Painted in bright colors on strips of fabric, Ann Bowns’ enormous murals of Adam and Eve, Moses and other Old Testament figures are starting what promises to be a long journey across the Sacramento region.
The Citrus Heights resident painted the murals for the McClellan Air Force Base chapel in the early-1980s, and they hung there until the base was decommissioned in 2001. This week, the works reunited with their now-82-year-old creator at Carmichael Presbyterian Church, where Bowns showed them off with a proud grin ahead of a planned multistop tour.
The longtime artist and teacher practically gleamed as she told the story of how the murals came to be.
“It was a big project,” she said. “People always ask how long these (murals) took me, and I honestly don’t remember. I say if you’re truly inspired and interested in something, you don’t think about how long you’re spending.”
Bowns created the pieces at the request of McClellan’s head Episcopal priest, an invitation the devout Christian spent little time weighing. Feeling a calling from a higher power, she said, she quickly agreed.
“I figured I was being given a really huge gift,” she said. “Not that my art is such a gift, but that having the ability to create is so incredible.”
She ultimately created three triptychs, each measuring 40 inches tall and 10 feet wide. Bowns used the batik technique – a style she’d been practicing since the early 1960s involving laying wax on and dyeing large sections of fabric.
What set the murals apart then, and to the present day, was her decision to paint a racially diverse biblical world. She said she felt it was critical to be mindful of her audience: thousands of airmen from various backgrounds, races and religions.
“I couldn’t make people lily-white because, at the time, there weren’t lily-white people in the service,” Bowns said. “I made them all tan and cartoonlike, which I think makes them relatable and user-friendly.”
She also employed a rainbow of brilliant colors and what she called a “pseudo-medieval” style.
“I chose subject matter that I thought would be catchy,” she said. “I thought, if people are bored with the sermon, they can look at the pictures. I think we all do stuff like that.”
After McClellan, the murals were hanging in a social hall at a Fair Oaks Episcopal church for nearly 15 years. When the church suffered a fire and the staff determined the fabric murals were a potential hazard, the works were returned to Bowns. Now, she said, she wants to share the murals with other churches and is working out an itinerary in the region.
“I want these to go on a circuit of churches in the area,” she said. “I’ve already had a few people approach me and I know a lot of churches will be interested in showing them.”
Bowns’ artwork – a variety of batik, acrylic, oil, silk and watercolor pieces – is also on display at other venues, including UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and the High Hand Art Gallery in Loomis. Her work has won awards at the Art in Action display at the California State Fair.
Bowns said remaining creative keeps her youthful. She’s creating abstract paintings and silk landscapes from her home art studio in Citrus Heights. She also teaches art workshops at High Hand.
“People always say to me, ‘Of course, you’re retired,’ ” she said. “I say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Artists never retire. I’m keeping at it.”
Bowns said she looks back on her accomplished career with humility.
“Occasionally I look back at what I’ve done and I get full of myself,” she said. “Then I realize the housework I haven’t done and the yard work that needs doing, and I head back down to earth.”