Keith Bowen,
Among the Amish
(Running Press, 1996;
Courage Books, 1998)

Is there anything new an artist can do with the Amish?

Yes. Take a look at the work of Welsh artist Keith Bowen, who painted subjects in Pennsylvania Dutch Country for the book, Among the Amish. (Published in 1996 by Running Press, reprinted in 1998 by Courage Books.)

I confess, I went to see Bowen's artwork with weary expectation. Paintings of Amish scenes and Amish people are as hackneyed as Star Barn art. (Don't get me started on Star Barn art. If you spend much time in central Pennsylvania, you'll understand.) But Bowen has avoided the tired recyclings.

Most striking to me is a trio of two-color ink sketches titled "Boy Throwing Ball." The images capture a rare action quality that belied the simplicity of the work. Bowen ranged widely in his choice of media. Besides the ink sketches, the collection includes oils, pastels and charcoals. His pastels are often fuzzy, somewhat indistinct, but no less realistic. Eye-catchers include the moody "Young Girl in Headscarf," "Two Brothers Carrying Corn" and "Harvesting Watermelons."

Nearly all of his paintings depict the Amish doing the simple things of living, at work, rest or play.

While many of Bowen's works focus on people, he doesn't always worry about faces. In the oil painting titled "Horse Auction," the story is told through the intent postures of the men, most of whom are seen only by their black coats and flat-brimmed hats. Another oil, "Grandfather, Father, Son," shows the threesome's serious mien from the side as they stare off to the left. The charcoal drawing called "Husband and Wife" is no straight portrait of a couple at rest, but a slice of real life as they toil on their farm. Neither face is visible. "I'm getting them in action," he explained. "Sometimes it's the pose that's important, not the features of the face."

Sometimes, Bowen leaves the people out of it entirely. Like, for instance, "Evening -- Horse Drinking," which leaves the farmyard in the distance and focuses instead on the horse taking its ease in a wide, slow-moving creek.

When Bowen was hired to write and illustrate a book about the Amish, he didn't know a thing about them. That, he believes, is why his portrayals of the homogenous Lancaster County culture show them in a different light than the many other artists who've captured the Amish on paper. "I didn't actually expect anything," he said. "I didn't know anything. ... Coming from away, going into it blind was an advantage. I just didn't know it at the time."

Bowen found inspiration, not by watching the Amish, but by joining them, he explained. "The best way to get that is to put the brush down and pick up the fork," he said. Working with Amish farmers as they harvested tobacco and other produce taught him more about their way of life than any number of textbooks could.

The book isn't one of the ever-growing collection of Amish textbooks on the bookshelves racks. "It is primarily a picture book, concentrating on the four seasons," Bowen said. "There's nothing scholarly or academic about it." His use of various media to portray the Amish -- oils, pastels, charcoal and ink -- is a reflection of his mood at the time he was painting.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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