(Eccentric artist Gary Bowling has transformed the third floor of an historic city landmark into a gallery of bizarre "out of this world" art featuring the best in unorthodox figures, paintings, and sculptures.)
WRITTEN BY: TONY HAMPTON
Alright Ladies & Gents. Please fasten your seatbelts, because we are going to take a trip to an art gallery. In case if you are wondering which gallery that we are going to visit? Scratch
off the New York Metropolitan Museum or Art. The gallery that we are traveling to is approximately 637.4 miles southwest of New York, located in a city on the southern tip of the state of West Virginia. Yes, you heard correctly, West Virginia.
Before you back down on this trip, one thing that I will say is that this particular gallery is a gallery that is entirely "out of this world" not because it's in the state of West Virginia. If you are a huge fan of unorthodox art, I STRONGLY suggest to come along for the ride. The city that we are visiting is Bluefield, West Virginia, and the name of the gallery is "Gary Bowling's House Of Art."
BLUEFIELD, WEST VIRGINIA
Located on the southern tip of West Virginia bordering the commonwealth of Virginia, Bluefield, West Virginia along with it's twin brother Bluefield, Virginia, served as hubs of
During the coal industry boom in the early 1900's, Bluefield, West VirginiaVersion:
was at that time the second largest city in the state of West Virginia with a mini skyline.
Besides once being the center of coal manufacturing and the Norfolk & Western railways, Bluefield was also the center of retail. During the mid 1900’s until the early 1980’s, Bluefield’s downtown was filled with individuals staying at exclusive hotels such as the old historic Matz Hotel (which was later owned by the Milner Corporation in Detroit, MI) and the West Virginia Hotel which was the tallest skyline in downtown Bluefield, West Virginia.
During that time period, individuals shopped or visited many of the local as well as even national retail chain stores such as JC Penney, Leggett (later Belk Department Stores), and Montgomery Ward each located side by side of another. Surprisingly, Downtown Bluefield’s atmosphere during that time period resembled Manhattan’s skyline however in a smaller city form.
In the early 1980’s, slowly but surely, Bluefield, West Virginia’s businesses and population started to decline. In 2012, Bluefield, West Virginia lost its only remaining supermarket Kroger Inc that had been in the city for over 50 years. As the city continues to struggle with business, industry and population loss, the only thing that is going great is Gary Bowling’s House of Art.
Gary Bowling’s House of Art is located in the slightly vacant downtown Bluefield, West Virginia. The gallery’s first location was at a building that used to house an appliance store. However in the mid 2000’s, the House of Art moved into it’s new home right across the street occupying the third floor of the Greater Bluefield Arts and Crafts Center.
The Greater Bluefield Arts and Crafts Center was the former home to Bluefield, West Virginia City Hall, which housed the office of the mayor, city courts, the city library, the city transportation offices, and the city’s police department and jail. The city built new offices two blocks away converting the old building into the city’s arts center.
So friends what’s so great about Gary Bowling’s House of Art compared to the New York Metropolitan Museum or Art & the Modern Museum of Art? Well like I mentioned earlier, Gary Bowling’s House of Art is one of the national or international art galleries featuring abnormal types of art. Gary’s art is so unorthodox, like some Bluefieldians commented, “You have to be on Speed (the drug) to understand his art!” No worries, Gary isn’t on Speed or any harmful narcotic. Nope, Gary’s simply an artist with a unusual creative imagination.
WHAT MAKES GARY’S ART SO UNUSUAL?
THE THIRD FLOOR:
Well as soon as you make the long hike up a spacious stairwell onto the third floor of the Greater Bluefield Area Arts & Crafts Center you are first greeted by an “It?” “It?” is an abnormal being that is dressed head to toe in authentic country and western attire with a lighted lasso (holiday decoration lights) attached onto his shoulder. “It?” welcomes out of state visitors holding a Wild Wonderful West Virginia license plate.
|"IT?" Greets guests at Gary Bowling's House of Art in Bluefield, West Virginia.|
After saying hello to “It?” walk around the third floor foyer and stationed on a table paper mashie Egyptian Cleopatra with a Hawaiian Lai around her neck.
|Cleopatra, Hawaiian Style|
After saying hello to Cleo, there is a paper mache pooch either ready to attack or ready to greet.
|Paper Mache Pooch & The Joker Meter.|
On the other side of the pooch, with a devilish grin in his face is no other than the grimly “Joker” from “Batman.” However, the face of the “Joker” used to be a former Bluefield, West Virginia city parking meter. Now, continue down the hallway into the actual “House of Art,” & see more eccentric works of art.
|Gary Bowling's "House of Art" Open For Business.|
WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF ART:
|"Come On In. I won't bite."|
After receiving an unorthodox greeting on the third floor outside of the gallery, go inside the House of Art. “Brace yourself, because it’s going to be an interesting experience.”
When walking inside the gallery, the “Gallery Greeter,” a 5’6 mannequin dressed in a black Gary Bowling’s House of Art T-shirt, short shorts, and fishnet stockings greets guests.
|Gary Bowling's House Hostess.|
Even if the greeter can’t verbally greet guests, she directs guests into the gallery.
