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How They See #42 with Johan Lowie: "Simplicity makes you think"

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How They See

May 8 · Issue #42 · View online

How They See will help you to meet artists from all over the globe and understand their perception of art.

ON VACATION

Published weekly on Saturday.


I am proud and happy with this weeks interview. At the beginning of the march, I got a message on Instagram from Johan that I was recommended by one of his friends and a question whether I would like to talk with him. I was shocked, it was the first time such a situation happened to me.
What is more, I have found Johan’s art extremely interesting. The fact that he is working in various styles and medium kept me busy looking for more information. Suddenly I notice a statement on his website that the inspiration for his landscape painting is the views around his house. Mental pictures were taken while walking. I caught myself thinking how simple yet thought-provoking and emotional such a subject of matter is.
You can find more about Johan Lowie on Instagram or his website.

You grew up in Ypres, Belgium. A place that has a quite big meaning in the history of the modern world. How was it to live there?
There’s fire in the sky
At rainbow’s end
I see it flashing among the
gray clouds.
Very quiet, and peaceful on one hand but somewhat disconcerting, living with the relics of war around us. Back then it was a very sleepy town, the summers deserted. The winters had something magical because of the architecture and how the light was used to light the buildings and the light in the many constructions in different architectural styles. I use to spend a lot of time walking, one day I would walk the town at night, the other I would go out in nature. I did like the contrast of city/nature, morning/night, it is something you still see reflected in my art. That’s how and where I created my fantasies. By a strange quirk of faith, Ypres became the place where they set up the provincial art museum, I use to visit the place on a weekly basis, where I was always alone with all the art, magic.
How was it for you to develop yourself as an artist in a family with artistic roots? I have read that your mother was a singer and your father a sculptor.
The horizon of my childhood.
As a very young kid, you don’t think there’s anything else, your immediate family is your world. I was never forced to go into arts, I had a very clear understanding that I could do anything I want. I realized soon that the regular school, teachings were not for me. One teacher use to bring my drawings to show my parents. In the end, my father encouraged me to follow an artistic career. The moment I went to art school I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Johan Lowie, Example one: A typical example of how I show my work. Left "The mews" right "creatures at night"
Johan Lowie, Example one: A typical example of how I show my work. Left "The mews" right "creatures at night"
What do you remember the most from your childhood?
The stranger inside me
In the valley
you stood there
clenching your fists
Sitting, thinking about a sandwich.
Is it too late?
The stream is below
zigzagging through your soul
Not far from home.
There are so many things; having an out of body experience when I was struck by a car at the age of 13, the many visits of my father’s eccentric friends, our weekly visit to Brussels which I loved. The travels with my dad to restoration jobs he had in the summer. One of the commissions was in a monastery, I was 8 and remember the silence, serenity and simplicity of the place, this gave me a huge notion of peace and composition. The visits to the studio of an artist, friend of the family and all the others studios, The smell of oil paint, the smell of flowers in the spring. The fireplace in my dad’s studio in winter. My friends, with whom I’m still in contact, all magic.
“Johan Lowie usually has a number of paintings in process at the same time”. This is a skill that I am finding difficult in my own humble practice. Is there any special reason why you work this way? You are using various techniques, so it is not only about oil paints.
A painting is like a novel, a drawing a poem.
I used to have this exercise where I would spend my day making completely different work, not only different styles and techniques but also calculated or intuitive. I wanted to see how far my creativity would take me. In a way, it’s still going on but in a more broader scale. Art has never been a journey for me, always a discovery, always seeing what’s in there, in the little gray cells.
In my oil paintings I work with glazes a lot, this alone asks for patience and a waiting period between the layers of paint, because of this I have a couple of paintings I work on in the beginning stages. When I finish a painting I use all my focus on that one work till it’s finished.
I have a work schedule where I start and sometimes end my day with line exercises, these set the tone for the day. Although I love to have set days I also love to break the habit. Since I focus all day on my work, I spend the time sketching out new ideas or work out other projects. In a way, I find it magical not knowing what the day will bring artistically.
I still draw the figure from a model and there I do the same thing from pure copying the form to feel what’s inside the model to abstracting the figure. Eventually, everything is going to melt together.
