Guru of High Weirdness, Jack Bowman

Text from the Dayton Voice.  An article about the Performance Artist Jack Bowman by David Evans.  Written in 1996.

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by David Evans and The Dayton Voice of IMPACTWEEKLY 1927 N. Main St, Dayton Ohio 45405   e-mail impactweekly@commkey.net

"It is better to go down in infamy" proclaims Jack Bowman, "than to never go down at all!"

Tonight, Jack is doing just what he loves best -giving an impassioned reading of his own retooled brand of beatnik poetry to an eager audience of young turks who sit and listen absolutely enthralled with what he projects: power-house emotions, epic words, biting cynicism, All of it tinged with anti-establishment gripes and macabre humor.

It’s Monday night at the Daily Grind on Brown Street, one of-the newer ultra-hip coffee houses to splash onto the Dayton scene. The poetry reading -- composed of an odd cavalcade of self styled bohemians -- is approaching an angst-ridden, fever pitch filled with raucous energy friendly barbs vivid imagery and sex - yes, lots and lots of poems about sex.

Jack stands unignorably at center stage. His first feat is to show-off his most recent creation: -a series of- pictographs portraying a pair of leather and lace clad femme Wales sporting executioner's hoods and bull whips. Next he launches into a string of poems extolling the virtues of naturalistic hedonism. And as a finale, he theatrically rips an U.S. dollar bill to shreds allowing the audience, with the aid of a microphone, to hear and experience every illegally irreverent moment.

Bowman's a 52-year-old, squat, powerfully built man with a full head of silver-gray hair and golden brown eyes. His facial features are blunt yet his lips often betray, a sly Machiavellian grin. There's a quiet strength to the man- His voice is soft spoken with a slight southern drawl. There's a sense of confidence and purpose behind his every word and sentence.

He's been happily married for, 22 years. He also has two children, a daughter, Amanda, 15, and a son, Liberty, 19.

As an artist, he’s an eclectic's eclectic. By day, he's an art teacher for the Dayton Public School System. But by night, hidden away in the tiny confines of his private studio, he paints, makes prints, photographs and sculpts conceptual pieces.

Bowman's a busy boy. He also creates performance art shows (very short, very wild plays for the avant garde set). In December Jack wrote and directed a blood-curdling performance art spectacular called Ed Gein Xmas. It was based -loosely-on the life of one Ed Gein who was a notorious serial murderer, grave robber, cannibal and necrophile during the 1950s. Gein's exploits later inspired the creation of such horror film classics as Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The performance piece was a sort of Halloween meets Saint Nick meets Generation-X.  Later, after the reading Jack sat down and shared views on his own turbulent origins, the current state American society, young people and the re-birth of Ed Gein.

DAVID EVANS- Gein went on his spree of killing and grave robbing during the 1950s. How-do you remember the '50's?

JACK BOWMAN: I was a teen then. You've gotta love'em. 'Cause that's when you grew up. It, was a time of optimism. We'd won WWII and had the opportunity to reach a  higher plateau. It was a simpler time. I know people say that so much, it's a cliche. But it's true.  We had the power. When I say we, I mean my generation, the Baby Boomers. We had the numbers. We counted. The adults couldn't control us.  They couldn't even shut down rock and roll.  I tell this to my kids today, that you don't have a prayer because your numbers aren't as great as our numbers were.

Maybe it will be a great thing when the Baby Boomers finally die out.  In real life, it's not a matter of the good guys or the bad guys.   Rather, it's big numbers and small numbers that do the counting.

DE: So, tell me about your teen years. Were you a rebellious kid? A juvenile delinquent?

JB: Okay. Well we're talkin' '59, '60, '61. Those years were....well let's put it this way, they weren't really wild. Though, I was a gang leader. Although, it was a gang for defensive purposes. It was not a gang to sell drugs.

We were the Royal Rebels. There were seven or eight of us. It was kind of like, if there was another gang and they had the power, then they'd abuse you. So we banded together for protection. I believe that I understand gangs better than others. Because they're formed out of necessity. They're formed by people to keep from being suppressed. My-parents were laborers so we lived on South Park which was a low-income region of Seattle. You had a choice-you either joined or formed a gang or you let others bully you. And so, that's what we did. During my junior and senior year of high school I fought a lot.

At one point, when I was 20 and living in Kentucky, I got shot- It was a land dispute over six inches of property that ran a hundred yards through my grandfather's land. It was really over the honor of my family and that of another family. It Actually -meant nothing. It ended up in a gunfight at this service station on April 29,1970. The bullet, which came from a .38 Special, entered here [Jack indicated the right side of his chest cavity] and exited out here [indicating his back]. [Later, Jack mentioned how, as a result, he now had only one inflatable lung.]