When walking into the gallery, art enthusiasts are overwhelmed with center displays
such as to the left of the entrance is a “Hillbilly Ensemble,” featuring the old fashion musicians of Appalachia.
Seated in the audience near the stage holding a 22 rifle, with barrel positioned towards the neck with blood stains on the chest and overalls, a Mountaineer “listens” to the sweet sounds of Appalachian music.
|"Mountaineer Mark" with his 22-rifle.|
Walking around the stage, stationed to the left is a Caribbean themed tiki lounge.
When customers order or pay for food, beverages, hanging on top of the Arabic style counter is a mannequin dressed in a red dress playing a sousaphone.
I hope everyone is with me so far?
When walking further into the gallery to the left near the “Hillbilly Ensemble,” are the ensemble’s other instruments featuring guitars, a trumpet, a alto saxophone, and another sousaphone.
To the right, hanging on the walls are paintings of Van Goh style as well as a little Rembrandt, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Appalachian style portraits.
Walking down onto the mid center of the gallery, to the left, is the S.S. Minnow ship wheel from the hit CBS television show “Gilligan’s Island” actually donated from “Gilligan & Mary Ann” (Bob Denver & Dawn Wells) who Bob Denver retired to the Bluefield area in the 1980's.
|The original S.S. Minnow wheel from the 1964 CBS Sitcom "Gilligan's Island."|
Now, walking past the S.S. Minnow, a variety of monsters, and psychedelic photographs which some actually stare at you with eyes moving around seeing whose there.
Looking up towards the ceiling, are old 38’s and 45’s (records)& designers plates are dangling from a swinging hammock.
Facing the center standing at a whopping 20 tons, a paper mache Elephant dressed in traditional Indian gems greeting gallery guests.
Turing to right of the elephant, parked on a shelf is a blue Geo (Chevrolet) Tracker with miniature green Gremlins buckled ready to drive on the open road.
Before approaching the exterior doorway leading onto the third floor foyer a Buccaneer skeleton hangs on the wall grinning.
I am not exaggerating this is real.
STEP OUTSIDE & SEE THE MURAL:
Walking down the long winding stairwell of the Arts & Crafts Center onto the main floor, it’s now time to go outside and walk across the street into the gallery parking lot. The gallery parking lot was the former site of a Bluefield Hospital that was torn down in the late 1970’s. Now, featured on a long concrete wall is a mural of psycadelic characters painted by Charleston, South Carolina artist and former Bluefield, West Virginia native (This is name) “Patch Whiskey.”
|The mural of "Patch Whisky."|
“Patch Whiskey” was former student of Gary Bowling as well as great friend. Patch has painted throughout the United States and has recently painted the mural of the exact site where the hospital that he was born once stood.
“I was actually born where I painted that mural 32-years ago.” Patch Whisky described. The mural is vibrant in color as well as in texture and is presently being adored by many Bluefieldians and gallery visitors.
ENTERING THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF ART:
Every October, Gary Bowling features a Haunted House of Art on the fourth floor of the Greater Bluefield Arts & Crafts Center. This section of the gallery is a very interesting one especially during the Halloween season because it’s a combination of staged and unstaged hauntings.
|Going Up To The Fourth Floor.|
When entering into the Haunted House of Art the first thing that many guests notice is that the hallway is narrow and there are white cages poking out. The reason is because the location of the Haunted House of Art formally served as the Bluefield, West Virginia Police Department & City Jail.
|All Photo Courtesies of Gary Bowling's House of Art|
While walking through this hideous exhibit, many individuals spot the sight of red blood on the walls of each cage. The scary thing is that some of the red blood stains were actually real. Back when the fourth floor was home to the Bluefield City Jail, there have been reports that inmates were attacked by other inmates and even police officers. There have also been a couple of incarceration homicides and suicides as well. In essence, some of the exhibits that Gary features such an mannequins hanging from the ceiling and mannequins seated in the electric chair really happened on the fourth floor at the old jail.
|Photo Courtesy of Gary Bowling's House Of Art.|
THROUGH THE UNUSUAL EYES OF GARY BOWLING:
|ARTIST GARY BOWLING|
Just about all of the madness featured either standing tall or on the walls of Gary Bowling’s House of Art was created by Bowling himself along with a host of other artists.
Gary Bowling, a 64-year old native of Bluefield, West Virginia has set the tone in the city’s fine arts as well as arts throughout the state of West Virginia. A self-taught artist, Gary has done magnificent works both locally and nationally. His local works include painting a mural in the children’s wing of Bluefield Regional Medical Center the city’s current hospital. Gary’s national achievements include painting Easter eggs for the White House.
“Actually, I did Easter eggs for Barbara Bush & Nancy Reagan. Went to the White House. I have some of my work in Phillip Moore’s Collection, Mc Donnell’s Collection.
