Since the beginning of time, a belief in the divine has driven man to create. It is just this ancient quest for spiritual understanding that drives the art of Terry Rowlett. A native of rural Arkansas, he grew up in the Christian evangelical South, tempted by Biblical tales of apostles and sinners. He joined the army fresh out of high school and was stationed as a patrol guard in West Germany in the mid 1980s, a period that opened his eyes to the world-at-large, introduced him to self-discipline, and allowed him the introspection that enabled him to discover his inner-talents as an artist.

    But as a scholarly artist in an era that embraced images of a urine-soaked crucifix and a dung-covered Madonna as cutting-edge, Rowlett embraced the narrative and compositional traditions found in Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces. His neo-iconic images are outfitted with everyday faces and places, pop culture obsessions, and mundane artifacts, expressing his once heartfelt belief in Christian teachings in a contemporary culture. Throughout his career, Rowlett has hoped that his artwork reaches out to the viewer, offering observations that might help us in some subtle way. The familiar themes, images, and techniques found in his paintings illustrate profound ideals and teachings that transcend the obvious and so often speak to our souls.

    Rowlett spent the decade of his thirties living in the indie rock college town of Athens, Georgia where he earned his M.F.A. in painting at the University of Georgia. During these years, he lived a life of contradiction, holding court in hipster bohemian barrooms and carousing with coeds at backyard band bashes, all the while maintaining his convictions to the hellfire and brimstone teachings which declared such a lifestyle to be sinful.

    Rowlett’s works from his early years in Athens are often blatant depictions of familiar Christian characters inserted into decidedly American landscapes littered with the detritus of modern existence. Paintings such as “American Vision” (1994) and “High Tide” (1995) depict the likes of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child sharing scenes with motorcycles and classic cars while saintly images such as “Rosemary” (1994), “Jennifer in the Desert” (1995), “Angela” (199?), and “Rise” (1996) serve as spirital portraits of common folk transformed or uplifted by an unseen divine intervention.

    As Rowlett’s subjects turned toward themes of wandering, the hand of God slowly faded away and his spiritually questing characters became framed in scenes which increasingly celebrate landscape and nature. The solitary travelers in “The Neighbor” (1997) and “Christina’s Journey” (199?) are depicted at the moment of just setting out on a bright-eyed journey while the contemplative scenes of maiden, matron, and crone, and grandfather, youth, and man’s best friend in “Seasons” (1996) and “The Walk” (1997) take place in the dappled golden light of a gorgeously-rendered late autumn forest.

    It was during this period that Rowlett set off on his own spiritual journey to the Holy Land. He spent several months living in Israel in the hopes that life in the presence of a sacred place would only affirm his religious convictions, but instead he only witnessed the predjudice and meanness that prevails when religious convictions clash. He returned to Athens having lost the Christian faith that had always driven him to paint.

    “Birth at Mount Gilboa” (1998) essentially illustrates such a spiritual reawakening while paintings such as “The Dance” (1998), “Flight out of Egypt” (1999), and “Ship of Fools” (1999) portray a newfound joie de vie in which the artist has renounced his guilty past and celebrates life for all its song, dance, and debauchery. Such images still borrow upon the familiar themes and compositions of the Old Masters, but the paintings now serve as allegories of playful reality rather than sermons on God’s word.

    But such a transformation does not come about without a sense of loss. A series of beach scenes painted between 1999 and 2002 (“Wake,” “The Sea,” “On the Beach,” “The Pilgrim”) depict lonely hooded and mournful figures, stormy seas, and threatening skies as the artist sought to fill the void left behind when he fled his Christian faith.

    As Rowlett was able to come to terms with such loss, paintings such as "Through the Garden” (2003), “Ecstasy of Saint Bernard” (2002), and “The Way” (2003) suggest a sharpening sense of mortality and wasted time that creeped up on him as he settled into his 40s, while the verdant landscapes and carousing critters found in paintings such as “Born to Lose” (2002), “Beauty and the Beast” (2002), “The Feast” (2002), and “Nymph” (2003) are rife with allusions to love and lust, ideals that the artist now accepts as a desirable part of life.

    Although Rowlett’s art can certainly be viewed as allegorical illustrations of his own personal spiritual journey, he has been known to delve into political commentary. “Everto” (2002) depicts the harrowing figure of a oil rig worker in a hellish landscape, a blatant statement on American capitalism and its greedy invasion of the Middle East.

    “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” (2004) offers a much more tender picture of a mournful Christ knocking on a military tank, a flock of sheep look on as a destroyed Muslim village burns in the background. Such a work offers the artist’s ultimate statement on the true teachings of love and understanding that exist in the Christianity which he once embraced and the heartbreak that has ensued as the violence, hypocrisy, and heresy of American imperialism prevail to open up countless oozing wounds around the world.

    After a year spent living in New York City, Rowlett has settled in the Hudson River Valley of New York, where he continues to paint and ponder.

Melissa Link
Athens, Georgia

FLIGHT OUT OF EGYPT, 60" x 70", 1999

WAKE, 70" x 60", 1999

ON THE BEACH, 46" x 60", 2002

THROUGH THE GARDEN, 45" x 37", 2003

Who Would Jesus Bomb? WWJD terry rowlett
WHO WOULD JESUS BOMB?, 34" x 28", 2004