When Tory Cowles talks about her work, she is animated, joyful and full of life. It’s no surprise, then, that her paintings and sculptures are animated, joyful and full of life. She works from the heart.
The daughter of an architect father and sculpture-photographer mother, her first foray into formal art was in representational painting, mostly landscapes and portraits. “I didn’t enjoy spending all that time trying to make my painting look exactly like something, so I spent more time building in 3 dimensions,” she says. She enjoyed working spatially as a carpenter, woodworker, stonewall builder and interior decorator. She found satisfaction in manipulating color, shape and texture to create something beautiful.
When a friend asked her to take an abstract painting class, she didn’t know a lot about abstraction, but she said yes, took the class and fell in love. She learned to distill the spatial elements she worked with every day into two-dimensional paintings. “Abstract freed me from the constraints of representational painting and allowed me to play with what interested me about my work in three dimensions in terms of colors, shapes and textures, and how they affect each other, talk to each other and somehow create a symphony that moves you for reasons totally unrelated to a subject matter.” Some years later, she took the means of expression she learned in two-dimensional painting back to three dimensions in the form of sculpture.
Colorful Paintings, Raw Sculptures
Hard Wired, her January 2019 show at Touchstone Gallery includes both paintings and sculpture. “It is interesting to me to see the differences and the similarities between my paintings and sculptures. I see them as extensions of each other.”
Colors, especially bright colors, are central to her 2-D work. “My abstract paintings, for many years, have focused on creating unexpected and pleasing juxtapositions of colors, shapes and textures. Beauty was often a priority,” Cowles says. She compares the colors of her paintings to the notes of a song. “Putting a minor note in a song changes the mood of the song. It changes how you hear the song. Colors in a painting have the same power as notes in a song. Changing one can change how you see the colors around it, change how your eye moves around the painting and change the whole mood of the painting. What I am trying to do is to make a symphony of colors, textures and shapes that move you visually the way music does auditorily.”
Cowles enjoys painting but is currently more focused on sculpture because she finds it more challenging. The bright colors that are a hallmark of her paintings can quickly become too busy when applied in the same way to sculptures. Instead, she works with gritty, raw found objects and farm objects, which provide wonderful textures and shapes, and more subdued colors. “What is intriguing to me is to take pieces that otherwise most people would not find interesting and try to put them together with opposite or different materials so that the two talk to each other and transform each other,” she says.
Art Founded in Spontaneity
Whether sculpting or painting, spontaneity is the foundation of Cowles’ approach to her work. “Art is the expression of a deeply held truth. To get that out, I try to bypass my analytical side and work as spontaneously, from the heart, stream-of-consciousness as I can. When I start a painting or a sculpture, I have no idea where it is going or what I want it to be.” With painting, she puts some interesting colors and shapes on the canvass and starts responding to them. “Every time I do something to the canvass, it changes everything, and I respond to it as it changes, providing just enough structure to hold it together. When I finally create something that is interesting and pleasing to me, and I put it on the wall, it gives me permission to be more spontaneous in the rest of my life.”
Cowles does the same thing with sculpture in terms of juxtaposing colors, shapes and textures, but most of the objects she works with in her sculptures have histories and meanings of their own. As a result, her sculptural work becomes more conceptual and the juxtapositions transform our perception of the materials used. “When you look at a sculpture with a blown out steel reinforced truck tire sitting on top of an old Southern heartwood pine pedestal, the juxtaposition of meanings transforms the objects. Instead of a messy piece of trash with sharp steel wires that scratch you, the elegant pedestal gives the tire legitimacy and you see it as intriguing and sophisticated. You focus on the rough flat black texture of the tire wall against the amazing curling rubber and feathery wire shapes that were created in its destruction. Or when you place lace or fine upholstery fabric next to a tangle of various wires, you see the wires differently. They become unexpectedly fluid abstract lines with wonderful negative shapes. With my sculptures, I am not focusing on beauty, but on creating interesting juxtapositions which make me see the fierce joy in the world and its objects.”
Cowles invited dancers to the opening reception for Hard Wired. Lucky guests were treated to additional art in the form of interactive dance and music. Tory does make necklaces and earrings out of metal roofing, but the inspiration for the collaborative work came from a favorite piece of corrugated metal. Cowles loved it so much that she didn’t want to cut it up, so she put a black fabric backing on the metal and started wearing it, rather like a huge necklace or a metal apron. She liked the idea, so she made some more out of chain link fencing and fine fabrics. “I thought, nobody is going to wear these, but wouldn’t they look cool on dancers.”
She showed them to friends who are dancers and to Helen Hayes, head of the Youth Ensemble for Joy of Motion Dance Studio. Hayes was also excited by the concept and offered members of her troop to perform with the sculptures at the opening. The dancers did, indeed, look very cool. Trevor Richardson, a musical artist who provides background music for movies and singers, saw the sculptures at Studio 7, Cowles’ space at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, and was intrigued by the concept as well. He provided an original soundtrack to accompany the dance performance. The integration of the sculpture, music and dance created a beautiful, unique and unfortunately ephemeral moment of art.
Art: It’s Good for the Soul
Cowles has two goals in presenting her art to the public. First, she wants to help people understand abstract art and suggest how to look at it and enjoy it. “Depending on your mood and personal needs, you travel through an abstract painting differently. It’s wonderful that a painting can be different things to different people.” In addition, she wants people to know that they can make art and that they do so in their every day lives. “When you walk into a beautiful living room, the colors and textures and shapes create a visual symphony that is similar to that created in an abstract painting. If you go into your yard and say, I need a little color here, a little height there, you are creating abstract design. Art is an integral and wonderful part of our lives, and it is good for the soul.”
What’s next for Cowles? More painting and sculpture, for sure, and she hopes to incorporate more of the bright colors of her paintings into the sculptures. Perhaps the path from 3-D craftsmanship to 2-D paintings to 3-D sculptures will be taking a new twist leading to an even more joyful destination.