31 May 2022

Inspired by the Middle East, created in Canberra and on display in Wagga: the art of Jenny Bowker

| Sally Hopman
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Woman and quilt

Canberra textile artist Jenny Bowker with her Jerusalem quilt, pictured in that city in 1997. Photo: Jenny Bowker.

Sam Bowker was curating an exhibition at the National Art Glass Gallery in Wagga Wagga last year, Windowless Worlds – a confronting installation that explored the themes of conflict, social injustice, and government failures. The centrepiece was 18 kg of shattered window glass collected from the streets of Lebanon following an explosion in Beirut the year before.

But one thing was missing. Sam knew what it was but, feeling that it could be seen as a conflict of interest, he checked first with the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery.

What he wanted to add to the exhibition was a large, hand-made quilt. A piece of art like no other and as it fitted like a glove with the exhibition’s theme, it was in. The feared conflict of interest? The quilt, After the Last Sky, was made by his mother, acclaimed Canberra textile artist, teacher, blogger and world traveller Jenny Bowker AO.

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For 15 years Jenny travelled throughout the Middle East with her husband, Bob, a diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They lived in Arab and Islamic countries including Lebanon, Syria, Western Samoa, Malaysia, Jordan, Jerusalem and Egypt – almost all of which have influenced her art.

She ventured into the arts from an earlier career in science in 1997, completing a Bachelor of Visual Arts – and hasn’t looked back. The exoticism of the Middle East has been and remains her inspiration and her passion.

Middle East quilt

Jenny Bowker’s quilt, made from cotton threads and depicting a guard at the first pyramid at Sakkara in Egypt, will be in the exhibition. Photo: Patricia Boulton.

“When I arrived in Jerusalem I had been quilting for six months,” Jenny said.

“I had some lovely striped Syrian fabrics but the ‘you only work in cotton’ rule was drummed into me in a beginner quilting class. That was the moment I realised that patchwork came from making do with what you have.”

She said she had another “moment” whilst laying out squares. It was an impression that she was creating a map of Jerusalem: gold for the alleyways of the Old City, green for Islamic places, purple for Christian ones and all surrounded by the black and white of Judaism.

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“It was the pivot point where I realised anything I could do with paint I could do with fabric,” she said.

Once the exhibition opened, Jenny was asked to give a talk about her time in the Middle East and the creativity behind her quilts – and then Wagga gallery asked if they could see more of the Canberra artist’s work.

“They descended on my house and said to me, ‘show us everything’,” Jenny said.

She did and the next she knew, she was being offered her own exhibition at the Wagga gallery in 2022.

Red quilt

A keen collector, Jenny designed this quilt to show a burqa she bought in Amman Jordan alongside a rug which was an anniversary present from her husband. Photo: David Paterson.

From Saturday 4 June, 12 of her works will show at the Wagga gallery in Pack and Follow – The Quilts of Jenny Bowker.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for me to do a major show and I’m thrilled to work with such a professional organisation,” she said.

“When you work on your own, you have to do everything yourself when it comes to shows, so for others to do this for me so professionally, it’s wonderful.”

Pack and Follow – The Quilts of Jenny Bowker opens at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery on Saturday 4 June and runs until Sunday 28 August.

More information is available on the website.

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Wow – amazing work.

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