January 17, 2022

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The Charcoal Drawings of Kristen Lowe

Good luck to you if you want to draw a bald eagle. Not just because of the ordinary reasons—the difficulty in capturing the jet and ivory feathers, the glinting eye—but more because of how many banal patriotic eagle renderings surround us. Bald eagles are in your wallet; they’re jangling in your coat pockets on your quarters that you roll unthinkingly into soda machines; they’re gilded on state capitols; they’re on postage stamps and truck flaps. This omnipresence renders them all but unseeable, like a single raindrop in rain—and it’s likely why the first time I saw a Kristen Lowe eagle, I felt like I had the breath knocked right out of my chest.

The work is called E Pluribus Unum. An eagle—wing feathers and tail feathers all splayed in descent, like fingers spread wide, like a landing parachute—caught in the moment it settles into its nest of sticks and litter and night-black enormity. This gargantuan nest is both bigger than you can see up close and more detailed than you can take in at a distance, just like a real one, rendered in minute detail of a thousand bits of grass and stick. Above it, the eagle’s face is intent upon the interior of the nest, absorbed in something only it can see. Babies? A delicious carcass? Regal, villainous, wild—that’s a real eagle, I thought at once. It is all the things a real thing is: vulnerable; deadly; above all, complex. To emphasize the real of the eagle versus the symbolic omnipresence of eagles, Lowe has run a horizon line of antique postage stamps through the nest. Bright and dull simultaneously, as old stamps always are, they contrast with the ultra-black of Lowe’s charcoal work. The flat and rah-rah stamps are small against this living ferocity. It’s a work that asks urgent questions, such as, This is our real country, isn’t it? Fierce and vulnerable and inextricable from everything we’ve collected?

For me, another question urgently followed: Who made this masterpiece?

Kristen Lowe. The creator of other alive-seeming charcoal works, some conveying deep unease through vulnerable sheep in cathedral-like shearing halls, others bursting with joyful busy foxes darting through foliage-rich river bottoms or shrieking ospreys crashing into spray or clashing, battling bucks. Each charcoal drawing is as full of passion and action as a still from a climactic cinematic scene.

How is it that I, a reasonably aware city type, don’t know Kristen Lowe’s name already? Her work is as distinctive, as moving, as recognizable as a Warhol or Koons. So why don’t all Minnesotans know her name? I dug in.

Girl with a No. 2 Pencil

Kristen Lowe is pure Minneapolis, born and bred, it turns out. She grew up near 54th and Penn, living with her mom, a secretary at Norwest Bank, and brother in one of the little postwar duplexes that dot the neighborhood to this day. She taught herself to draw largely with a No. 2 pencil and paper from a shelf at the local Tom Thumb and trips on her bike to the Hennepin County Library near Southdale. “I’d sit with the big Käthe Kollwitz book,” says Lowe today. “I couldn’t believe her drawings. They made me cry, they were so much about the human condition. The Leonardo da Vinci books, Rembrandt. Every single line seemed to represent something about the inner life of the artist and the inner life of what they were drawing. Hours, years, I looked at those books.”

She also had a little spiral-bound drawing pad and would go down to what everyone in that part of town calls “the crick,” Minnehaha Creek, where it winds through the city in a steep green ravine. “My family didn’t have much money, and I was down there all the time. It felt like I was in heaven—the crick. I used to catch crawfish. I remember bringing one to school for show-and-tell. I was pretty secret about my drawing then. I felt like if I told anyone about my creative abilities, they’d say, ‘Come make posters for sports.’” Still, her secret passion called. “I’d have my pencil, my pad, and I spent so much time down at the crick drawing grass. I drew so much grass, its pattern and rhythm.”

At her grandparents’ farm in Blooming Prairie, Lowe became an expert fire starter, turning pencil-sized sticks into charcoal. “My mom was a smoker, so you could always sneak matches. If you got about a pail’s worth of sticks, leaned them into sort of a tepee shape, you could make a lot of charcoal. My brother and I would draw on the inside of snow forts we made. It’s a natural human instinct, I think. When I learned that ancient people drew with charcoal in caves, it made absolute sense to me. I did, too!”

