Creating Sculpture from Reclaimed Materials: Jonathan Bowling is Our Artist of the Month

Jonathan Bowling, a North Carolina based sculptor who creates unique steel sculpture of animals from found or repurposed materials.
Jonathan Bowling, North Carolina based sculptor

Jonathan Bowling is a Kentucky born and raised sculptor. He has been living and working in North Carolina for the past 25 years. And he has been creating sculpture since boyhood. In an interview with North by Northwest Consulting, Jonathan has been inspired to create art since he was a child growing up on a farm in rural Kentucky. 

Best known for his impressive steel horse sculptures, Jonathan has the ability to create beautiful structures from found and repurposed materials. In our interview we found about more about his method and inspiration.

Creating Art from Found Materials

Growing up on a family farm in Kentucky served as Jonathan’s initial inspiration for working with his hands and the raw materials he had available to create new things. “I dug clay out of the creek behind the barn, built stone walls and made stuff all through grade school,” he told me. This describes his natural inclination towards working with raw materials such as wood, stone, clay, and steel. After his family relocated for a few years to Brussels in Belgium, Jonathan was further inspired by the access to free art museums there. His experience in Belgium led him to begin producing abstract art from found materials. 

I dug clay out of the creek behind the barn, built stone walls, and made stuff all through grade school.

Jonathan Bowling

After returning to the United States he obtained his BFA degree in sculpture and a BA in Art history from the University of Kentucky. Though Jonathan considers himself primarily a sculptor, he has also assembled pieces out of wood, paper, and even photographs.  But those have to stay inside. He has also dabbled in painting. His main output is in steel structures that are meant for outside.

How Sculpting Can be More Inclusive and Affording

“I got started in the sculpture department at UK under Jack Gron and Gary Bibbs who were sculpture professors there.  Welding is very accessible and easy to teach. It’s relatively cheap as a medium whereas bronze is much more complicated and exclusive. For bronze you have to have access to a furnace, you usually have to have funding to buy bronze or, if you’re a poor student, you take liberties with your university’s art department,” Jonathan quipped.

Jonathan Bowling's winged horse sculpture.

In 1999 Jonathan received his MFA from ECU in Greenville NC and has been based in NC ever since. He suggested that he in-part stayed in North Carolina because it would be too much of an undertaking to relocate now. Since he would have to move the huge amount of steel he has garnered over the years to create his art. Currently, he is working on building a house in the Greenville area of eastern North Carolina. “Perhaps I would prefer to be somewhere near more rocks. If someone finds a rock in Greenville, you know it’s been brought here from somewhere else,” he laughed. 

But the artistic community of the area has been supportive and welcoming. Jonathan referenced his former mentors and friends Carl Billingsley and Hannah Jubron who ran the sculpture department at ECU back in the late 90s as mentors. 

Where To See Jonathan’s Work around North Carolina?

As for collaborations, Jonathan worked with Mike and Leah Waller who are known for sculpting the bronze statue of the bull “Major” in downtown Durham.

Jonathan Bowling's sculpture of a bronze bull in downtown Durham North Carolina.

“I like it when towns and individuals buy my sculptures more than I like working on commission,” Jonathan said. For instance, Weaver Street market in Hillsboro has one of his donkey sculptures at the entrance to their parking structure. 

Jonathan Bowling's donkey sculpture outside of weaver street market in hillsboro
Jonathan Bowling’s Donkey Structure outside of Weaver Street Market in Hillsboro

Though he has recently finished a commission for the town of Edenton where he sculpted a tree. And he designed a mule for the town of Benson. Jonathan’s most popular pieces are his horses, of which he has done a series. He is drawn to creating horses because of his Kentucky background, and for the simple reason that they are pretty, he said with a good natured laugh. He mostly sculpts animals now out of steel because they are more profitable than abstract pieces. “People see a sculpture of a rabbit or a deer and they understand that that is art, it takes a bit more salesmanship to get the average buyer to purchase an abstract steel design,” he said. 

Jonathan Bowling's cypress tree sculpture in the town of Edenton.
Cypress tree for the town of Edenton

Jonathan’s Method for Sculpting Animals

“I prefer finding materials for free like wood. Sometimes you can even get steel for free, especially if it is no longer what it was intended to be,” Jonathan said. In Greenville, Jonathan has a huge tubing roller, a crane and a decent trailer which help him create and maneuver larger structures. The tubing roller allows him to roll a circle out of sprinkler pipes, for example and create spheres. “To a degree you can work with a lot of curves to create animal sculptures, especially horses which have a lot of curves to get their belly and the back. If you think about when you’re first learning to draw you might know that you start with drawing circles. It’s the same with the tubing roller,” Jonathan explained. 

I prefer finding materials for free like wood. Sometimes you can even get steel for free, especially if it is no longer what it was intended to be.

Jonathan Bowling

“The horses have clean lines. And I’m set up with a way to make nice curves in steel without having to heat it up. Then for contrast I forge the mane and tail so that it’s squiggly, for lack of a better word,” Jonathan laughed. “It contrasts nicely. It’s a very organic pattern. It flows. I think that’s part of a horse’s charm. Though I have done a few with exhaust or chain,” he said. 

One of Jonathan Bowling's famous horse sculptures.

Jonathan explained that for him the passion to create art derives from the “eureka” or “aha” moment. “I love creating things. There is a thrill there. Sometimes things go particularly well and something will surprise you by turning out better than you expect. Other times it doesn’t go well. The reality with those pieces is that once you mess up it’s nearly impossible to ‘fix it’. You can cut something away but it will generally interfere and mess up the edge.” 

What Jonathan is Working on Now

Currently Jonathan and his partner Claire are busying themselves readying their new farm. They have just finished adding a shed to the roof of their goat barn and Claire figured out how to roll the duck barn so that they never have to clean it out. In the meantime, Jonathan’s sculpture work is at a pause. “We are building a house out here and so until that is ready the most I’m sculpting are small things like fish and cats,” he explained. 

Once things are back to normal, Jonathan expects to return to business as usual with his sculpting. “I like making things and that will never change. I don’t have a problem anymore with creating animals instead of focusing purely on the abstract. People like seeing things they recognize in art and I like creating things that make people happy. It makes it a lot more accessible,” he said.

Learn More

You can learn more about Jonathan’s work by visiting his website. Or following him on Instagram and Facebook. Jonathan Stivers Bowling for the most up-to-date information about his work. If you’re interested in learning more about our artist of the month feature, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at info@nxnwconsulting.com

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