One day, when the Asheville-area artist Rowan Farrell was hanging some of her enigmatic work for an exhibition, a bystander approached. “What kind of coffee do you drink?” he wanted to know in some wonderment, gazing at the brilliantly colored, archetypal figures that seem to squirm, wriggle and dance across Rowan’s canvases. In Rowan’s artistic universe, symbols and shapes from our collective past spark ancient memories, unsolved mysteries and long-forgotten rituals. “I’ve noticed folks with a background in anthropology often find something engaging in my work,” Rowan says.
This month, a collection of new work comes to Hendersonville’s Conn-Artist Gallery in the solo exhibition Deeper Than Dreams, Rowan’s first solo show since 2010’s Curandera at the Jongo Java gallery. A few reworked pieces from that earlier show will also be on exhibit at Conn-Artist.
“Her vivid paintings evoke the ancient traditions of world cultures,” anthropologist Jerri Manning has written of Rowan’s images, a perceptive comment given Rowan’s exposure to those cultures and their mythologies as a young girl, thanks to the two strong women, both artists, who took her education in hand. One was her mother, the abstract artist Sally Aasen, whose ethereal paintings and collage-like assemblies form a strong bond with her daughter’s work, and who made sure Rowan was exposed to contemporary art through reading and visiting museums and galleries. The second early influence in Rowan’s heritage was her maternal grandmother, June Daily, who worked in ceramics and led a free-spirited life unusual for a woman of her time and place — early 20th century, rural Louisiana and Mississippi, where Rowan, now 43 and the mother of three children, spent her own childhood. “Both of these potent women introduced art as a spacious domain where we can liberate ourselves and create refuge from a harsh world,” Rowan says.
By the time Rowan arrived with her family in Atlanta, where she graduated from high school and enrolled in the Atlanta College of Art, her gifts were noticed by two other women with assertive credentials in the male-dominated world of contemporary art. The colorist painter Marcia Cohen, who has just completed a residency at the American Academy in Rome under a grant from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she teaches, honed Rowan’s drawing skills; while the late contemporary artist Mildred Thompson especially attracted Rowan with her series of vibrantly colored “Magnetic Field” paintings, rooted in European expressionism and inspired by Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.
Rowan’s own work draws heavily on that world view, as well as on elements of the Wise Woman movement, celebrating the generative power of femininity and the nurturing and healing provided by women from the earliest days of human culture. “Painting is very much an extension of this tradition for me,” Rowan says. “It’s a way to explore and perhaps convey experiences of “we” rather than just “I”: collective stories.”
Incorporating imagery from a rich tapestry of world cultures, Rowan’s brightly colored palette bursts from the frame in a swirl of forms and designs too primordial to attach to any one tradition. Frequently seen is an open-armed figure placed prominently in the design intended, Rowan says, to portray the open heart and acceptance of human diversity. “It’s an intuitive process beginning with a feeling sometimes from a dream, song or poem,” Rowan says of her creative path. “The ideas, from life experience and love of indigenous cultures, are layered in.” Found objects also find their way into the works on display in Deeper Than Dreams, including bits and pieces contributed by her children.
The allusive nature of the work reveals meaning slowly. “I didn’t know what to think,” Conn-Artist owner Connie Vlahoulis says of her first exposure to Rowan’s work. “The images seemed like some kind of dark art.” But when Connie began a course of body therapy treatments, she ended up consulting with Rowan, who maintains such a practice along with her art-making. Connie discovered not only a new sense of well-being, but a new appreciation of the healing power of Rowan’s artwork. “I realized that the message of love and healing in her art and her business was so deeply personal, yet universal,” says Connie. The result is the new work on show this month, created with the support of the North Carolina Arts Council, which awarded Rowan a Regional Artist grant to produce the 15 gouache, ink and collage paintings created over a two-year period of what Rowan calls “liberating soul food. Inspiration comes from dreams, visions, suffering, loss, healing, ecstatic experiences. It’s all about our relationship with The Mystery.”