In fifth grade or so, Lowe made her first notable animal work, a lion’s head and mane that she entered into a contest. “I spent every ounce of skill I had on that and sent it off. I won an art class! My first. I remember it like it was yesterday. The teacher said, ‘Remember, don’t just draw the outline of the tree. These are cross-contour lines.’ It was one of those moments: How could I have never seen that?”

Soon enough, she was a teenager with a decent grasp of cross-contour lines, taking the bus to MCAD with her best drawings stuffed into a stiff cardboard portfolio. “Leaving it there, I wanted to cry. I was so scared. When I got in [to MCAD], it felt like a miracle. I didn’t do that well in high school, Southwest, but they wanted me anyway.”

Lowe studied with the acclaimed teacher and artist Judith Roode. “She had each of us pick one thing, one kind of pencil or one kind of charcoal, and learn to play it as loud and as soft as you could, like an instrument. To this day, I believe it to be true: You are a musician, you learn one instrument. If you’re using compressed charcoal, learn to make the softest mark you can with it and the largest mark you can. That’s how you get the biggest vocabulary with that instrument.”

Once compressed charcoal entered Lowe’s life, it never left. “No drawing tool has as much of a vocabulary as charcoal,” she says. She has a drawing kit she takes into sheep meadows and such today that’s not much more than those schoolroom-familiar slabs of pink pearl erasers, those other sorts of pencil-top erasers that come in packs of 25 for 50 cents, chamois, and charcoal. “I love everything about compressed charcoal,” says Lowe today. “It’s been around since the beginning of time. It’s this thing of the earth, and we are the earth. It’s the most fundamental, primeval connection between you and a mark.”

And that’s how you get from the Tom Thumb near Penn and 54th to the Louvre.

A Star Is Born

Lowe’s early career was meteoric. She was invited to the Louvre to make a film about three works in its permanent collection using only images and sounds, not words. At one point during a break in shooting, she lay on the floor of the closed museum at night and couldn’t believe her luck, the ornate ceiling stretching in every direction as limitless as hope. Her short documentary was so well received it would be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and become part of the education collection at the Louvre.

Lowe’s career took flight. She was written about, and her work was shown in Boston, in San Francisco; she received Minnesota State Arts Board grants; she was featured four times in columns by the Star Tribune’s art critic Mary Abbe; she starred in a segment of a public television documentary series  (TPT’s Minnesota Original); she sold out runs of work at her gallery (the Thomson Gallery in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District). Lowe was the green-eyed blonde who was toast of the downtown Wyman Building art crawls. She fell in love, married, and had a baby girl, Francesca. Her husband took over the New French Café from founders Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, and Lowe jumped in to work as a host and help out. And then everything that happens to strand and vanish mid-career women artists like Lowe happened.

The transformation of the Warehouse District from art galleries to bars and sports caught the New French and ended it. And when Bob Thomson died, the Thomson gallery closed, too. Even Lowe’s San Francisco gallery shifted focus, and she decided to pull out of there. Art moved from front burner to back; child-supporting took first priority. She and her husband divorced after the restaurant failed, and Lowe put all her energy into teaching to keep a roof over her and her daughter’s heads. She’s now a tenured professor at Gustavus in St. Peter. She shows her work at Form and Content in the North Loop, the artist’s cooperative tucked deep into a building near Demi.

I met her there to see a portion of the work that will be on display at the Hillstrom from November to January. “Artists are either glorified or damned and ignored. There’s no middle ground,” she told me as we stood in the quiet gallery. I thought, Especially artists who are women.

For Women, Talent Isn’t Enough

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) was one of the greatest painters of the 19th century, famed for her sensitive portrayals of animals. She has been an influence on Lowe, who created a mother-and-lamb tribute to Bonheur, which will be on display at the Hillstrom. In her time, Bonheur was received by queens and presidents; she was given special dispensation from the French police to wear pants, then illegal for women, as she sketched. She was long called the greatest woman painter of all time and had her first retrospective museum show, the career overview that cements an artist’s work, in 1997—nearly 100 years after her death.

