By Aaris A. Schroeder
Milton Bowens, currently a ten-year resident of Sacramento, CA grew up in a military family, living in East Oakland, CA near Lake Merritt, tagging along five brothers and five sisters in Oakland has been a long time avid visual artist and writer. His expertise falls in urban mix-collage or as Bowens likes to say, “Fine Art.”
“Do you rap or sing?” says one interviewer to Bowens.
“No, I paint.” He replies, which is also the name of a film, “I Just Wanna Paint” produced and directed by Sean Durant with music by Sal Lomeli Jr. and John Gabriel.
Bowens has been able to hold art show audiences at the same record numbers as those he is influenced by, classic Euro-Fine Art such as Picasso, Monet, Premiere and Latest. American artists he appreciates are Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Lipton Stein and more current artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Herring, Jean Michel Basquiat.
“A painter like this just doesn’t come along very often,” says David Bradford, head of the art department and mentor at Laney College for several years; now retired. He is directly related to why Bowens paints. He encourages him to paint.
In his adolescence, Bowens was an avid illustrator turn graffiti artist, creating images worthy of what one would see in comic books which was also an early interest of his.
Bowens is an avid comic book reader who appreciated The X-Men, Spider Man and the whole Marvel Family. Bowens began making his own comic book characters that were based o they all had super-human powers. He made up crews with characters that already existed such as Powerman, Ironfirst and Black Panther (An African Warrior, who Bowens says came before Huey Newton and could run faster than a cheetah). Bowens was highly interested in attending film school and wanted to create a film about his comic crews.
“My art is all storyboard driven,” says Bowens who also made a character based on himself as a graffiti artist in the streets of Oakland who wore a backpack, baseball cap and was always holding a milkshake A.K.A. spray paint can.
Watching graffiti artists in the film “Beat Street” get up on buildings and trains changed Bowen’s world. He was already using airbrush, so it made sense to use materials he was already familiar with to his advantage.
“I was using pictures, not just words,” says Bowens, who would go to the Delores News Stand in Downtown Oakland to pick up “The New York Paper.” This publication would feature such well-known street artists as Basket Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. Attending Law School was not enough and Bowens wasn’t getting the education he wanted; about art. He removed himself from traditional teaching.
“It helped me with early education for how the art world works. A legal form of graffiti…” says Bowens.
While bringing up Andy Warhol [Brillo Box]; directly taken from pop-culture, Bowens explains that a company adopted a campaign with milk box companies that featured missing children on the back of the box. Because it was depressing to see missing children, Bowens shares that the dairy company stopped showing the missing children due to the fact that they were losing money. The campaign was then moved to billboards and more recently to “Amber Alerts.” Bowens then adopted this idea into his, “Missing Campaign” where he had art pieces created on milk boxes called such things as “Missing My Baby Daddy,” “Missing Black Hollywood” and “Missing 100 Black Executives.” He then took the milk box campaign to another series to reflect on the environment and Mother Nature.
Bowens is not currently involved with the hip-hop community because they “don’t see eye to eye” however he calls himself an “old hip-hop head.” He created an art series called, “Pop Goes The Struggle” where he included Vibe and Source Magazine clippings and showcased several hip-hop artists with their lyrics to show how “ridiculous” their music is. He was invited to create this project through Atlantic Records but once submitted it was immediately rejected. Bowens shows people a funky and urban approach to his art but it is very controversial. A lot of people get his art misconstrued and think that he is creating “current urban or inner city art” when really it is very Americano. Bowens is from the inner city and he is urban but he is communicating a message of truth and how America responds and rejects specific ideals. “You contradict everything we sell,” says Atlantic Records, according to Bowens.
Inspiration comes from cartoons, film and stand-up comedy, such as Richard Pryor for Bowens rather than actual fine art… and that is the urban thing. Bowens believes that The Wu-Tang Clan did not reinvent hip-hop however they were unique because their sound and metaphors are all surrounded around watching Kung-Fu films. Bowens says that to build a hip-hop group around a bunch of monks where each emcee has a unique skills is one of the dopest ideas.
“I have a calculated approach [to my art]. I have chosen to deal with the African American experience. I am not dealing with the continent. It deals time to time with the journey to America but mainly slavery [and] reconstruction. History is only as valid as the historian. How this little displaced group of people; a handful of Africans to America, this group of people have had a tremendous impact on the world. What do you paint about?” concerns Bowens about reasons to why he paints.
Bowens creates his art by starting with his journal; setting a frame for his art. Once he goes through his writings, Bowens begins with concepts and titled; i.e. headlines. He then uses mediums and tools such as aerosol, stencil, acrylics, handmade stickers, rollers, knives, chalk, crayons and a secret technique he uses in his wheat pasting. He lays down his masterpieces on recycled wood and other types of surfaces.
“I destroy brushes on purpose so that they put a certain grain on my canvasses [allowing it to] look like wood,” Says Bowens who also uses other media such as wood, paper, regulr canvas, windows, milk cartons, doors and tambourines.
“I look at art and how it relates to chance and luck [and] then I try to act in a gap between the two. I take a chance on trying to send a message and I am thankful if someone gets it,” says Bowens.
Bowens brings organized confusion to the stage and into the galleries with a classic, natural rhythm which he has adapted into. His art has deeper meanings and he uses pieces of America to build it.
Bowens says his position is to “give a positive message back to the community.”
“The art is education not decoration.” Says Bowens.
Bowens is a part of what artists and galleries call, ‘Art-In-Residency’ by creating multiple pieces at one time (maximizing utilities and supplies.) Bowens attaches special papers to multiple wood boards to start along with a buildup of textures and different types of paper surfaces. He uses extremely wet applications and will attach multiple boards with helps with stopping wood buckling and waiving so that the art represents itself correctly.
When asked how Bowens creates “ghost images” he responds with, “Ancient black man secret.” He explains that he came across the technique by accident and had to learn how to replicate his “mistake.”
Bowens uses other mediums such as doilies which were passed down from his grandmother who is also his first art collector. “I am from Oakland, the inner city; my family never told me I couldn’t do [art].”
Bowen’s grandmother used to press doilies to bring elegance to her home. Her whole home was decorated in doilies. Bowens also adds brown paper bags and “510;” his signature, to his pieces. Milton510 is a copyright and trademark.
“[This] poses a rhetorical question that people overlook. Questioning ownership and satirical looking at its value or place in history,” Says Bowens.
Bowens has recently completed an art series and show at Contemporary Art Gallery in Del Paso Heights which is right next door to Mama Kim’s, a Californian concept based on Southern cuisine.