Your art is a mix of figurative and abstract works. Is there any connection between these currents in your work?
“When working from intuition can we discover a piece of the puzzle of our existence ?”
The first and simple connection is that they are all made by me. But I’m going towards a simple goal: to portray an emotion in an abstract basic setting. Simplicity makes you think, also it can’t hide mediocrity. Mondriaan did it for composition, that’s where I want to end up. I’m afraid sometimes getting there because what’s after that? So, maybe confronted with the fear of an end? Both help each other going forward. One is calculated, one intuitive. The discoveries feed each other.
Sometimes I’m confronted with the suggestion that I don’t have a style. I always feel like an outsider when confronted with this question, am I the only one? I have never been interested in a style because it becomes a prison. Then the question is also, is the form or style that ables you to recognize the artist? What about the medium, subject matter? We are so used to see just a small part of the oeuvre of the artist in museums, that we get the idea that’s all they do. This is one of the reasons to study an artist, to see the sketchbooks of artists.
Johan Lowie, portrait taken in the studio
Johan Lowie, portrait taken in the studio
I was especially struck by your landscapes. I am not only impressed by their aesthetics but also that you are mainly inspired by the surroundings around your home.
I am fascinated by how a certain moment can evoke so much emotion, I’m looking for those moments. When I walk and it happens, I stop and look at everything around me, colors, shapes, composition. I take a mental picture and start working on it, simplifying it in the process. I wanted to give landscapes another fresh start. I don’t use figures in those works because the figure tends to draw attention to the emotion and I want to give the viewer that privilege, when you close your eyes you can step into the landscape.
What role do feelings and emotions play in your work? It is not difficult to find such references pointing to these directions on your website.
To be emotional about a piece of artwork is the best reward. The aesthetic experience of emotion, that’s what I’m set out to answer. But it’s also, the battle between intellect and emotion that is interesting to me.
Do you have any feelings towards pages from old books or newspapers, which are the base of your collages? I treat books like relics.
I have a friend who is a book dealer, he often brings me books that are unrepairable, missing pages and so on, I use those books. I’m not using complete books. I like the old pages because of the pattern, color. Some old books have very good paper even for watercolor.
Johan Lowie, "A light divided" large landscape,  oil on canvas 180 x110 cm
Johan Lowie, "A light divided" large landscape, oil on canvas 180 x110 cm
“He says he knows when a work is complete when it tells him it’s complete”. It reminds me of Agnes Martin waiting for the inspiration. Do you really engage in a dialogue with your art?
Yes all the time, I think mostly in images. This is also one of the reasons I sometimes work a very long time on a painting. At a certain point everything you add, every color you change has no more relevance to the work. When the emotion is what I intended, I know it’s done.
Do you miss Europe?
Yes, I do. I am fortunate though to experience living in different cultures. I guess it’s like my work in a way.
Johan Lowie, Hurt, charcoal and acrylic, an emotion about war
Johan Lowie, Hurt, charcoal and acrylic, an emotion about war
Do you have any thoughts on art in the US vs. Europe?
All people are the same, it’s what they make us to believe that gives the notion of opposition. It’s interesting but I have friends in the US that are very similar to my European ones. The US is an enormous country with an incredibly diverse population, definitely where I live. Because of the distances, the logistics of putting up or finding an exhibit are much more cumbersome.
Can you give some advice to any self-taught artist or designer?
Drawing is discovering what your mind is up to.
Draw as much as you can, it will give you ideas, experience and confidence. Try out techniques. Give up immediately or never, make that choice early.
We meet strangers on our path through life, each one giving us a present, a bag, small or large filled with knowledge. The bags have rips, holes in them, it’s up to us to mend them.
“Aujourd'hui, je suis ce que je suis
Nous sommes qui nous sommes
Et tout ca, c'est la somme
Du pollen dont on s'est nourri”
“Today, I am who I am
We are who we are
And everything is, as it is
The pollen which we feed on”
(text by Jean Cormier)
What is your favorite color?
We are all colors of the sun.
I would say blue, but I have an intriguing relationship with green, it’s considered a secondary color but that bothers me. It is so present in our world together with blue and still difficult to use in a composition. Have you ever looked at the green used in Jan Van Eyck’s paintings, like the robe in the Arnolfini portrait? Just remarkable. It’s the first color I look at in a painting, it’s the color I spend most time mixing.
Thank you for reading my art newsletter! 🙏
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Have a great week!
Piotr
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