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Distinguished Artist Invites Campus to Explore and Express Sustainability through Art Featured

  • Written by  Khadijah Johnson
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A high-top faux hawk and a myriad of color, both inside and out, describe Kabuya Pamela Bowens-Saffo as she brings a breath of fresh air to the Sustainability Institute. As the first ever artist-in-residence for the Institute, award-winning Bowens-Saffo plans to bring out the creative side in students across the university through upcoming projects and to lead a mural installation at the campus Recycling Center.

The entire campus community will have an opportunity to link sustainability and creativity by taking part in the upcoming “Art of Sustainability” campus competition this fall. Students, faculty, and staff can create both two- and three-dimensional works that treat sustainability themes. The 2-D content themes are “Change” and “Resilience.” The 3-D content requires the art to be created from re-purposed objects. Further details of the competition will be announced in by early September.  (visit http://sustainability.famu.edu/engagement/art to learn more.) 

As a follow-up to the fall competition and exhibitions, Bowens-Saffo will develop mural concepts for the newly established FAMU Recycling Center. The mural will be unveiled during Earth Week in April 2016.

From Miami to the Met

A native of Miami, Bowens-Saffo grew up surrounded by a diversified culture that was enriched with Caribbean and Latin American influences. She found art to be an expression of that ubiquitous stimuli, and knew early on that she was to be an artist. “I knew I was connected to something, being creative, hands-on,” she stated as she recalled memories of her childhood.

Through passion and consistency, Bowens-Saffo developed into an award-winning artist at a young age.  In high school, she was a recipient of a Miami Herald Silver Knight award for Art, one of the nation’s most highly regarded student awards programs. Bowens-Saffo is quick to share that she didn’t do it on her own. “I had a lot of support from the community to move forward and study,” she stated.

Now, Bowens-Saffo is eager to continue to engage and encourage today’s students to take part in artistic expression.

Bowens-Saffo continued her education at Howard University in Washington, DC, at a time where some of the nation’s most influential artists moved freely about the campus. She attended classes where “Maya Angelou would walk in,” who happened to be good friends with James Baldwin, and Debbie Allen could be seen pirouetting across campus.

For Bowens-Saffo, it was Dr. Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004), department chair in the College of Fine Arts at the time, who created that type of climate at Howard.  Donaldson is also a founder of the AfriCOBRA Movement, a collective of African American visual artists, in Chicago. He insisted on “the idea of art and language coming together to motivate ideas of liberation,” she explained.

Upon graduating from Howard, Bowens-Saffo studied at Pratt Institute for one year. During her studies in New York in the early 1980s, she had the opportunity to conduct research with world-renowned printmaker Robert Blackburn, an experience she says changed her life.

Blackburn (1920-2003) was known as a "printmaker's printmaker." Those who wanted to make prints made their way to his workshop in Chelsea, New York City. Bowens-Saffo describes printmaking as “my medium, my craft,” likening the skill to a science. She created images on metal, copper, and zinc, put ink on it, and transferred it to paper. Though traditional printmaking has been swallowed up by many current digital push buttons, Bowens-Saffo is ready to acknowledge that technical changes do not change the need for fundamental processes behind artistic expressions.

During her three years with Blackburn, she was the recipient of a number of awards and grants and has had her work exhibited nationally and internationally as an independent artist. With a grant from the New York Percent for Arts commission, where 1% of any construction budget in New York is dedicated to art, she painted murals at two schools in the Bronx.

The next phase of her life came when she was commissioned to print a series of woodcuts by Hale Woodruff for his estate, through the Metropolitan Museum (The Met) in Manhattan, New York. “To get that commission, that job, to have met that family...” she recalled, breaking off into a fond reminiscence of what she described as her best job.

Hale Woodruff is an African-American artist known for his murals, paintings, and prints. He sought to express his sense of heritage in abstract painting. His most highly esteemed work, the three-panel Amistad Mutiny murals (1938-1942), is held at Talladega College, about 50 miles east of Birmingham, Alabama.

Right Place, Right Time

With Bowens-Saffo’s work on display at The Met and the Blackburn printmaking facility, she made connections with others, including faculty from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. At Temple, she went on to study printmaking and art history, capping the completion of her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree with study in Rome, Italy where she had a solo exhibition of prints at the French Academy in Rome.

Bowens-Saffo attributes much of her success to her relationship with Blackburn, learning a lot about dedication and hard work in the process. “The commitment to your work and your overall work ethic, being focused, steadfast and determined to reach those goals” are some of the most important lessons she learned through him. “I want to do more than teach art; I want to take art to the community as a whole.”

