She likes the balance of shifting her attention between painting landscapes and portraits. "With landscapes it's often just imagined color combinations. It gives me the freedom to just play. With a portrait, I'm trying to capture a likeness. It's more structured," she said. "I need that-the freedom of making something up vs. capturing the likeness of an individual where I have to focus."
After traveling and living in many different places, including Montreal and the Bahamas, Chowen isn't surprised that she's living not too far from her central Minnesota roots. These days, she lives with her husband and 5-year-old daughter in the Lowertown artists' community in downtown St. Paul.
Whether studying science or painting-including being a protégée in the mentorship program through WARM (Women Artists Registry of Minnesota)-teaching or traveling, Chowen has focused on following her heart. But, she acknowledged that an artist's path takes planning. "It's taken a lot of steps," she said. "The point at where I am right now-considering myself as a full-time artist-has been in the works for maybe 15 years. I couldn't have done it 15 years ago, even though that might have been a fantasy of mine. I had to be able to become an artist first. I had to be able to have the skill to paint. I've embraced everything that came my way. The time is right. It's been a logical progression."