This Is , oil, 50 x 50.
By Sally Euclaire
When B.C. Nowlin’s fans call him “a driving force” in southwestern art, they’re referring to more than just his reputation for innovation. Nowlin gets some of his best ideas while riding his motorcycles, and the overriding theme in his paintings is “the journey.”
Ironically, though, Nowlin has spent most of his life in Alameda, NM, just a few miles from where he was born in 1949. He begins every day with the same ritual: coffee, a look at the newspaper, and a rap session with the locals at Murphy’s Mule Barn & Cafe—an old Route 66 truck stop best known for its bit part in the Kirk Douglas movie Lonely Are the Brave. Although Nowlin refers to Murphy’s as his office, he really begins working as he zooms back to his studio.
“I get my best ideas on the road,” he says. “By the time I get to the studio, I’m exploding with ideas for an image. I know
Looking In , oil, 30 x 48.
exactly how the red will push against the black. When I finally get brushes in my hands and move the first pigment around, I’m breathless with anticipation. I break the brushes because I’m pushing so hard. It’s like I can feel my whole life in my hands.”
Inside his studio, which is located in a two-story 1918 adobe, Nowlin points out dozens of paintings, many still wet. Clearly he is prolific. “It doesn’t seem that way, though, when I’m puttering along,” he says. “I work in spurts. Sometimes I’ll work for 18 hours straight on one piece, then I’ll lose a week or
Since We , oil, 56 x 50
two—sometimes I just need to live! That might not always be practical, but then my art is not about art itself—it’s about life.”
Nowlin is also quick to point out that he travels in many different directions. “My galleries tell me there is tremendous breadth in my work. I guess that’s because I’m restless, so I’m always experimenting. My work constantly moves and changes.”
What doesn’t change, though, is the theme of the journey. “My subjects are always on a horse, in a boat, or on a bicycle,” Nowlin says, referring to various series dating back to the 1970s. What-ever the subject, each painting represents the artist’s own search for self. The images come almost spontaneously from his mind and his dreams—Nowlin never paints from life, nor does he use preliminary sketches, photographs, or other reference material.
The Red Colt , oil, 40 x 60.
Many people assume that the figures in his paintings are Native American because the artist is from the Southwest, but he intends them to represent all the people of the world. “I like to hear viewers say that a painting reminds them of, perhaps, Morocco. That pleases me,” Nowlin says. “And the cities in my work could be Cairo, Jerusalem, Babylon—any ancient place.” The patterns on the blankets in his paintings are not intended to be authentic Indian patterns, and the symbols woven into the fabrics usually come from the artist’s imagination.
In recent works such as Looking In and The Red Colt, Nowlin depicts a group of riders gathered before a brightly lit place, positioned so that they block what we
Is Coming , oil, 42 x 36.
imagine must be a spellbinding view. Viewers may get the impression that they—as well as the artist himself—lag behind the riders, and Nowlin agrees. “I do not yet feel that I’m one of them,” he explains. “I feel welcome there, but I don’t feel like I’m on the same plane. They are closer to the light, closer to the bright, beautiful destination.”
Nowlin has seen himself as an outsider since childhood. “I was on the edge of many cultures growing up here,” he says of the area near the Sandia Indian Reservation where he still lives. “My high school was about 86 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Indian, and 10 percent Anglo. It didn’t bother me at all to be in the Anglo minority, because it didn’t seem unusual at the time. Only later did I discover that I hadn’t had a typical American childhood.”
When Nowlin was a teenager, the Native American elders he knew surprised him by saying, “There are things we can’t talk to you about anymore.” Though this stopped him in his tracks at first, he soon came to accept his role as an outsider. “I’m comfortable now with the element of mystery,” he says, “and I won’t push to know more.”
As an adult Nowlin has found himself spiritually drawn to the Lakota Indians. “I once met a Lakota holy man at Wounded Knee who took me in,” he says. “Now I’ve been chosen by the Lakota tribe to represent them in recent problems with what they describe as false medicine men—New Age healers and others who have been coming onto Indian land to practice rites.”
Nowlin’s understanding of the Lakota has come in large part from visions. “I get full-color pictures in my mind of places where historic events have happened, like Wounded Knee,” he explains. “When I finally went to those places in person, I was amazed to see exactly what I had envisioned.”
Though many people have told Nowlin that he probably lived a past life as a Lakota Indian, he sees it differently.
“I simply believe that our consciousness is capable of sensing past events,
Did Go Far , oil, 58 x 48.
times, people, and places,” he says. “I’ve been given a gift a painful gift at times—of occasionally finding myself far away in time and place. It’s beyond conjecture, and it’s not concise or perfect, but it’s true. I’m a compassionate person who seems to have glimpses from the spirit. That is enough.”
When Nowlin first began having his Lakota visions, he decided to go to Wounded Knee, tour the Pine Ridge reservation, and be done with it. “I had other fish to fry, so to speak, but as life would have it, that trip was only the beginning. I was pulled forward by visions so distracting that I could hardly paint.”
Now his reputation has been built in part on paintings of pilgrims who resemble Plains Indians. The paintings are full of symbols and metaphors, and art critics frequently use the word myth in their reviews of his work, which Nowlin dislikes. “Myth is a smug word—it’s patronizing,” he says. “It implies false belief. It’s not a myth for the person experiencing it.”
Having said that, Nowlin sometimes catches himself using the “M” word to describe his work. “These figures exist in a type of mythic world, and the horse is the ideal means of transportation,” he says. “The position of a horse’s head means a great deal. Usually a single horse lifts its head—that is the leader of the group. Then there is a horse with a hand print on its rump, which is the blessed one.”
Although Nowlin rode horses throughout his childhood and still thinks of them as symbols of liberation and mobility, he now spends more time on motorcycles, which he calls the horses of the 20th century. “I like them because you can travel long distances and keep up with everyone else yet still be in contact with the natural world,” he says. “You’re vulnerable—open to light, wind, and smells. The motorcycle is a spiritual tool for me, part of my religion. I could write a novel on it. For me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance didn’t even scratch the surface.”
For now, though, Nowlin’s best ideas show up on canvas rather than in print. “I paint because I want to paint, because I have to paint,” he says. “The destination is in the painting itself. If I knew where I was going, I’d quit. I’m an artist in process, and this is a journey.”
Photos courtesy the artist and ADL Galleries, Aurora, CO; Gateway Gallery, Vail, CO; Aspen Grove Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Gallery One, Denver, CO; Adagio Galleries, Palm Springs, CA; and Contemporary Southwest Galleries, Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in September 1998