BETTER LIVING THROUGH ART
By Anjali Gupta
A skateboard upholstered with vinyl and studs adorns the coffee table in the living space at the Bower. The skateboards, by local artist Ethyl Shipton, grace several areas at the space. Photo by Mark Greenberg
The Bower takes the living room gallery tradition to a new level of alternative professionalism.
For the Bower’s co-director Joey Fauerso, a studio MFA program is like being briefly but willingly stranded on a deserted island. Graduate art students are cloistered in a creative incubator, an alternate reality in which visiting artists, curators, and professors are constantly coming to their studio and offering heartfelt advice, guidance, and moral support. But this emotional and creative safety net is fleeting: One day, reality unceremoniously yanks it out from under you.
“When you are in graduate school, what they don’t tell you is that you are basically paying to be able to feel important,” says Fauerso. “It’s a construct – an island where people are handing you Popsicle sticks and telling you, ‘This is really valuable. This is money.’ Then when you leave the island and return to the mainland – the real world – all you have is great expectations and a duffel bag full of friggin’ Popsicle sticks. Our reaction to that has been to pinpoint other people who are carting around huge bags full of Popsicle sticks and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to trade?'”
The Bower’s new home is a living/gallery space, whose curved windows overlook both the Pig Stand and the Planet of the Tapes. A second story outpost on South St. Mary’s Street, it is comfortably lodged between neighborhood tradition and youthful innovation. The gallery’s three co-directors – artists Fauerso, Leslee Fraser, and Michael Velliquette – met as students in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduating, the trio serendipitously found their way to Texas. For Fauerso, moving to San Antonio was simply a return to her childhood home. Fraser’s husband, a geneticist and ecologist, found work at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, sparking their joint relocation. Velliquette’s route was a convoluted, Gilligan’s Island scenario familiar to many. Recently, a growing number of artists that happen upon San Antonio’s surprisingly cozy art scene are deciding on a whim to stay indefinitely. The Bower was born soon after, in the living room of Fauerso and Velliquette’s first home on South Alamo in April 2002.
In Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco, the casual, living room gallery is a staple, a natural offshoot of ’60s style be-ins and ’70s Fluxus happenings that combined art world know-how with a functional, real-world aesthetic. The sale of the original Bower location sparked a move from the quaint Victorian on South Alamo to a stark, recently renovated industrial space at 1114 South St. Mary’s. It is a move that takes the living room gallery tradition to a new level of alternative professionalism. The new Bower occupies the second story of a renovation project spearheaded by King William-based real estate developer Steve Endo, and well-known local architect Jim Poteet. Fauerso and Velliquette managed to quickly finagle a sweet deal for a live-in/work space soon after the renovation project started. The result is a spacious, contemporary flat with a small, well-lit gallery space at its far end complete with separate staircase and entrance. This setup allows the Bower team to comfortably control the traffic through their living quarters – especially on First Fridays when things can get out of hand.
The Bower nurtures an aesthetic that appeals to a growing population of well-educated, yet professionally disenfranchised art makers, armed with the gift of the gab, impressive portfolios, and veritable truckloads of Popsicle sticks. “The old model of the artist savant is out. There are just too many artists around for that model to work anymore. Art is no longer a precious commodity,” Fauerso explains. “At the ‘Stray Show’ in Chicago, we realized that there are so many projects out there that are very similar to ours. There is a scary kind of consistency going on right now. A nice way to put it would be ‘harmony,’ and a negative way to put it would be ‘uniformity.’ We started thinking, why is this going on? What is the catalyst for this trend? Not that it is a new thing, but spaces like the Bower do seem to be on the rise. I think it is partially because there has been an explosion of young artists going through MFA programs on a national scale, basically creating this industry of the MFA. Because of this, art has become very academic. It’s not just about making work anymore – you have to be able to talk about your work, place it in a historical context – all the methods are built into the MFA equation.”
But once grad school is over, the feedback is gone. Founding a space like the Bower and creating a nurturing environment is one sure way of keeping that comforting dialogue alive.
In addition to their Bower-related duties, the three artists continue to pursue their individual careers. Fauerso’s paintings were included in the prestigious Come Forward: Emerging Art in Texas at the Dallas Museum of Art last spring. More recently, she featured in shows at the REM Gallery at Finesilver, and the “Blue Star 18” CAM group show. Velliquette is currently the assistant director of the Finesilver/FYI Gallery. His medium is video, and a recent studio visit landed him an ArtPace residency. He is also a regular contributor to Glasstire, an edgy online art magazine based in Houston. San Marcos-based Fraser, an installation artist, considers herself the least overtly career driven of the trio. “I don’t consider the Bower to be part of some grand personal design. It’s more a manifestation of a selfish need to be a part of something bigger than myself.”
Unlike other academically bent, artist-run spaces in San Antonio, like the Cactus Bra, Three Walls, Sala Diaz, the Bower exclusively showcases the work of artists from abroad, forging interstate connections through people with similar spaces and graduate school contacts. Thanks to the current, oversaturated national art scene, there is no shortage of young artists willing to eat the dual costs of travel and installation for the sole gratification of showing in a great space in a new town – even a non-commercial space like the Bower.
Velliquette, the more reserved of the two live-in directors, characterizes the gallery’s non-commercial venture as a philosophy, not a reactionary bent. “As much as you want to have success as an artist, there is always a scholastic undercurrent that commercial spaces are somehow corrupt or insincere. Joey, Leslee, and I had long discussions before we opened about honing in on where we placed ourselves within the art world and what we wanted to be as a space. We aren’t coming from a reactionary standpoint. The impetus for the whole project was not that we are starting from a disgruntled vantage point. That was very much not the feeling. The consensus was that we were more interested in the potential experience of living with the work and inviting artists into our home rather than having some totally commercial or decidedly anti-commercial space.”
The underlying message here is a simple one: smarter not bigger – a tenet articulated by a grad school professor back in Wisconsin, who also ran a successful alternative gallery space. The Bower team has taken this credo to heart, keeping it central to their curatorial mission, and has cultivated a knack for selecting fresh, whimsical work that is friendly to general audiences and the art world.