I have a few good things and I have sold paintings because of the pure nature of going to me moving and going to the some of the largest arts shows in the nation to people around
the world, and right now this is my only source that you can see my work other than a website. Right now, I am just focused right here. I live and breathe underneath this everyday.” Gary Bowling describes.
Many of Gary’s works have really captured the eyes of art enthusiasts including younger enthusiasts. Most of Gary’s works attract mainly children up to young adults (3 to 50) years of age. Currently, Bluefield, West Virginia produces young artists that have worked with Gary or that have a natural gift of the fine arts.
“I like the art studio, what it represents & how the artists have done their works. I like the detail that it represents. When it comes to art, it has to have some kind of symbolism. Has to be symbolic and detailed.” Fellow Bluefield, West Virginia artist Laquay Slade describes.
Currently, Bluefield’s young artists include “Patch Whiskey (Fine Arts), Isaac Preston (Fine Art, Music, and Poetry), Kim Bost (Fine Arts), Laquay Slade (Fine Arts, Music) Annie Schor (Fine Arts), Randy Gilpin (Fine Art Photography), Marcus Constantino (Photography and Journalism), Ashley Froy (Theatrical Arts), Danny Cameron (Film), and Terrance Flack (Film).
“The past six years, I have decided to get involved with Downtown Bluefield, West Virginia where I grew up because we are in a economically depressed area and I am
trying to use my talents and what I have learned through life to help other young artists and other people as I tell young people that they have the power to change their
community, they need to get involved & reaching out to the artistic community as well as the performing arts because we do have an unusual art gallery as far as the state and we
do open mic and things like that.” Bowling describes.
One of Gary Bowling’s prized artists that he has taught and has influenced greatly as a teacher as well as friend is now one of Bowling’s right hand men at his gallery. Isaac Preston.
Preston, a 26-year old Bluefield resident and artist is a graduate of West Virginia University holding a degree in Geology. Preston is an all around artist with concentrations such as fine art, music, and poetry. Preston was drawn to Gary Bowling’s House of Art participating in one of Gary’s open mic sessions as a musician then broadening interests in the field of fine art.
“Gary has helped a lot with my growing as an artist but the artist’s involved with the gallery has helped me out as well. Don’t get me wrong Gary has been a great influence but to not make this a Gary hero worship deal, I’ll focus more so on the gallery itself as opposed to just Gary. All of the artists around seventeen or so who are involved with the gallery and the eight or so who show up regularly have helped me out, a lot of them through encouraging words and tips. From that and just being able to take in the atmosphere and to see the faces of people seeing the gallery for the first time has been the fuel that feeds my fire as an artist.” Preston describes.
Gary is also describes his gallery as non=profit organization and all artists including him are volunteers.
“The House of Art is a 501 C non-profit and that being said, we are the only non-profit in America that we do not have a paid staff including myself. No one gets paid to operate and be here. We use the funds to buy art supplies for the children that live in the community & we’re trying to show a different side of Appalachia, the spirit of the people other than the stigma that we have living in Appalachia. We’re planting seeds and encouraging people here that they can do their talents like it’s a small world and they can just be seen. Somebody to be supportive and tell them that they can make a difference.” Bowling discusses.
The interesting thing is that many of Gary’s sculptures such as the parking meter faces, monsters, etc are all created from guess where? The garbage. Gary transforms what once garbage thrown into the dumpster into quality exotic pieces of art.
“His gallery in my opinion Bluefield, West Virginia doesn’t have things like this. His (Gary) gallery holds forms of art that I would never imagine being the area taking hand made art to the next level to a New York style gallery. It’s very expressive and it’s definitely one of those arts that Gary turns one man’s trash into another man’s treasure.” Bluefield thespian Ashley Froy describes.
As I mentioned before, obviously, there are some individuals that speak otherwise about Gary’s gallery. According to sources in city, they describe Gary’s works to be somewhat unethical, unappreciated, and inappropriate especially in some of the sculptures and paintings. However of course, there are some that feel confident about the House of Art and the art itself.
“I believe that Gary is an outstanding artist and Gary Bowling's House of Art has become a destination for southern West Virginia. I believe this art gallery, in its creativity is unequaled in WV and possibly in this country. GBHOA is the center of a growing art community and a classroom and studio for numerous art forms. Entering GBHOA is like stepping into another world and the viewer is offered a unique art experience that many of our residents, as well as visitors from around our country, would never have an opportunity to see apart from this venue.” Bluefield, West Virginia Mayor Linda Whalen explains.
Gary Bowling has no plans to retire as an artist. He hopes to keep his art and gallery alive even after he passes on. He hopes that someone with the zest of enthusiasm in fine eccentric art would carry on with his legacy and keep the gallery and eccentric art alive and well to pass from generation to generation.
So readers, I hope you enjoyed the wonderful trip to Gary Bowling’s House of Art in Wild Wonderful West Virginia. I hope in the near future to personally travel to this venue and see for yourself the unorthodox unusualness that the House of Art features. I promise after an interesting tour you will know that there is simply no exaggeration to the method of Gary’s artistic madness.