House of Art
One Bluefield artist expands on a surprising art phenomenon in the heart of southern West Virginia.
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There’s an art gallery in Bluefield you have to see to believe.
Gary Bowling’s House of Art is whimsical, unexpected, even dazzling. It’s an art gallery that feels like a playroom, filled with kitschy mid-century mannequins, old parking meters re-imagined as fish, an elephant that was part of a parade float, a shipping coffin painted like an Egyptian sarcophagus, and myriad sculptures and canvases that make you forget preconceived notions of what “art” is supposed to be.
In Gary’s house, anything is art. Milk jugs, oil barrels, spray foam, deer skulls, turkey feathers—even pants. The artists seem to have the Midas touch. “That art studio is like walking into a different world,” Bluefield Mayor Linda Whalen says. “It transforms you into a different place. We’re lucky to have it.”
The man himself is a middle-aged Bluefield native who has been lucky enough to make a living as a painter, sculptor, and dumpster diver. His wife, Deborah, is a photographer. “She and I have made our living as artists and raised our son in Bluefield and traveled a lot,” Gary says. “It’s time to make them (art dealers) come to us.” For the past several years, his biggest project has been creating this space for artists in his hometown.
The gallery gives local artists like Jamie Powers and Brian K. Aliff a place to create and connect with other artists. Both have day jobs to pay the bills, but spend every spare moment in the gallery. They work alone but together, as they feed off each other and learn from one another. “I just started doing stuff I’d never done before when I started coming here,” Jamie says. That’s exactly the atmosphere Gary wanted to create.
“I can’t stress enough that I work for them,” Gary says. “I can afford to be here.” Modest about just how he’s able to do that, it’s because of Gary’s own success as an artist.
“He’s always been a very well-known local artist before he did this,” Linda says. “Most of his art was at his home, and he showed around the country.” Now Gary’s pieces, which have price tags with four digits or more, hang with work by burgeoning local artists. His art uses vivid colors and geometric shapes in organized chaos. He has connections in the art world, and that draws attention to the gem of a gallery he has created in Bluefield. But the gallery isn’t about showing his work. It’s about encouraging other local artists. “I get up every day and I’m excited to see these guys,” he says. “Our lives are so rich by knowing each other. We are a family.”
The gallery is also a usable public space with seating areas, a stage, and cocktail tables made from salvaged barrels. Gary has hosted public events like open mic nights, and he rents the space for private events. But most of the time the stage is set with Jamie’s drum kit and mannequins, waiting for someone to walk through the door.
The art house doesn’t get much foot traffic yet, but Gary is optimistic that will change as the gallery generates more buzz. Once some out-of-state tourists stopped in on their way home from vacation, but that kind of visitor has been hard to come by since they have to travel so far from the interstate.
Gary says an art house is a tough sell in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. “We figured if we called it Gary Bowling’s House of Coal we might get more people in here,” he jokes. But he insists that once people walk through the door, they’re entranced because the art here isn’t snobby or disconnected, and there’s nothing pretentious about Gary or anyone working in the gallery. They sound just like good ol’ boys when they talk.