Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer James Thompson
It’s still warm at 6pm in what I will persist is late summer, as we arrive at The John Bowen Gallery in Balsall Heath. Who is John Bowen? An 18th century blacksmith son, come carpenter, who developed many of the buildings in Balsall Heath and across Birmingham city centre, some of which still stand today. I’m told the gallery I’m currently in used to be his woodshed.
Artists (and directors) of The John Bowen Gallery, Hannah Al-Shemmeri and Rowena J Davis, sit across from me on paint splattered stools around a sizable wooden table. Hannah makes up some Rooibos tea and following a gentle debate about whether or not we’ll head to ‘The Old Mo’(seley Arms) for a curry after we’ve finished the interview, we dive into ‘the birth of the John Bowen Gallery’.
“I got this space four years ago,” says Rowena, “and I slept in it for the first year out of pure joy – I just had to shower at the gym.”
If it wasn’t obvious, Rowena adds: “It’s always been a dream of mine to have a studio.”
A studio vibe is still very much present in The John Bowen Gallery. Brushes and cups stand half washed in the sink, art-in-process is propped against more art, propped against a plush armchair. There’s music equipment in one corner that was put to good use a couple of weeks ago at the opening.
It’s nice to see a space that’s useful and multipurpose, the natural creative energy adds to the gallery’s charm. But how did this art (and sometimes music) studio become a gallery, filled wall to wall with vibrant, quirky and very much finished pieces.
Hannah says, “I think we started painting [together] round mine in lockdown. It was the first time I’d properly gotten into painting.”
Hannah was predominantly a comic and illustration artist prior to the pandemic, she’s also a member of Black Country rock band God Damn. “It was a more neat style,” she states, commenting matter of factly about her works. Neat is not a word that comes to mind when you see Hannah’s art now.
“I used to find journaling for mental health cringy, and I found words really boring. So, this is a visual thing, a way I can visualise how I feel.
“I have a lot of intrusive thoughts, and sometimes they can be jarring and they can make me feel awkward. By making mine so apparent and letting people read them, I hope others won’t feel as embarrassed about their own intrusive thoughts.”
Hannah’s works are typically very abstract: a combination of chaotic colours, sketches of blunt emotions sometimes accompanied with statements, some so grotesque you have to peep at them; round, pale, doll-like faces with heavy blush and eyeshadow against psychedelic firework backgrounds; and outlines of anthropomorphised demons and angels trekking across alien backgrounds.
Rowena’s art is more focused on the human form and informed by classical approaches. I know she does beautiful small, soft sketches of naked women from seeing her at Kaleidoscope and Ur Aunty’s Art Sale, but the art on display in the gallery is very, very bold.
One features a crucifix above a burning Satan. Another almost neon greens, purples, and yellows that bounce your eye about the canvas, and then focus them on the feminine forms posed like renaissance statues, bringing the classical into a contemporary setting.
“I’m normally in a funny mood before I get into painting,” muses Rowena with a softly furrowed brow. Choosing her words carefully, “I usually need to figure something out, but it can take me years of looking at my art to understand what that something was.
“Sometimes I never do, but it’s always expressing something, and often I don’t know exactly what I’m painting until it’s nearly finished.”
Although Hannah and Rowena’s styles are distinct, there’s a collaboration in progress on the wall to my left which could speak to the similarities they have in process. Moreover, how working in such close proximity has impacts their art.
“We really inspire each other,” smiles Rowena.
“And working in the same space gives you new techniques,” adds Hannah.
As if it’s planned, together they say: “we both love colour.”
The John Bowen Gallery is open every Saturday from 12-5pm. It’s free and you can usually find Hannah and Rowena hosting guests and, if you’re lucky, painting.
Hannah and Rowena are keen to encourage other artists, especially women and other marginalised genders in the creative community, to use the space. I confirm that they’re not limiting it just to artists.
“It could be artists,” explains Rowena, “but it could also be a musician or a band who want to perform, or even a spoken-word/poetry event.
On 24 September, the gallery will participate in Birmingham Open Studios where people from the city and beyond will have the chance to walk around Brum, taking in its artistic prowess.
The John Bowen Gallery also plans to exhibit a new artist in November, in collaboration with Nottingham based DJ collective Sunfried Tribe.