I saw notice of Freya Prowe's "Black Water" show at Hang Art Gallery on ArtSlant and stopped by to meet her. For this story, we met up again at the appropriately aquatic-themed Anchor & Hope, which features a mural by Prowe.
Freya Prowe grew up mostly in Minnesota, but the family spent every couple of years in her father's home country of Germany:
"We spent a lot of time in Germany as a kid [...] A lot of my German side came about through fairy tales that my dad read me when I was a kid"
She gravitated to art early, always drawing in her sketchbook. Her parents accepted her interest in art and helped her attend youth art programs. What's more, her bi-cultural upbringing subtly fed her creativity:
"We traveled a lot [and] my sketchbook was kind of my companion. I was drawing and always kind of imagining things. I had the influx of the whole German fairy tale thing"
With steady exposure to German culture, Prowe became undeniably influenced by strong tradition of 20th century German expressionist art, from Kathe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, to Egon Schiele, as well as Old Masters like Albrecht Durer. In particular, Prowe enjoyed the visual tension from opposing aesthetic forces:
"I'm really drawn to the darkness and the comfort with the grotesque that exists in that tradition [...] the ability to travel into the dark side without being divorced from beauty"
By high school she was branching out into pen and ink, screen printing and oil painting. Prowe then went to Pitzer Collage in Southern California and majored in Fine Art. There, she was influenced by textile arts professor, Eileen Senner and studied abroad in Indonesia:
"My time in Indonesia was fairly mind-expanding culturally, having never traveled in the East before or in a developing country. There I was basically painting on fabric using Batik (hot wax and vegetable dyes)."
Continuing to pursue training in textile art, Prowe went to Switzerland for a textile internship with a long-lost aunt, and she ultimately wrote her senior thesis contrasting the Swiss and Indonesian culture and textile work. After college, Prowe sought a change of scenery and was drawn to San Francisco:
"I had had a love-affair with the beat poets and scene from afar growing up in [Minnesota] and to be in the birthplace of those people seemed amazing to me. I remember seeing Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the Embarcadero once in the flesh and just staring in awe. His poetry had meant so much to me as a young teenager. I still read it."
Despite her vast experience with textile art and design in college, Prowe ultimately gravitated back to painting. However, her interest in contrasting aesthetic forces drives a hybrid approach to creating imagery:
"The part of textile design that still informs my work is the repetitiveness and the pattern making qualities. Sometimes I use a little bit of silkscreen in my work and that's really the clean lines and the ability to repeat imagery. I like that in juxtaposition to more of a fluid [painting]"
After settling in San Francisco, Prowe did several series of figurative works. Often featuring women, she explored a subtle visual tension around contradictions in attraction:
"I've always loved the figure and body. A lot of those were about gesture and about physicality and about women: the beauty versus the angst [...] Within one figure I tried to embody - hopefully - the seductress, but a little bit of a repelling force, too"
Still exploring elements of contrast, Prowe then began a series of small works that drew upon the fairy tale lore and psychology of the innocent facing dark forces. Embracing a more narrative style, the fairy tale notion took greater meaning as she observed the developing subconscious of her oldest school-aged daughter:
"Basically [it's about] the naive force, the little maiden or little girl, who goes into the forest [...] and there she discovers her monsters [...] There's often a tension, a force, between the little girl and her monsters. It really became more elaborate when I started to think about [my daughter] and how she's experiencing this, thinking about myself at that age and continuing into adulthood"
As she continued with the them in larger works she changed the symbolic venue from the forest to the belly of a whale, both traditional fairy tale representations. The belly of the whale was exposed as the pivotal moment in the maturing of her character:
"They morph from being my daughter/myself/everyone else - something you can identify with - to [little angels]. It's not because they are so angelic and good, it's just because they exist in an outer place, outside the subconscious realm. When they go into the belly of the whale, they loose their wings and they start grappling with their inner demons"
The whale also introduced the ecosystem of the sea from which to cast characters and imagery. Prowe chose hideous and menacing deep sea fishes to embody the lurking dark forces that face her protagonist:
"They're swimming along in the darkness, basically a level below where the action is taking place, but it all becomes dark in there, it's all the belly of the whale. Then the fishing line - which is another icon that comes along in this series - the fish hook becomes temptation"
The heavy use of symbolism, especially using elements from nature, reflects the influence of psychology on her work. Like decoding dream imagery in the Freudian tradition, Prowe tells a story about the common human experience:
"I draw on anything that's a biological reference as more because it seems like to me its a great illustration of subconscious forces"
Reflecting her interest in visually representing tension or conflict, Prowe chose the name of the deep sea series, "Black Water," from an allusion to emotional struggle:
"[It's] the idea that your subconscious and your demons - your deep sea fishes - are always lapping at your feet. There's a balance that people strike, moving through the world [and] allowing those forces to exist, but not let[ting] them overtake you"
Meanwhile, Prowe had evolved her whale into the body of a woman, drawing on her previous figurative work. As such she continues to explore the female form in a state of contradiction:
"There's sort of an inner tension you can't escape with beauty and repulsion and seduction and anger"
Expressing these states of tension, Prowe works in strong figurative and narrative form. However, she admires abstraction:
"I'm definitely a figurative artist at this point in my life and career. I feel like working abstractly is the most evolved work that there is, like going towards absolute silence, John Cage-style. That's the ultimate. So I feel like maybe in ten years or twenty years maybe I'll arrive at abstraction, but I completely have to admit that I'm not there yet"
In the meantime, Prowe often indulges her instincts for textured layers and repetition. Many pieces in her latest "Black Water" series feature that active aesthetic:
"As I mature or get older I'm definitely more in tune with where to stop, but I also know sometimes that a painting has to be almost insanely busy and overdone for me to be done with it [...] I was working and working and working [on this particular piece]. It was one of those that I was risking working it to death, but I just felt compelled to continue adding and I think it really actually only to me felt finished when it was almost choking on itself"
Freya Prowe shows regularly with Hang Art Gallery here in San Francisco. Watch the Arteaser Calendar for future shows!