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A Portrait of Love and Defiance

A painting of two women with their faces pressed closely together.
Savannah E. Bowman, “the sister’s”, oil & acrylic on 16×20 canvas paper.

When it came time to plan the show art for Antigone, Director Gabrielle Randle-Bent knew right away who she wanted to work with: Savannah E. Bowman. A Hyde Park native, multi-hyphenate artist, and accomplished graduate of the University of Chicago, Savannah has a stunning portfolio that celebrates the Black experience. Her art was a perfect fit. 

Associate Director of Marketing Camille Oswald and Marketing Intern Eleni Lefakis recently spoke with Savannah about her work, her history with the University, and her painting “the sister’s”, the show art for Antigone


Do you have an artist statement? 

A person sits in front of a partially-completed painting.
Photo of Savannah E. Bowman; courtesy of the artist.

I do. As a Black artist from the South Side of Chicago, my career objectives have always been centered on celebrating the beauty and complexity of Black culture and identity; I want to create work that empowers. My portfolio uses detailed portraiture to challenge narratives that misrepresent marginalized people and to showcase their resilience and their complexity. It can be done so intricately through portraiture because a face is something that’s so recognizable. I like to paint all different kinds of faces.

Beyond painting, I consider myself a multi-hyphenate artist. I have such a different array of interests and passions, from painting to woodworking to sewing. Ever since I was little, I’ve always thought on the right side of the brain; I was drawn to anything that allowed me to be creative. I think my parents recognized that from early on, and they really did what they could to support me. I got a sewing machine and I was at the Hyde Park Art Center constantly. Later, in my time at UChicago, I was doing woodworking and metalworking at the shops, and I was exposed to all different kinds of mediums. I’m also really interested in clay and porcelain, which I just got into again – also through UChicago! Whatever the medium is, I try to find a way to make it my own. I always try to circle back to the story I’m trying to tell. 

What’s your relationship with UChicago?

A person builds a pot out of clay.
Photo of Savannah E. Bowman; courtesy of the artist.

I have a really long relationship with UChicago, both as a community member and a student. During high school, I completed a four-year program called the Collegiate Scholars Program, which allowed talented CPS students to take courses at UChicago during the summer. I’m a graduate of Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park and I took college bridge courses during my senior year of high school, which were also at the university. Finally, I’m also an alumna of the University of Chicago, where I studied Visual Arts. I recently graduated in June of 2023.

Congratulations!

Thank you. At UChicago, I was exposed to so many incredible artists, who I both learned about and learned from. We were taught by incredible people: Amber Ginsburg, Pope.L, Theaster Gates, Julia Phillips. Artists who really have such an incredible breadth of work.

Pope.L was a prolific artist and professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts and the Theater and Performance Studies program. Pope.L passed away on December 23, 2023 at the age of 68. Our condolences go out to his family, friends, colleagues, students, and everyone who was touched by his work.

Beyond that, in the curriculum, there’s such a strong foundation of artistic principles, various techniques, and critical thinking. That’s so important because the work goes beyond making art: it’s how you’re thinking about your work and how it’s being perceived beyond the studio. We were given access to some of the most incredible resources through the university: the media center, the woodshop. I took incredible classes that allowed me to enhance my portfolio as an artist and classes that exposed me to mediums I never would have considered. In a number of ways, the university has absolutely shaped my artwork and my career as an artist.

Creation of “hair therapy”; video courtesy of the artist.

My thesis advisor was Pope.L, who’s an incredible artist, but also one of the amazing faculty in the Department of Visual Arts. I have this piece called “hair therapy”, and it features two subjects. One subject is getting their hair done by the other. I wanted to focus on the subjects themselves, and I didn’t want to do much with the background of the piece. I remember when Pope.L first saw the piece, he asked me about why I didn’t create a background. By not filling it in, you allow the audience to inform the background – the subjects could be at their cousin’s house, they could be in the middle of the universe, they could be anywhere.

