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As music hums from the car’s cabin, Andrea Kowch glides down the back roads of Michigan in search of a story. She pulls up at the water’s edge, where shipwrecks line the lake floor and lighthouses dot the shore for hundreds of miles. It is a deserted, melancholy place, the landscape of her childhood.
“The Great Lakes are commonly mistaken for oceans,” she says. “People find them hard to grasp when they see them for the first time. They are as large, deep and violent as any high sea.”
Kowch is a contemporary realist painter in the aesthetic lineage of Thomas Eakins and Andrew Wyeth. “The great Andrew Wyeth never felt the desire to paint anything other than the places, people, and things he knew best. I feel the same,” says Kowch.
The women in Kowch’s paintings stand steadfast with windows flung open, curtains and hair streaming in the wind, like lighthouses in a cruel sea. Waves hurl against the shore, birds scream and spear the fish below.
Some philosophers think that our sense of self, our identity, is perceived in the human mind as a story where we are the narrator and protagonist. Times of sorrow, love, hardship and joy are scenes in the theatre of self. Artists, too, use narrative in paintings. Kowch describes her women as “characters on a stage” where “each image is a story”.
“For me, painting is partly my way of searching,” says Kowch. “I am often asked ‘why always women?’ The women in my paintings are symbols of strength and independence,” she says.
It is liberating to view Kowch’s women, standing resolutely upon barren fields as fires blaze and crows circle; the women dance and play music, cook and feast. In contrast to the strong body language – the raised chins and open chests – we can’t but help notice the eyes. “For a long time, I associated my feelings of vulnerability with weakness,” says Kowch. She says that she tried to repress her emotions, and hide them behind a veneer of strength. But vulnerability is as keen an emotion as resoluteness, defiance and strength, and it’s the interplay of emotions that makes us human. “We can be both strong and vulnerable,” she points out. “It shouldn’t be something we try to hide.”
When we’re actors in our own plays, the scenes can get messy; there’s awkwardness, confusion, boredom, listlessness and death, and often life just doesn’t work out as planned. “There’s no telling in which direction the wind will blow,” Kowch says, who uses wind as a symbol of change and transformation. “Everything that happens to us has an effect, pushing us this way and that,” she says. “But there’s also a liberating quality to wind,” she adds. “It can move things or spiral things out of control. I’ve had whirlwind experiences in my life of both the good and the not so good.”
Kowch’s paintings remind us that the great story of our life will have its tragedies, its struggles, its times of celebration. Fires will rage, enemies will circle. But Kowch’s women face up to all this, like an open sail at sea. For Kowch, the grand act of life is to be open to whatever life throws at us, however dramatic or unexpected.
And although we mightn’t ever understand the real meaning behind our own story – and we will never know how it ends – Kowch’s women remind us to make the most of it while it lasts.