All in your head

We’ve all heard this phrase. Its meaning, generally/culturally, is that some challenge one is experiencing has taken on significance that requires an exaggeration of that challenge’s existential implications. People might also use the phrase “beating yourself up.” I don’t think Artists are immune to this. In fact, I’ll posit in this particular update on my practice that I find a lot of the Art in my Art (my practice) is in my head, or at least takes place in my thoughts. Meaning, there’s an element of making Art (with a capital “A”) that requires one to be in their head, “beating up” an idea or three.

A few things happened since my last update that motivated me to produce this short blog, using words rather than images (“yes,” as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a bit stuck “in my head” and the physical aspects of my practice have slowed down for the moment). So that’s thing number one of course- 1) “beating yourself up” as a creative when work isn’t just pouring out of your finger tips. You’ve probably guessed the “answer” to this- that the intellectual, academic, word-based part of making art is actually what distinguishes a practice from a hobby so don’t… yeah, you get it.

“Sterling, what happened?” In addition to making a small body of work recently that I acknowledged was a departure and then following it up with a smaller piece that further explored line/edge (point- I was “in my head” already about a possible new direction for my painting), in the last week I had a piece that was underway (end of the linked blog) fall to pieces on me. The epiphany moment for this piece, which was literally invaluable but at the time felt like failure, was when I realized that what the painting was teaching me was recognizing that this thing went somewhere I didn’t want it to go and stepping away (not following it, in this case). So, I pulled it off the wall, turned it over and re-stapled it to the wall where it will serve a better purpose, which is exploring some things that have happened in some smaller studies, but at scale. In fact, immediately after it came off the wall, 3 other potential substrates went up on various surfaces in my studio, with the intent to spend less time constrained by a goal and more time released to explore new things without a goal (and that’s thing #2- committing to resolving the tension between head and hand by spending time in what psychologists would call a state of “play”).

The shape I’m in

So first things first- go see the 68th annual Durham Art Guild juried show. I’m really happy with this piece (wish I had taken a pic that shows some other object for scale reference- this one is roughly 5′ from top to bottom).

I’ve also been continuing to explore the shape of the container for these containers- in a couple of cases, the shape of the canvas. Previous iterations are below, all of which I’ve written more about (here, here and here).

Below are some images of the work in progress. Relying a lot on the projector for this one. I am enjoying the way my process for generating paintings has distinct elements of fabrication, like taping off lines, that allow me to just be in the studio and execute.


I recently wrote a blog centering around the word devotion, and I think perhaps the exercise might be useful to repeat, so this time I’m choosing momentum. Mostly because I feel good about the cube installations staying on people’s radar. In addition to having work in a show recently at Lump in Raleigh (Strictly Voluntary), I’ll also be installing a piece for the next Durham Art Guild annual (68th edition) juried show (up at Truist Gallery in Durham from 10/15 to 12/3), and a friend also forwarded below to me which I wasn’t even aware existed!

I also like the idea of momentum- above I’m referring to “the impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events,” but, with a practice that is formalist in design, momentum is given a sort of twist where the driving force is a commitment (devotion!) to development. I.E., the process is the purpose.

So where is my process taking me and to what purpose? Well I’ve finished up a small series of small paintings that I think will show quite well together at some point (first image below). I also took this body of work as impetus to veer slightly. Keeping scale small, I shifted the focus from color and line to shape and edge. I am pleased with the way the shapes are in tension with the eye’s tendency to create a cube out of them, creating a good presence at a distance, and the small scale of the (small) things that happen at their edges require the viewer to view the work from very close as well.


9- days I spent in quarantine since my last update post : (

3- paintings I finished since the last time I made an update post : )

6- the opportunities y’all have remaining to see my piece in Strictly Voluntary at LUMP Gallery in Raleigh (below is my piece and one to the left by Jerstin Crosby). I’ll be gallery sitting 10/7 so come by and say hello if you’re a local!

Here’s a big one- 1,140 (the number of artists catalogued on this site).

