Fame and fortune are not on John Bower’s list of aspirations. Some might describe the 76-year-old as a recluse artist.
The first thing to strike visitors to his Newington home is an oil painting of John Bower Sr. on his lawnmower.
“He loved driving the lawnmower,” Bower Jr. says. “I miss my dad, I really do.”
If someone were to paint his portrait an appropriate setting might be the basement, his fortress for creating.
Bower considers himself a painter-hoarder. Hundreds of pieces are stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling of this makeshift cellar studio. It’s like the secret back room of a museum gallery, where the rarest, most valuable work stays in hiding. Don’t ask him to sell any.
“It’s hard for me to part with them,” Bower says. “I feel like enclosing the house in bubble wrap and moving and starting all over again.”
He cuts his own mats on a drafting board in the cellar and uses molding to frame each piece himself.
It’s hard to believe Bower when he says he has no formal art education. There is no limit to his subject matter, which ranges from abstract close-ups of objects to lifelike landscapes and portraits.
“Right now I’m interested in the front doorways of old houses,” he says.
A paintbrush follows his whims from lifelike to cartoonish, with every wrinkle and corner precisely defined. Many pieces depict shorelines scenes from Martha’s Vineyard, where Bower and his life-partner Carol spent many summers.
It’s easy to tell they are bird lovers. Giant seagulls and piping plovers dwarf small, realistic depictions of ships and bicycles on the same canvas. People, places and things take on whimsical identities in Bower’s brushstrokes.
He loves angles.
Though it appears to be a living extension of the cellar itself, Bower estimated his collection began about 20 years ago. Very few have ever seen any of the work up until recently, when a squadron of art freedom-runners arrived at the doorstep to the Bower home.
Local residents Ann Garbiel and Peggy Smolack pleaded with him to showcase a few works in the Newington Senior & Disabled Center, where the friendly ladies have taken on official volunteer curator duties.
“John is so humble,” Smolack says. “Our jaws just dropped when we saw how much art he had. It’s difficult to get your own signature as an artist but he’s really found his.”
Before retiring Smolack was a teacher and Garbiel, a graphic artist. They formed a committee in 2010 with the mission to find and display the talents of local seniors while enhancing the ambience of the senior center. Director Dianne Stone asked them to curate meeting rooms, offices and the café.
“There is this perfect intersection of needing to beautify the center and showcasing the beautiful work seniors are doing in town,” Stone explains. “It has touched every corner of our building, and people really react to it.”
The concept of older folks immersing themselves in a creative release is not a new one. Much has been written about the significant benefits art therapy has on dementia patients, for example.
“We may not have time for creative pursuits when we’re younger,” Stone says. “But once we’re finished with all these busy, important things we can harness the creativity we had all along.”
In Bower’s mind, creative expression has the power to transcend time.
“You start with crayons when you’re little and then get married and have a family and get away from it,” he says. “But as you get older sometimes you go back. It gives older people a sense of freedom, an escape from the rough realities of life.”
He grew up in Elmwood, (Conard H.S. ’59) and served as a Navy Gunner’s Mate on the U.S.S. Gainard 706, a Sumner-class destroyer. Later on he worked in a small silk-screen printing shop and did construction.
Bower spent 20 years of his adult life living in New Britain before he and Carol moved to Newington 12 years ago. The couple has no children of their own, but spends as much time as they can with their two nieces and three grand-nieces. They relish in the outdoors, where he captures the beauty of nature and people enjoying it on camera. The Farmington River is a favorite destination to swim and watch kayakers float by.
Sometimes Bower uses one of his photographs as inspiration for a painting, and other times he paints from real life.
A piece hanging in the senior center café depicts a woman in a wheelchair, encompassed by a glorious sunset. Carolyn Ruth Cartland, stricken with a rare muscular disease that rendered her immobile by age 13, was a family friend. Bower painted her portrait on the porch of her Old Lyme home, where she loved to sit and look out at the ocean.
“She will be remembered for her sharp wit, intelligence, integrity and courage,” he wrote in a description of the piece, which focused on the life of his dear friend.
Translating an idea or a moment into a work of art can be challenging, but that’s what drives Bower onward.
“It can put me through a lot of turmoil,” he says. “My need to achieve something is expressed in my work and it has given me self-satisfaction. I’m just a visual person; it’s like I can’t get away from it.”
The work of John Bower will be on display at the Newington Senior & Disabled Center, 120 Cedar St., through February.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or email@example.com.