Judy Chicago, born 1939, has been the most visible and famed woman artist of her generation for 50 years, and she has her first retrospective show on view in San Francisco right now, at the de Young. Critic Dodie Bellamy kicked off her review of Chicago’s show with a shameful litany of all the American women artists who labored ignored by the curatorial establishment and art world, gaining their first major shows in old age or posthumously. “Take any modern female artist with a long career and google her name plus ‘long-overdue.’ It will make you giddy,” concludes Bellamy.

Earlier this year, researchers at Monash University in Australia found that 96.1 percent of all artwork sold at auction worldwide between 2000 and 2017 was attributed to male artists. An Artnet analysis in 2019 found that, between 2008 and mid-2019, Picasso alone brought in more money than all the top 6,000 women artists in the world added together, including multimillion-dollar sellers like Yayoi Kusama. In that period, women accounted for 2 percent of art sales. In 1971, Linda Nochlin wrote a groundbreaking essay for ARTnews describing the art world’s paradox: ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ she asked, considering the dynamic of male buyers and gallerists not showing or buying work by women, and then concluding there was no market enthusiasm—which the art community takes as proof of respect and regard.

It’s not just the eternal “woman problem” that Kristen Lowe is up against. As she points out, “Since all the galleries in the Warehouse District closed, I think a lot of people in Minnesota got out of the habit of buying art here. Now they mainly buy art on vacation.”

Lowe is hoping a few of her pieces at the Hillstrom sell because she wants to put money into a scholarship fund for art majors at Gustavus. Teaching is now a great love of hers, and she remembers being a poor kid who thought art school was out of reach, burning sticks for charcoal and walking to the Tom Thumb for paper.

“It’s a guy’s game, that secondary market,” she says as we stand together in the white gallery of Form and Content, surrounded by her recent charcoal scenes nested in bright carved wooden rounds. She explains that these were inspired by a trip to Pompeii, a site of beauty inextricable from catastrophe, which feels like the right perspective on our current world. The bright carvings are the enveloping catastrophe; the charcoal animals in the center are the beauty. Lowe tells me about where in the Minnesota river bottom a particular bit of flora was captured and shows me a bird’s nest she found 25 years ago that she has been drawing ever since.

When, two hours into our talk, someone else finally enters this lonely gallery, Lowe tucks her nest back into its crumpled plastic Target bag. “I’m hoping, for me, the next 10 years are gung-ho,” she tells me, finding a promotional postcard about her show. “I mean, you’re here. That’s got to mean something?”

Go to the Hillstrom

Do this: Drive down Highway 169 to the Hillstrom before Lowe’s show closes January 25th. If along the way you see sheep out the window, consider that those might be the exact sheep Lowe has drawn—dragging her bench easel into the fields, watching the sun change the trees hour by hour.

When you get to the gallery, pick an animal. Try to decide why you’re drawn to an eagle or buck or lamb. Why does it tug your heart? Is drawing a language we forget that we know?

Consider what Lowe sees when she teaches drawing: “Drawing uses the thread between your hand and your heart,” she says. “I’ve had students who start to cry when they first get it. Their hand and heart are talking, for maybe the first time.”

Does it matter if for half the population—the women—that speech between their hands and hearts is not valued? Or has 4 percent, or even 2 percent, the value of the other half’s speech? It’s hard not to notice that Lowe’s magnificent E Pluribus Unum, her most expensive piece, costs $6,500, a pittance in an art world where it’s nothing to spend five figures to inject a decaying Damien Hirst shark with formaldehyde. Many of Lowe’s other pieces cost as little as a couple of nice dinner tickets with a wine upcharge.

Lowe regards the art market with equanimity. “To me, it’s like we’re talking about the sky,” she says. “The sky is the most democratic thing there is. No matter where you are, what your socioeconomic status, you have the sky. For me, that’s what drawing has always been. Wherever you are, you have the sky, and drawing.”

And the sky is full of eagles, to see and speak uniquely.

Battle at the River Bottom: Drawings and Videos by Kristen Lowe at the Hillstrom Museum of Art, Nov. 22–Jan. 25; 800 College Ave. W., St. Peter, 507-933-7200; gustavus.edu/finearts/hillstrom