Here’s a really big one- $20,000. It’s the amount of money I made trading bitcoins. Not… so we’ll end with a smaller one- 3 (the number of attempts I’ve made to get Instagram to unlock my account which has clearly been hacked).


We’ll get to the loaded noun above in a minute, all good stuff. I have been making smaller pieces and also, with different intent, working through some ideas or desires really by doing some small studies. One of the studies (top left of the top left photo) inspired me to start a small piece (even smaller than the ones referenced above, and close to but not square in format). I hope to take what I’m learning from working smaller and trying to do more with less, and combine these lessons with those from a couple of larger works which, while focused on tone and surface, used variation in chroma to move the viewer’s eye as well.

The composition and the application feels definitively Modernist to me, which is totally fine. I often think about the parallel between this moment in human history and the changes that society went through as it became clear that the way to live in a new and changing world was not going to answered by looking backwards in time. Perhaps it seems like I’m saying I’m looking backward in time and deciding to react to this moment in a similar way. That’s not entirely it though.

My day job in clean energy is also part of how I am reacting to this moment in time. Because of this work, I have a set of professional contacts who are not creatives. And I spent a good bit of time reading the parallel to criticism from that space- policy. A friend shared a Charles Eisenstein article from Substack with me this week. It’s about clean energy but meanders into an exploration of the idea of devotion, in the context of examining how important our intentions are in determining whether we can really leverage green/clean technology to build a new world, or if we’ll just end up building a new industrial order. By the way, “devotion” means “love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause…”. Anyway, here’s the line that did it for me- “An artist is one who does something better than it needs to be done for any foreseeable return to herself. Thus she is in the spirit of gift.”

How does this square with my practice? Well first of all, I’m not about to try to shoehorn a bunch of metaphors about climate change or late capitalism into my iconography. Also- I don’t think devotion needs to be present as an explicit intent to be content for the audience. The point, I think, of the article is that devotion is an attitude that one adopts that guides one’s actions- in the case of my practice, it is an enthusiasm for an activity. In the framing Eisenstein presents, devotion is, at its best and most altruistic, a commitment to doing the right thing the right way. I feel like this is an idea that has Modernist roots- certainly devotion to nonrepresentational painting as a way towards uncovering some type of truth was a facet of many practices in that era. And while I don’t believe in some of the silly ideas about what was universal that too many Modernists held, devotion to one’s practice is a gift in that it is better than it needs to be.

The haps

So first and foremost, the thing I am most excited about is an upcoming artist talk that Jaclyn Sanders and I are conspiring to do this Wednesday, 8/31, at 7pm EST over on Instagram.

Another cool going on that I have to tell you all about is one of the current exhibits at the Nasher Museum. Titled Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948 – 1960, it’s a great example of really good programming. The story we get is one of a young Roy attempting to find his voice by synthesizing Modernism and the idea of an avant-garde. There’s so much to process and think on- our definitions of Modernism and what it was like to investigate that epoch as lived experience; to digest European ideas about the relationship of archetype and myth to form and use that energy to transmute the stories Americans tell themselves about who we are (and what are those stories…). And his later brushstrokes were not the only time he explored abstraction (see below).

As far as paintings go, I stretched a couple, and started a sixth piece that may or may not plug in to the series of small paintings I’ve been doing. In addition to trying a smaller, horizontal format that’s also closer to a square, I’ll be using canvas with layers of sanded gesso to try to get the weave-less texture of Muslin that I enjoy about the other pieces.

Doing a Stanley

I think this is what I’m gonna start saying when I recognize a moment where I realize that what is happening on the canvas is pointing a different direction than my intentions. Stanley here is Mr Whitney, one of America’s greatest living painters and a wise man.

So, after iterating on the dilemma of wanting to have a drawing not be forced, I realized that there aren’t painting rules that say you can’t address two things at once. As the trapezoid re-emerged as a line and not a shape, it became clear- again- that a rectangular canvas has much less potential. Below are the sketches I did (just on the old phone) to explore potential canvas shapes.

So then I had to make the shaped canvas, which gave me the opportunity to practice and use some new word working knowledge. All these years and I didn’t even know I was reading my miter saw wrong.