This is why my art is about violence. Because I was subjected to so much of it as a kid. After that, and a lot of thinking, I became less violent. I -realized that there must be other ways. So, I started to pursue them.

I'm still very aware of the violence in our culture, more so than other people. I know where it comes from when someone is trying to suppress someone else, sometimes they fight back.

DE: As an Appalachian you grew up loving freedom and independence and therefore not liking the federal government too much. So why'd you join the army?

JB: In the '60s I joined the army because we were poor.  Most poor  people joined the army.

Basically the 'school system sets you- up with what it wants to set you up with... They're really good at it. I think there too good... problem is, what they're doing is conditioning kids to merely accept the culture at hand. But the rebels, won't accept it.

DE: When, did you go to Nam?

JB: Didn't go. I volunteered for Vietnam in '64 and found out I was on orders for somewhere's else. [It turned out, as Jack told me, to be Pacific Headquarters in Hawaii.].

DE. Jack. You actually, volunteered to go into combat. Why?

JB: When the war started, soldiers who were already in the army had a saying "It's not much of a war, but it's the only one we've got." And that's what sold me.   These guys, who were in there, were ready to defend this country and die for it...etc...etc. [There's a brief moment of awe and respect in Jack's expression.]  In fact, I used to get tears in my eyes when they played the National Anthem.

Now, I won't even stand up for it .. because now I realize more than ever what it's really all about.  Freedom.  It's not something you go out and die for. You've got to think about it. Maybe, it's changed. I don't know. I was willing to die but I'm not now. I don't get tears in my eyes-anymore. I was patriotic at one time and I still am. But my patriotism goes for something beyond what we have. We don't have something that I want to die for - anymore.

DE. What do you credit as being the major turning point of your life?

JB: College - without a doubt. When I got out of the army, I wanted to go back to the Kentucky hills and stay there for the rest of my life and never ever leave. I did that for two years.

Then, I started seeing on TV and hearing on the radio about all these riots and stuff. Well, I said to myself, there is something I don't know about. This is something no one told me about. According to all I was taught  and conditioned to believe, this was not supposed to happen. So, I decided that college was the place to find out. It was where all the big activity was happening in '69.

I went in as a right-winger. [Jack, attended Eastern Kentucky University.] I was still pro-war back then. Nixon was still my hero. [His face contorts into a grimace.]

But I had good teachers. There was one in particular - a Professor Anton Nyerges, a poet. Originally, I dropped his class because I thought he was too communistic. But I still listened to him, paid attention to him. Somewhere in there, it just kind of all hit me- that really this guy was right. That you should care for people. That we, as a people,are suppressed. That  there was and is a need for more equality and move freedom in this country.

DE: Tell me about your- college years after that .

JB: I worked. Or rather, I worked at it. It was interesting. I did two, at the time called, underground newspapers. One was called The EKU Prophet and the other The Cybernoid. We ended up printing eight or nine issues of those each.

Also, I studied art. Because art was - I don't  know -  the most civilized thing.  The was was still going on and I went to college because I knew that the world was not a good place.  So, I thought I could make it a better world if I went to school and became a teacher.  I still try but I don't think it's going to be in public education anymore.  I think that public education is too, too much a propaganda tool to sell the state, whatever that  state may be.

My art and poetry is very political now. Because, you've got to find that truth within you and express yourself. Somewhere out there, I know, there will be people who will listen.

Another piece was Jack’s theorem and the Primal Thought. It went like this: in costume we raided public places in Dayton screaming: "The sky is failing! The  sky is falling!" while passing out Chicken Little flyers. We did it to create wrinkles in reality so future time travelers could check their time machines.

DE: When did you first use poetry as a political tool?

JB: I remember when was 17 or 18, I wrote a letter to the editor challenging the fact that they wouldn't allow us to hold a dance at our high school.

But my first political poem was published in a Green Bay, Wisconsin newspaper. It was a pro-war, pro Vietnam solider piece called "The Great American,". It went something like:

he's dying in Vietnam

others in America

are willing to die

for him

we know why he's dying

so that others can be

free

I think that was another turning point. After you've been censored enough, suppressed enough by the those in power, then you realize that you're not free. That's what I thought it was all about. That's' why I think my generation was willing to die for freedom.

DE: How long have you been haunting the Dayton Area poetry scene?

JB: Since it started. That was more than a year and less than two years ago. They started having the poetry slams at Canal Street. Then the coffee house readings at Christopher's and the Front Street started.

  Its probably like the poetry things of the '50s. The poetry that I hear the most of is anger. Sure we have love poems but mostly it's anger. I think that's good. There's a lot of anger in the young people of Dayton. But they're not allowed to tell it to anyone. Not at school. Not at home. Nowhere.

