This Detroit Artist Tells Vibrant Stories of the Black Experience Through Collage

Judy Bowman draws from her past to depict the Black community through acrylic paint and snipped swatches of paper.

A man in a jaunty jacket sits cross-legged, trumpet in hand. Behind him, dancers and musicians vibe in a framed portrait. The image seems to float off the page—multidimensional, in medium and in meaning. It's the work of Judy Bowman, whose work vividly depicts the Black perspective. Although Bowman came late to a career in art, her mixed-media pieces can be found in places like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Georgetown University Library. Interview with Nikki Miller-Ka

Judy Bowman
Judy Bowman. Bre’ann White

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

When I was in kindergarten, I wanted crayons, but we didn't have any at home. So I asked my teacher if I could go to the bathroom. When I was in the stall, I started stuffing crayons down my socks to take home. But I guess I was in the bathroom a little too long—the teacher came in and I was mid-thievery. I don't remember if she called my mom or told me to put them back, but I knew then I really wanted to be an artist.

You grew up in Detroit and went to college in Atlanta. How did they differ?

In Detroit, we had a middle-class life. Cut the grass on Saturday, go to church on Sunday. We had dinner at five o'clock every day. Father went to work, and Mother did all the cooking. I wasn't too political or abreast of the news and things that were going on. When I went to Atlanta, it was during the height of the Afrocentrism movement of the '70s. I was immersed in Black pride, Black culture, Black independence, Black leadership. My eyes opened to the power and the culture of the pride of Black people.

Judy Bowman art
Bowman’s Mom on Seneca depicts a scene from her childhood. Courtesy of Judy Bowman

How does your art reflect that?

Community. A place where you can be protected and where people take care of each other. That's what my work reflects. Growing up, we always had other families living with us. My parents came from the South. My father got a job as a factory worker, and we lived with another family until we could get on our feet. They took that behavior, that custom, that tradition and paid it forward.

And you ended up having a full house too, right?

My family was mesmerized by this clergyperson who said, "If every Black person adopted one child, then there would be no adoption issues." So we ended up raising 10 kids. You bring people into a safe haven, nurture 'em, love 'em.

How did you find your way to making art professionally?

When our family relocated from Atlanta to Michigan, I went to the University of Michigan-Flint to see if I could continue my art degree. They didn't have an art department, so I pursued an education degree instead. I couldn't do my art while raising kids, but when they grew up and could live on their own, I got back into it, and now I've been doing it for 35 years. A dream deferred.

What was your big break?

A gallery owner named Eric Firestone found me through Instagram and called me to be in one of his shows in New York. He has a high-end clientele of art followers and collectors, and because of that, my work went to a whole other level than what I was showcasing here in Detroit.

So why collage?

I initially went to school to be a portrait artist, but I wanted to do more narrative and figurative art and larger pieces. I wanted to tell a story. When you're doing narrative art, you have the background and foreground, people and action, movement. There's so much texture in my collages. They extend from the paper, so they have a 3D effect. And depending on which way the light hits it, the shadows change the piece and make it look like it's moving.

Which artists have shaped you?

Charles White really influenced my idea of what Black people looked like. I didn't think of us as a downtrodden, hard-on-our-luck kind of family, and I wanted to show that in my art. I think it's an artist's responsibility to show what the community is like from their perspective. Artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden tell a story through their work. I wanted to document and record the history of my community, my neighborhood.

Judy Bowman art
In Relaxing With My Blues VI, the framed photo on the wall behind the trumpeter is a scaled-down version of another of Judy Bowman’s works. She says her favorite part of making each collage is capturing the emotion in the subjects’ eyes. Courtesy of Judy Bowman

Your work is so specific to your life experience, yet it resonates widely. Why do you think that is?

People see that my art has emotion to it. Everybody has had some experience with love or family that they can look back and reflect on. I think my work connects with people because it's not very political. It's more about how to relate to each other.

What does it mean to you as a Black woman to be sharing your craft with the world?

I feel it's my responsibility to share the narrative that I've experienced as a Black person, and not the narrative of somebody from the outside looking in. Everybody is born with a gift from God. Mine was art. You can either respond to it or ignore it. And from the response that I've had with my art, I know that I was supposed to do this. I was supposed to make people feel better about themselves and better about their situation through my art.

Any advice for aspiring artists?

It doesn't matter when you do it, as long as you do it. I had so many things that stopped me from following my dream. Don't say "I'm too old"or "I don't have enough connections." Just make it work. Do it, and doors will open up.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles