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The tactics of tyrants:
a conversation with Chuck Bowden


SO, WE HAVE THIS KID WHO SORT of looks like George, who says, `I am your president, I am not a terrorist," Chuck Bowden began, walking me through the The Tactics of Tyrants Are Always Transparent, the drawing on the table in front of us. The light in the Fortuna coffee shop was dim and I pushed my glasses up on my nose, studying the details of the now infamous piece. Bowden's pencil and ballpoint pen drawing was no larger than 11-by-14 inches, a little bitty thing really, considering the avalanche of press the image has been generating since it was removed from the Redwood Art Association's Member Exhibition back in November.

Christmas music played in the background and a blender whirred. I turned my tape recorder up a notch. "And then on his clothes, it says, `My dad is not a wimp,' `Love me, I'm Supreme Court elected,' `Pre-emptive strikes rule,' and also `New World lyncher's justice'," Bowden continued. "And in his right hand, he has a little toy hand grenade which is connected by a small cord over to the Twin Towers -- it says, `Don't ask questions'; and then in his left hand he has this dripping blood which goes into a bucket labeled `911 blood.'"

Bowden paused, studying the image. "And so, then, he's on the grave of freedom, and the headstone says, `For facism to flourish, freedom must die.' Then on top of that is written, `Homeland Security blanket -- we terrorize, you obey.' So -- what "The Blue Kids" drawingelse? His shirt is covered with little bombs."

["The Blue Kids" ball point drawing (1975)]

"Really? I thought they were drops of blood," I said.

"No, they're little bombs, with a little fuse, you know. I'm primitive there." Bowden grinned, reminding me of a small boy, then returned to the drawing, serious again. "We have the people jumping from the towers so we have the 9/11 event to justify what's written on the horizon, which is `Perma Wars,' which is exactly what happened after 9/11, a state of Perma War."

Bowden continued to make his case for Bush's involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but by now I was only half-listening, mesmerized by the power of the drawing itself. Like most people, I had only seen the grainy newspaper reproductions of The Tactics of Tyrants until I met with Bowden, the ones that accompanied all those news stories surrounding the controversial removal of the piece from the RAA's exhibit, after it had been awarded second place by judge Robert Hudson. The board of the RAA, representing a group of around 500 local artists, maintains that the piece had to be removed because Bowden's stated insurance value of $35,000 was unsupportable, but Bowden continues to believe the piece was "banned" because of its content.

Content and hullabaloo aside, the drawing itself is a spellbinding tour de force, displaying a photo-realistic technical virtuosity the likes of which I haven't witnessed locally since Mike Gallarda packed up and moved to Mexico three years ago. The composition is flawless, and the execution of his concept -- whether you buy into his controversial ideas or not -- is nothing short of brilliant.

I complimented Bowden on the mastery of his medium and he showed me some older drawings from his portfolio, all portraits, all much more conservative than The Tactics of Tyrants. I studied a masterful piece featuring five children holding hands on a wide sidewalk in a picturesque neighborhood, dated from the mid-'70s. I knew from newspaper reports that Bowden is 45, and did a quick calculation. I couldn't believe it. "How old were you when you drew this?" I asked. "Sixteen?" He nodded.

"I've been considered a master at this stuff ever since I was a kid," Bowden told me. "I've always used pencil and ballpoint pen. The pencils I use are 9H to 4B, but the blackest blacks with a pencil are maybe 85 percent -- to get up to 100 percent black, I use ball point pens so I get a full range of blackness, which a photo can't."

Bowden says the material for most of his drawings comes from old photographs. (The little boy in The Tactics of Tyrants, for example, came from that chilling photo by Diane Arbus, Child with a Toy Hand Grenade, Central Park, NYC, coincidentally on exhibit at San Francisco's MOMA through Feb. 8.) "I'm not looking just to copy a photo, my idea is to surpass the capabilities of the camera -- I might be the only one doing that. I'm a freak of nature."

We continued going through Bowden's portfolio and I noted that The Tactics of Tyrants was the only politically oriented piece included. He told me he planned to have several more anti-war drawings completed by the time he hangs his show at Robert Duerksen's gallery in January.

"Anti-war artwork has more or less been my direction since the mid-'90s," Bowden told me. "Before that I was trying to achieve technical perfection -- I wanted to achieve something that was beyond what anyone had ever seen. I was fixated on that -- I still am, kind of."

I asked Bowden about his background and discovered he was a military brat, born in Panama. I asked if his father, who served in the Army, was conservative.

"Very," Bowden answered. "You don't get any more conservative. We have a good relationship but we don't talk politics -- it's off limits." I asked how someone from a military family had turned out to be such a radical.

"It goes back to at least the second grade when the teacher told us about the dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima," Bowden said. "The idea that was described to me, of people's shadows left on the wall because of the instantaneous flash of the nuclear bomb -- reverse shadows because the body would have blocked the light and your shadow would have been white. Everything else around it would have been burned black. That image was burned in my brain and made a big impression."

Bowden also said he grew up watching The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone rather than cartoons. "Their perceptions generally incorporated the big picture, the whole planet," he said. "It might have started there."

Prior to moving to Humboldt County in 1983, Bowden made his living as an illustrator for such high-end accounts as Bank of America, Porsche, Nissan, ComputerLand and Royal Cruise Lines. He says he had a gallery in Ferndale for a time, but now makes his living selling antiques on eBay. He tells me his fine art isn't for sale, which he admits may have contributed to the problem with the RAA.

"That's one of the dilemmas with showing in an art show like this. They require some kind of insurance value, but I've never drawn fine art to sell. It's never been my goal or motivation. Why would I conform my efforts to some theoretical market that might be buying? Why wouldn't I just be inspired to create to the best of my ability?"

Chuck Bowden's work can be seen in January at Humboldt Carpet Showroom at the Gallery, corner of Second and G streets in Old Town Eureka, with an Arts Alive! opening on Jan. 3.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via


There's so much good art being produced on the North Coast, it's difficult to narrow my favorite exhibits down to only 10, but here goes (arranged by date):

"Art of the Northwest" The exhibit at the Morris Graves Museum, which opened in February, featured 11 paintings created by some of the heavyweights of the Northwest School, including Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Wesley Wehr and the museum's namesake, Morris Graves.

"Empire Squared" An exhibition of seven paintings by seven members of the Empire Squared gang at Humboldt Coffee and Chocolates in February. Each painting in the exhibit was a collaborative effort of all the participating artists, including Donovan Clark, Rachel Grusin, Keenan Hand, Jeremy Hara, Anayansi Ricketts, Katherine Simon and Forest Stearns.

McVicker/Benson Exhibit A joint exhibition at HSU's First Street Gallery in March, featuring plein air paintings by local virtuoso painters Jim McVicker and Bob Benson.

"Seven Women" An exhibit at the Graves in March and April, featuring the work of Lori Goodman, Nancy Head, Marie Kelleher-Roy, Lorraine B. Miller-Wolf, Iris Schenke, Kathleen Zeppegno and the incomparable Amy Uyeki.

"Bridal Trail" Included in the Kinetic Sculpture Race in May, June Moxon's performance art extravaganza featured the kinetic wonder horse "Sparkle" and a complete bridal party, and culminated in the "Weird Wedding" of racers Scott Cocking and Acacia O'Quinn.

Gus Clark's open studio The debut of Clark's new studio (on Second and C in Eureka) coincided with the North Coast Open Studios Tour in June and featured hundreds of new expressionist paintings by the prolific young artist.

"Paintings" Leslie Price's exhibit at the Graves in July, which featured "organically composed" abstract paintings inspired by Price's view out his studio window.

"Obsession Management" An exhibition of Jeff Jordan's fanciful, surrealistic paintings at the First Street Gallery in October.

"Inharmonious" Duane Flatmo and the Rural Burl Mural Bureau's entertaining and colorful mural, which was mounted in November on the corner of Fifth and F streets in downtown Eureka.

"Redwood Art Association's 47th Annual All-Member Exhibition" Unfortunately overshadowed by the controversial removal of Chuck Bowden's piece, the November-December exhibit featured 193 works by local artists, including the masterful watercolor "Spirit Fishing Fading Light" by Robert Frederick Berryman, which took Best of Show.



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