Throughout her career, Bowens-Saffo has held several teaching positions, at Florida Memorial University in Miami, at Florida State University, and finally at Florida A&M University. In 2012 she founded and directed the Collaborative Arts Projects (CAP) at FAMU as a think tank laboratory focusing interdisciplinary concepts and cross-curriculum exploration. CAP bridges Art, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in creative initiatives open to all students. Within this organization, Bowens-Saffo has organized trips for FAMU students to attend Art Basel International in Miami, the David Driskell Collection at the Atlanta High Museum in Atlanta, GA, among others.

Through her work, her mentors continue to inspire her, as they live on through her teachings. Last year, she did an introduction of Hale Woodruff at the Coleman library, which “received a lot of feedback from students interested in his work,” she said.

As an educator at an HBCU, Bowens-Saffo believes that it’s even more important to expose students to a new way of thinking, one that includes being creative and thinking outside the box:

It’s interesting teaching here at an HBCU, the goal is to involve students beyond the walls of the classroom environment. Come outside, see what’s going on around you, see where we are and the community that we’re in, and acknowledge that. Acknowledge where you are and what that means and how you can make an active contribution. Don’t just pass through. When you look back, you want to be able to tell a story based on not just what you got, but what you gave. To do that, you have to get outside the walls. For example, the "Art on the Walls" project at FAMU Lee Hall is a great vision of President Mangum's interest to share an exhibition of art works by faculty and visiting artists.

Bowens-Saffo’s work has been exhibited all across the world, in galleries, in classrooms, and even the passer-by has had a chance to take in her work through the windows of The Met in Manhattan. However, a unique blend of modesty, sincerity and ingenuity keep her well-grounded. It’s through the raw energy of working with one’s hands and her effervescent African heritage that her art takes form. She believes in the unbothered nature of non-formalized art; in this way, no one is excluded by having to paying fees, wear ties, and “get ready” to view someone’s work, as one would in a gallery.

Much of the black community knows little about the art gallery, and Bowens-Saffo is aware. However, she also recognizes the beauty of art, as it is “in the streets” and plans to not only expose students to such art, but get them to create it.

Art of Sustainability: A Competition with a Purpose

At a time where the importance of sustainability has been at the forefront of policy discussions, it’s important to remember that “sustainability” has always been here. From the way we retain a grocery bag to how we were forced as children to wear our siblings’ hand me downs, Bowens-Saffo reminds us that many communities, especially African Americans – have traditionally been striving for sustainability. “People weren’t thinking about is it or isn’t it working, we were just trying to survive,” she said, clarifying that being sustainable is at our core; her fresh ideas may be a reminder for the student body.

Art isn’t exclusionary to any subject, and Bowens-Saffo’s upcoming art project will be a collaborative experience that all students can participate in. In bridging art with the environment, justice and recycling, students can delve into the recesses of their mind to bring creativity to their subject. Not often do students have the opportunity – or the reason for that matter – to see the artistic side of their subject, but Bowens-Saffo has created a valid reason for students to do so. “In [this] experience we’re thinking of purpose, what we’re doing with this vision… [while] thinking about how to recycle and reuse everyday materials to create something beautiful again,” Bowens-Saffo explained.

Enter the FAMU Sustainability Institute inaugural Campus Art Competition, beginning in the Fall 2015 semester. This creative challenge invites all students university-wide to participate in art-making ideas about sustainability and recycling. The art submitted in the competition will be used to transform the newly renovated Recycling Center, across from the FAMU Village dorm. The creative objectives in the competition are themes to motivate students’ interest to research current studies in their respective fields. Themes range from celebrating culture, community resilience to using aluminum cans to create “thinker toys and robots.”

This project will allow students to create a statement piece. Through this experience many students will understand more about their roots, and their duty to contribute to the welfare of the planet.

“I’m very interested to celebrate who we are, where we’ve come from, and what it all means to be a part of the American experience. I feel it’s a very valuable contribution to the American experience, the African, and the African-American,” Bowens-Saffo explained.

For more information on the Art in Sustainability Campus Art Competition, visit http://sustainability.famu.edu/engagement/art.  

Sustainability @ FAMU

Sustainability at Florida A&M University is about the teaching, research and application of environmental and resource stewardship so people and planet prosper. The Sustainability Institute serves as the hub of all sustainability-related efforts at the university, bringing students, staff, faculty and the community together around creative collaborations.

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