They're not free for sure. That's, why I think the poetry readings, came about. Because there they can express what they feel.  Just like the '50s. So, I tend to believe -- and we always hope -- that means there's a change in store. What it will be, I don't know.  And you really don't have to do anything -- not like radical action. There's this thing. I call it: a force of civilization It's greater than we are. All we have to do is speak the truth and act with our hearts. It'll happen.

DE: You really like this interaction with young people. Am I right?

JB: [Jack smiles broadly and gives a little laugh.] Here's the thing. Basically the school system sets you up with what it wants to set you up with. They're really good at it. I think they're too good ... problem is, what they're doing is conditioning kids to merely accept the culture at hand. But, the rebels won't accept it.

So, I'm really finding out what's going on through the young people. They really know. We think we know, but we don't. I appreciate them because, in essence, I consider them smarter than me. They know more than I do. They know the stuff that counts for the next 20 years. Whereas I know the stuff for the last 20.

DE: When did you start with performance art?

JB: It was back in '90 or '91 up in Cleveland at the Seventh Annual Performance Art Festival. I went initially just to shoot photos of it for a few days. And as I was photographing it, I realized that this was the greatest stuff I had ever seen. It was free, It was true art. You could really express yourself with it. All the regulations, limitations of painting and drawing are gone. The very next year, I went back as a performance artist.

I wrote one called Millennium's End Ritual. It's about the true fall of man. He was beautiful as an animal but became ugly when he started trying to become a god. Another was Jack's Theorem in the Primal Thought. It went like this: in costume we raided public places in Dayton screaming: "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" while passing out Chicken Little flyers. We did it to create wrinkles in reality so future time travelers could check their time machines.

We're all so mauled by information, but it's recycled information. We need to shut it out. So, you've got to get bizarre. This is an artist's purpose -- to break away from the recycled. Performance art can do that.

DE: Okay.Lets talk about Ed Gein Xmas. Now, I saw- it and loved it. It had a ghoulish gothic feel.

JB: Thanks.

DE: But aren’t you glorifying a major league creep?

JB: No. I don't think so. To me, this is more like science fiction or the old horror movies of the '50s.

Ed looked like such a common, ordinary person. When we think about characters like Hitler, Jim Jones, Shakespeare  -- who's the more important? Is it the good guys or the bad guys? They all broke away in some way and became important. Their work survived.

DE: However, you can't help but notice the mixed symbolism of both Gein and Christmas. There was a cryptic voice reciting a serial murderer's version of the "Night Before Christmas," an inverted Christmas tree decorated with skulls, and a chilling romantic bit where Ed slow dances with a cadaver to the tune of Elvis Blue Christmas.  So, what's the connection  between this sick puppy and the Christmas Season?

JB: Old Ed got caught at the opening of Deer Season, that's around November, in 1957. The news, the frenzy, the reaction to all the horrible things he'd done didn't really hit its peak until Christmas time.

The little kids in the schools were making Ed Gein jokes and poems. There was this weird, surreal gap between what they were really thinking and what they were forced to do-- which was this: they had to get up on stage and sing "deck the halls with boughs of holly" when what they were really thinking was "deck the walls with limbs of Mollie."

I've been in elementary education for years and my belief is that Christmas pageants in schools are little more than conditioning kids for the Christian religion. That's the relationship. Even though church and state are supposed to be separated -- they're not. They probably never will be -- not as long as we have the system that we do. And that's what we were trying to say. Ed Gein Xmas is a rebellion against that and that's what all great art is about.

You see. All good performance pieces have some philosophical validity. That's the difference between mere theater and performance art. In a traditional theater, they'd just get up and do the story about Ed Gein without it having some underlying meaning.   So, we can't get up there and just do a play without it having a significance beyond what Ed did.

Stuff like separation of church and state, it's what I served in the military to protect.

DE:  Have your kids gone through a rebelling thing?

JB: My daughter rebels.  I think my son understands.

DE: So, how do you rebel against a dad who's already rebelling?

JB: I don't know. [He laughs.] They rebel like typical midwesterners but l don't want them to know that. My kids are free to do what ever they want.  Because I only advise.  I don't make them do anything.  This calls back to my Appalachian heritage.  We had respect for our elders and it worked.  So, my kids respect me enough to know that I'm speaking wisely.

DE. What kind of hope do you have for them about the future?

JB: Who was it that said: "Do you want your kids to be like you? No. Thank God they're normal." I want - I guess - for my kids, to be normal. As for the future of our society, it, scares me - really scares me. That's all I can say.

David Evans is a regular contributor to The Dayton Voice.


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