What you have to realize, though, is that, when you put something like this out there, the audience will draw their own conclusions about where your subjects are in space and time. That goes for all your pieces. Once it goes beyond your studio, once it goes beyond where you’ve created it, it’s subject to the perception of everyone. That was the type of critical thinking that we were doing in class, and it had such an impact because I had never really thought about that! When I was making my pieces, I would just, you know, make them [laughs]. There’s so much to be said about how we respond to work, and how it’s perceived, and even just how people talk about it. A large portion of the art classes were not only about the making of the work, but also about the critiquing of work. Being able to sit and take a whole class to talk about your peers’ work and respond to it – to talk about what worked and what didn’t work – was incredibly helpful in understanding how people think about your art and how you can grow as an artist. 

You raise a really interesting point about the audience filling in the gaps, because it’s the same with a piece of theatre, right? There are 250 people in our house, and that means that there will be 250 versions of this play. The work itself is only part of an audience member’s experience – the rest of it is informed but what they map onto it. It’s interesting to see the parallels between mediums that are ostensibly so different. 

Absolutely, and that’s just kind of what makes me so drawn to art. There are so many ways to interpret it, there are so many ways to understand it. Everyone can take away something of their own. That’s what makes it so, so beautiful.

Can you share your inspiration behind “the sister’s” and why you chose to paint it as you did?

A painting of two women with their faces pressed closely together.
“the sister’s”, oil & acrylic on 16×20 canvas paper; courtesy of the artist.

This piece was originally made for my Advanced Painting midterm. My teacher had us do a series of a few pieces, each of which we did in under an hour. I forget what the timing was, but they were just supposed to be quick studies.

So you did this in less than an hour?

Yeah, I think this one was the 45-minute one.

That’s nothing! Wow!

Thank you! I feel like this piece looks more gestural, more painterly maybe? My professor originally wanted me to add text over it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that because I really liked how I painted them. It would’ve just changed the piece completely. I wanted to use a more accessible surface, so I opted for canvas paper. It provides that clean look of the canvas, but it’s way more portable, and that adds to the feel of this piece. As for the pose, I really wanted to proceed with portraiture, but find a more interesting position. I thought this pose was more dynamic, and yet, incredibly intimate. There’s no one else that you’d be this close to, besides a sibling or a significant other. The subjects kind of look alike, and they are so aligned, that I think I was able to kind of capture that closeness. That’s how “the sister’s” was born.

Shifting focus to the literal sisters in this piece, what stood out to you about Antigone?

It was a good read! Through Antigone and her defiance of Creon’s laws, the play raises questions about the clash between personal ethics and societal norms; how we look at power and authority, especially between an individual and a state. Another thing that really stood out to me was Antigone’s role as a tragic heroine. She was so committed to burying her brother, despite the consequences, and I think the audience really can empathize with that. It’s just such an awful position to be in, but there’s also something so incredibly powerful about what she represents.

How does “the sister’s” connect to that story? 

It’s a reflection of the relationship between the sisters in Antigone. Their relationship is really characterized by love and loyalty, but also this contrasting attitude towards authority and duty to the law. My piece characterizes the general tragedy in the family and both sisters facing their fates: Antigone being condemned to death for disobedience and Ismene being left to mourn her. I feel like my piece could be representative of that snapshot, in which they’re both realizing that tragedy. 

Do you think that viewing “the sister’s” and Antigone side by side reveals anything new about the play or about the artwork?

Savannah: It reframed a pivotal moment for me. I won’t say what that moment was – no spoilers! – but I will say that it shaped my understanding of Antigone and Ismene’s relationship. That’s what I would hope to reflect in my piece: that closeness and that bravery. Their relationship is such a complex interplay of familial love, and loyalty, and differing approaches to moral responsibility. As much as I know that people will have their own interpretations, I hope that will come across clearly. When you put the works side by side, you can explore that tension between their individual conscience and the societal norms they’re working against. 

I think this was such a perfect piece for this play.


Savannah Bowman is a creative individual with a passion for art and self-expression. She channels her thoughts, feelings, and ideas through her diverse artworks, which focus on black culture & identity. Savannah enjoys exploring new creative avenues and challenging herself with new mediums and techniques. With strong presentation practice, leadership abilities, and exceptional written and communication skills, Savannah is poised to make an impact in the media, marketing, fashion, and business industries. More information about Savannah and her art can be found on her website and her Instagram.

Posted on January 17, 2024 in Productions

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