Interesting to see the canvas shape that I delineated with tape (left) didn’t actually have 2 parallel edges- the eye can be fooled, of course (the measurements for the final shape were taken off the taped edges and the angles measured using the digital angle finder pictured above). Need to do a little more taping and do one more pass with a lighter red/pink and I think we’re good.

Something about eggs and chickens…

As I’ve followed where the painting takes me… I’ve made an interesting discovery. The drawing for a piece, when approached as a response to a pre-drawn polygon, might not be the right approach to get the most dynamic composition. I think… sometimes as an artist it’s hard to put a finger on why an image isn’t quite coming together for you, and below definitely was at that point for more than a week. The polygon might be a useful container (as an alternative to a rectangle), that creates more energy within a piece, AND (not BUT) the original impetus for both my first shaped canvas and the prior piece with a painted trapezoid that motivated me to do others was that such a non-rectilinear shape was a reaction to the drawing (rather than, as I started on this one, trying to cram a drawing into a non-rectilinear shape).

In addition to the lesson above, an implied lesson, I think, is that figuring out the relationship of a composition to a polygon/trapezoid container makes sense to figure out before proceeding with more shaped canvases (which I had sort of started on as you can see below).

Also got a few more of the small pieces started- I think the one in the first image might be done.

Staycation rules

So I love my day job, partly because the company I work for is pretty progressive relative to the rest of US workforce options (yes, I’ve made efforts to specifically be in this space and I’m glad to talk with any of you about how to go about it yourselves). Anyway, one of our policies is a mid-year break which we’ve decided to schedule during the week of Independence Day (when lots of people are off anyway). Therefore, I am in the process of staycationing.

Which involves time in the studio.

A prior update had some context for the pieces above with which I’m quite pleased. There are some nice subtle things happening, and the scale allows individual cube “surfaces” to be much more important to the entire piece. Choices become a lot more critical for sure. I’ve also decided to revisit the idea of painting a polygon “container” for the cubes directly onto the canvas (first attempt is top image below). Simplifying the paint application (I know, the list probably belies that statement) and chroma range on this one, and also scaling down because why not change several things at once. Oh and planning to have the trapezoid shape be a taped edge rather than a painted line.

Back to “painting” with light

I’ve made work in the past that made use of both photo-phosphorescent paint (below) and fluorescent paint. The series below was part of a body of daily “drawings” that I did for a period of months in the middle of 2020. Obviously, this was a pre-cursor to seeing the cubes as proxies for brushstrokes as well; there was also a fun element of chance in these in that the patterns of light absorption from shading, and impact of incorporating matte black cubes couldn’t be entirely known as I waited for the cubes to “charge up.”

I’ve recently returned to the idea of making daily drawings, since I’ve pretty much wrapped making studies and moved on to making new work. I think my practice benefits from having elements that are purely experimental; this time around though, I’m aiming towards using the daily drawings to generate compositions that can become finished pieces under glass (no reason to use up a bunch of glass or plexi, plus editing is a form of choice and intuition just as much as the automatic drawing I’ll leverage to generate them).

I’m using fluorescent paint (which appears quite different under black light) instead of photo-phosphorescent paint with this series as well. I included some initial images in my last update and there are some working photos below.

I’ve also been thinking about the piece below, an older work on paper from (?) 2020 (a friend bought the final version and I neglected to take any photos). Usually, I make choices about which tone to assign to the “face” of any particular cube with a simple pattern- there are always 3 tones, and no tone may touch itself. Clearly that’s not the case below, as this piece was an experiment in incorporating a realistic light source. Since these new pieces will be about a source of light, I thought the duality of implying there is a light source makes more sense.

Opening for Experiments in Form!

Hey Raleigh Folks, if like pizza, beer and Art you should put a pin in your calendar for next Friday, June 24, 6-8 pm and plan to come by 620 W South St for the official opening reception of Experiments in Form!

