Caleb Bowman is a renaissance man, taking the lightly trod path from agriculture to art. From a farm in Chillicothe, Mo., to the Kansas City Art Institute, graduating in 1999, he has gladly struggled to find his place.
He did the starving-artist thing in New York for a decade, followed by a soul-searching drive taking only the back roads from Missouri to Seattle. (It took three weeks.)
He holed up in the desert of Arizona, working for his keep at Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s experimental compact city. After lunching with Soleri, Bowman came to an understanding that led to his move back to Kansas City: “I learned I didn’t need his help building a city. I can build my own.”
He now resides here with wife Anna Marie Tutera and sons ages 7 and 3. He works as an artist; as owner of Constructible Inc., specializing in prototypes and construction; and as co-owner of Super Firm, a creative engine that bridges art and architecture with partner Bill Lepentis.
Q: How does your upbringing in rural Missouri affect your life?
A: In my family, I’m a city boy. When I go to New York, I’m a farm boy. When I left, my grandpa said, “Just let me know when you want to come back to civilization.”
Farm boy to art world is not a popular track, but I got there through the same values you learn on the farm: hard work and perseverance. Even drawing is hard for me; I have to work at it. I struggle, but it’s how I come to understand how to live. I step back to see how the world is.
Q: You like a challenge?
A: If you put yourself in an environment that isn’t necessarily comfortable — not putting yourself in a corner, but unfamiliar territory — it forces you to problem-solve. I like to solve problems, which comes straight from sculpture and maybe the farm, especially if something seems hard or someone told me I couldn’t do it.
I have this thing that I need to know for myself. Of course, you never just do things on your own. There are always others involved, and I love finding the person who’s going to help.
Q: You’ve spent a lot of your life couch-surfing and living in closets. How did you finally come to settle down?
A: We were living with my mother-in-law five houses up from here and were away on vacation in New York when she called and said, “I found your house.” When we walked in, the living room sold us. The design is a combination of both of our tastes.
We like clean and modern, but we want to keep the house’s historical integrity in the 21st century without making everything flat.
We have two nice pieces of furniture and that’s it. We’re waiting until the boys get a little older before we commit to that. We have to have carpeting because they like to wrestle.
Q: What is the cube in the corner of your living room?
A: The climbing cube is a prototype of a modular play structure for kids. I hate looking at nasty swing sets in backyards with nothing modern or interesting happening. We’re still stuck with red cedar structures that look like castles.
Bill and I thought, what if we make one of our own and give it a flat roof, enclose it and paint it nice colors? How can we turn art into play equipment? How can we engage parents? If you make a play sculpture ambiguous, it can become anything. Kids will come up with their own games if you give them three rocks. When things are left undefined, there’s more room for creativity.
We built a nine-cube structure for a physical therapy group for kids with autism, and their faces when they saw what we had built just for them was what we needed to see.
We’re already working on improving the design, making something reconfigurable, with puzzle pieces that function as many things. Parents should be able to put it together without instructions and lock each piece in place like Legos.
The cabinet-grade Baltic birch is what I do my drawings on, so the material was already in my repertoire. It’s durable but only for the indoors. A version made of composite concrete and wood has potential for outdoors.
Q: Is the art on the walls also your work?
A: Our house is our gallery. What’s on the walls now is work from my recent shows. I’ve always been interested in space and light and changing of perspective.
I like to make something that’s beautiful but that catches you, something that’s familiar but not loaded with context. Everybody knows horses, but they don’t notice that there’s actually 15 hidden in this one piece.
Q: Painting, sculpture, construction — you do a bit of everything, so what is your bread and butter?
A: The quickest thing I can do to support my family. I take my skills that translate from art, like construction and metal fabrication. I rarely introduce myself as an artist. I say I’m a fabricator. Prototyping implies stuff that isn’t already made.
I recently built a fence and gate, but I built it like a clock. People are more apt to get a fence done than they are to buy art, so I do both.
I’ve been forced into making a new model for making art and raising a family. If I don’t get to paint or draw, I’m miserable. It doesn’t enrich my life to just work a job. I use that pioneering spirit I admired in my grandpa and apply it to a gate or a fireplace.
Q: Are you successful?
A: I’ve had four shows since I’ve been back. My horse series is in Austin, Cincinnati and Raleigh, but is that success? I don’t have a gallery. I don’t have many people asking for art. Art does not support my children financially.
Creatively, though, there’s no doubt my kids will be cultured. We go to New York and all kinds of art shows. There are so many levels to success.
Q: What would you like to accomplish in the art world?
A: At the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, they have an annual Folly program, an international competition for projects that are a piece of art or architecture but don’t have a set function.
I would love to bring a Folly project here. We have the space. I don’t know why KC hasn’t done one already; we have a world-class art school and architects. Super Firm is taking the lead, shopping the idea around.
Bill and I enjoy coming up with the ideas, bringing people together and maybe doing the first one, but it’s bigger than us. It can really showcase what we have here.