GRAND MARAIS – On any given Wednesday, award-winning book illustrator and author Betsy Bowen can be found as the bass player or percussionist for the house band at the Gun Flint Tavern in this lake city. They call themselves Some Assembly Required, a fitting name for a pickup group that can vary in size at the tavern’s open mic night. And though she didn’t perform at Woodstock, Bowen, 71, identifies with the legendary music event as part of her culture group.
“I was a back-to-the-lander. That’s sort of how we thought of ourselves,” she said.
Born in the Chicago suburbs, Bowen’s back-to-the-land philosophy evolved in part from spending time as a teenager at an old homestead outside of Grand Marais. Her parents bought the acreage as a family getaway in the 1960s. Today, Bowen lives there year-round. She said living among nature offers what she calls a “bigness” that she likes. The natural world is restorative, grounding, and has shown her how the Earth works. She also participates in outdoor activities like canoeing, skiing and stacking wood.
For the past 25 years, Bowen’s primary focus — and most publicly notable work — has been creating handmade woodcut illustrations for children’s books. The stories often depict the North Woods and its wild inhabitants. While she collaborates with a variety of writers, she’s authored three children’s books. Her individual work and collaborations have earned recognition on myriad fronts (Minnesota Book Awards, John Burroughs Riverby Award, Midwest Independent Booksellers Award, Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards, among others). Calendars, cards and prints also have been produced from her woodcut illustrations.
Bowen is keen on observing nature as it exists then adding a dose of artistic license for playful measure. Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation on how she does it.
On developing interests
As a little kid, I remember my first box of crayons and what happens when you drag a crayon across the paper. That’s a magical, wonderful thing. From a young age I just had this sense of wonder about everything, but particularly in the natural world and art-making. How do things work? What are we seeing? How do they work together? I still have that.
I was encouraged as a kid. My parents kept my little drawings and filed them in the place where they file things, which made it seem like, “Well, of course it’s important.” In early college, I really learned to draw and look carefully at something, then put it on paper. Observation drawing. I love that.
I like the cycle of the seasons. It still fascinates me how daily activities change so drastically from the high summer to the high winter.
On outdoors becoming art
There’s something I don’t completely understand, or ever have, about when there’s an idea in my mind, then I put a pencil to paper. I don’t know how I did that. It’s kind of a wonderful mystery.
What I like best is to be outdoors and to actually have seen the moose or walked through the birch tree forest. But there’s also the spirit of it, to sense the light, how the air moves, the sounds, the weather. Somehow, I think that affects the outcome of what I do.
Let’s say I’ve got this idea for a print of chickadees. I’ll watch them in a bird feeder and make some sketches. Maybe it’s a scribble, a rough draft. It’s not in detail because I won’t necessarily use that sketch. But it’s a way of paying attention.
Then I need to carve the design into wood. So, that’s the part where I’m really specific about my choices for exactly where I cut those lines. That’s the unchangeable bit. By that point, if I need the eye to look just right, I might view photos of that bird. For instance, I’ll see the eye is really in the black part of the bird not in the white part. There’s so much more visual information when I really look.
On personification of animals
I don’t like bears with Google eyes. I think that’s dumb. But it’s pretty easy to think of bears wearing scarves. I carved a print, “The Bears’ Triathlon.” So, they’re swimming, running and biking. I made another group of bears decorating a holiday tree, and they’re wearing cute red scarves. Of course, actual bears aren’t out and about in December nor do they really wear red scarves. But it’s a cheerful image. It’s also not in a book about what bears really do. The artwork I do is stylized, not photorealism. To me, the artistic sense gives a feel of a bear that is different from a photograph.
Recognition that the books are valuable in communicating the value of nature is wonderful encouragement, a pat on the back and very much appreciated. My focus is on taking that support and hopefully continuing to apply love of nature into the next work that I do.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.