Curated by Charlotte Russell and on view at Hartwell in Raleigh, Experiments in Form features artworks by five Triangle-based artists, Sterling Bowen, Abie Harris, Mar Hester, Pete Sack, and Natalia Torres del Valle. (Charlotte says about the show)- Through their own unique process and materials, each artist experiments with spontaneity vs. control, interconnectedness, and the process of making. Below is a pic Charlotte caught of me installing an original composition made just for this show.

Back at it

Had a great vacation recently that included time In Paris where I got to visit the never disappointing Pompidou Center, as well as some great galleries. I posted about it in my IG feed and will blog about all the artists at some point.

I’m also glad to be home and back at it on a few new things I have underway.

Above is a medium size piece based on the study on the top left and is a continuation of a larger piece from 2021 (also pictured). Planning to replicate the sporadic use of lighter and darker tones to make the viewer’s move around the structure.

Also started a small series that feels like a step in a new direction- more focused on line and color and less on layers and surface (top left is technically the first piece, finished in January of this year). FYI, I’ll be updating the “in progress” posts on both works as they develop.

And I’ve started some studies for some work on paper with fluorescent paint (and yep, the intent is definitely to show them as above under black light).

Back at the studio…

Hi neighbors, or whoever you are who reads this (Mom?). Anyway, life has been just peachy here and so I’ve directed some of that energy into my studio. Yes I’m still making cubes. I’ve been painting, too.

Some of you may have seen the blog I wrote when I started the piece above. I’ve also commented that these forms seem to want to be contained but not by a rectangle. Recently an attempt to determine if a shaped canvas stretcher was the one’s destiny, by using blue painters tape, I had the happy accident of realizing maybe the polygon containers could (should?) be painted. Also really thrilled with the way the color wraps the edge of this one now that it’s stretched. Will no doubt tinker some more but getting close!

I thought the piece above was done back in 2020 but a couple months ago decided- with this one and several others- to revisit the cartoon line (original doesn’t have one actually- I tried so many times to make these work with no line but…). Sketched this one on my tablet first. Line was painted in two layers- one with a lighter, iridescent color and then the top one with a thin, darker crimson. Didn’t get the brilliant purple of the digital drawing but that’s probably impossible*. Brushing the top line repeatedly let the first line show through and pushed the crimson into a secondary, darker outline of the bottom one. *Yes, there are studies underway for what it might mean to really push line into the foreground…

Painting rules

It does of course but here I am referring to the rules I associate with my own painting. Or at least guidelines which, when followed, lead a certain direction. Who doesn’t like rules (probably lots of people, and good for them- rebel on)? Maybe a better question would be “Are rules useful?” For generating some types of painting, I would say “Yes.”

If you’ve been kind enough to read the words on this blog from time to time you’ll know I center the word formalism a lot. Formalists can have a lot of rules, I guess, or perhaps just a few. I think the general one we share is making our primary concern an attention to what our work gains from a focus on line, shape, and color. Surface should also probably should be on the list.

“But Sterling” you may say (or perhaps above was too boring to merit reading a third paragraph) “formalism sounds so empty.”

First of all- consider the viewpoint from which this argument is made (that a painting is an empty container that one must fill with something “else”). To this painter, that sound like devaluing the intuitive, the creative, the spontaneous, the impulse that is outside of words. In short- it assumes painting is more like a book than a song. I disagree, at least in the case of abstraction.

Perhaps consider this article by John Yau writing for Hyperallergic, one of the better Art e-rags around today, about the oustanding colorist Harriet Korman. Yau contends her work aspires to the state of music.

I also recently enjoyed this article by Laurie Fendrich of Two Coats of Paint (another outstanding source of art writing) where she discusses pleasure and beauty, with many references to the late David Hickey, in the context of the most recent Whitney Biennale. For the tldr crowd- there is a view of art (that I think applies broadly to abstraction) that our relationship to it is more immediate than words. The strange magic of knowing something this deeply is awe inspiring.

Maybe read this interview with Andrea Marie Breiling as well.

What does all this have to do with rules? Nothing more or less than noting that attention to and focus on the physical qualities of painting a) is a rule, b) is sort of outside language and c) isn’t “empty.”