Harry Bowden’s Plant on Table.
By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society
We’ve profiled a number of artists from postwar Sausalito, but I recently heard of one for the first time: painter and photographer Harry Bowden. Bowden was born in Los Angeles in 1907 and after graduating from the L.A. Art Institute, he became art director and designer with several California advertising agencies and received a number of awards for his work, according to Wikipedia. He also took up photography, working in movie studios as a still photographer.
In 1931, Bowden began studying painting at the University of California with Hans Hoffman, who influenced the Abstract Expressionist movement. Later he studied photography and painting in both New York and Los Angeles, taking various odd jobs to support himself.
By 1942 he had relocated to Sausalito to work at Marinship. After the war Bowden remained in Sausalito and exhibited his work in museums and galleries on each coast. He also became a regular exhibitor at the Sausalito Library, and is mentioned in Betsy Stroman’s history of the library, A Place of Innocent Recreations, along with co-exhibitors Val Bleeker, L. Sutton Wood and others.
The Sausalito News reported in 1949 that Bowden had won a U.S. Savings Bond in Popular Photography magazine’s $60,000 prize photo contest. The paper reported: “Bowden has been a teacher in the California School of Fine Arts, has been actively engaged in photography as a hobby for 18 years. His photos have appeared in the Architectural Forum, Building America and in Parents Magazine. Once he made a two reel movie for a bus company. He has won honorable mention in a 1947 Painting of the Year exhibit and is a free-lance artist and designer. He is a member of the San Francisco Art Association and formerly belonged to the American Abstract Artists.”
In a 1955 Sausalito News profile, Bowden said he regarded photography as a “divertissement” — an exercise that offered him an opportunity to relax so he could return to his painting with “the high concentration” he found necessary. Yet his photographs won acclaim, hanging in New York’s Museum of Art and San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor, as well as other prestigious institutions.
Bowden shied away from any discussion that photography is art. “Let’s just says it’s getting away from art,” he told the Sausalito News, and maintained that photography simply requires mastery of technique and “being capable of seeing that which lends itself to photography.” He generally spent his afternoons taking pictures, his mornings painting. He was assigned by UCLA’s library to take photographs for their archives of noted Californians. One assignment was to photograph San Francisco sculptor Benny Bufano and his studio before Bufano’s work was turned over to Stanford University. He was also assigned to do phonograph record covers for jazz pianist Paul Lingle and trad jazz band leader Turk Murphy, among others.
Of his painting, Bowden told the News, “I’ve never stopped studying . . . Renoir said that if after you turned a picture to wall for three months and then looked at it again and saw nothing to change, you had no need to go on painting.”
Bowden painted in all media but mostly oils and watercolor in understated colors, with a wide range of subjects. “The main thing is the concept,” he told the News. “As someone said the subject is not the object of a painting. As in music, you play a theme around the subject.” His favorite painters? “The bad ones — you can learn so much from them.”
In 1965 the News reported that Bowden had died at his home on Easterby Street of an apparent heart attack. Earlier the paper announced an award for one of his oil paintings, “Old Town in the Cove,” a Sausalito harbor scene. I couldn’t find a copy of that painting on the Internet, and the Historical Society, Sausalito Library and the Sausalito Foundation have no knowledge of it. If any readers can supply information about it, please notify me at email@example.com.