For viewers who’ve seen Aaron Fowler’s inventive mixed media work, one question surely comes to mind – where did he get that? It’s not just the ideas for the work materialized, it’s the origins of the artifacts themselves. Whether he’s driving around in his pick up truck looking for free wooden planks, or happening upon thrown out fish and chicken restaurant signage and rehabbing it – Aaron Fowler’s propensity for turning trash into treasure has been years in the making.
St. Louis is where Fowler got his start, but the path, much like his art, hasn’t been linear. For one, the mixed media artist says his work is heavily influenced by the city he’s working in. Often splitting his time between Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York City, Fowler constantly draws inspiration from his ever-changing environment.
“Of course I’m affected by just the love, my family, my friends, and a completely different way that directly goes into my art,” Fowler says. “And then in LA, just by peers and the energy of the space affects the work. It’s more of a faster pace than St. Louis. If I’m in New York, it’s an even faster pace. So just the energy of what goes into my work is heavily affected by that energy, for sure.”
Fowler’s journey to becoming an artist has been one of consistent growth. He began his academic career at Florissant Valley Community College, then received his BFA from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 2011 and his MFA from Yale University School of Art in 2014. Since graduating from Yale, Fowler’s work has been shown in exhibitions across the country, but St. Louis has yet to experience any type of show from the homegrown talent.
Now, The Luminary is changing that. Over the course of a year, Fowler will be working on his latest installation, N2Existence, a project deeply inspired by his life in St. Louis and the people who raised and shaped him.
N2Existence is Fowler’s largest project to date and the first solo St. Louis exhibition. According to The Luminary, “N2Existence is a movement to create cultural change, inspiring people to use their passions to manifest new realities of freedom.”
“I feel like my process is an ongoing journey,” Fowler says. “I’ve painted pilgrims before, because I felt like a pilgrim trying to discover myself. And now, I’m painting myself as a giant, because I want to speak that into existence. I’m roaming this world in a way, not saying that I’m above it, but I have a perspective to see it as a whole.”
In addition to showcasing his own work, Fowler’s residency is providing him with the opportunity to give back to local makers and creatives by giving them storefront space to sell and promote their work. The 2834 Cherokee storefront space serves as a project space, with participants ranging from lingerie designer Traci Petty, to graphic designer Tyrell Bronner.
“When I was coming back home, I knew a lot of people here that are just naturally gifted people, and also have real stories like myself,” Fowler says. “And they’re very talented, and can do a lot. And they are doing a lot, but never really had the opportunities that I had to be able to share their gifts. So a big part of coming here is manifesting their gifts.”
Traci Petty, a lifelong friend of Fowler’s, was the first to display her work in the project space in October, where she presented her line Sexy Salvage, and also used the storefront to support community efforts. She was able to provide clothing and meals to unhoused members of the neighborhood, along with mutual aid resources.
“I basically took what Traci already had and created her space to share that,” Fowler says. “And that’s a manifestation to then give her the feeling of that, so she can feel what it feels like to be her own boss, or her own creative; like that freedom to then manifest her really having a space. Because once you feel that feeling, I feel like it’s hard to not feel that feeling. So I’m manifesting, giving everyone that deserves, everybody that’s working hard and not as fortunate as I am, to have a platform to share that.”
Formally trained in painting, Fowler has proven to have an eye for transforming the mundane into something spectacular. For his latest installation, the artist decided to look back at his childhood, particularly the O’Fallon Place apartment complex where he was raised in the Carr Square neighborhood. A mural will be placed at the complex site, now called Preservation Square, a name ripe with irony for the artist.
Fowler’s roots in the O’Fallon Place apartment complex extend back as far as his grandmother, whom he says walked through the snow looking for a place to call home. From then on, his parents were raised there, it’s where he was conceived and grew up. To see the complex now be demolished has been emotional for the artist.
“O’Fallon Place was a huge world to me, that was just now called Preservation Square. But it was a huge world,” Fowler says. “I lived in three different places in that apartment complex. And so now to see it kind of being demolished or brought down…is wild to me. So it’s very important for me to preserve that time because that was such a huge chunk of my life, a huge history for me.”
Staying true to his knack for sourcing obscure yet common materials, Fowler was able to obtain the original carpeting from his childhood home, along with the front doors to his and many other units before the complex’s demolition. He’s also collected dozens of vintage handbags from family members in order to create one masterpiece of a handbag symbolizing the loss of an old friend who was tragically killed earlier this year.
“If you look into my work, a lot of O’Fallon Place is there,” he says. “And the people that I’ve grown up with from there are in that work too.”
And while Fowler admits he’s the type of artist to keep his head down and work, the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the uptick in Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality across the country, it was hard for those themes not to show up in his work. One theme he’s considered over the past year is time.
“It’s the COVID pandemic right now, so we have time,” Fowler says. “The world has sort of paused for a second, and we all have time to kind of rest. Some people are laid off, so not willfully wanting to have that type of time. But now, no matter what, we are all in a place where we have time. And with that time, the urgency of this project is something that can change people’s lives because I’ve been in a residency myself. I’ve been to a couple. I’m in a residency now and that’s affecting my life.”
With that time, Fowler has been forced to slow down in his own life and reset. He says he misses activities such as visiting movie theatres, a place where he can unwind after hours of working. But for now, he says he appreciates the space and freedom to do what he wants with his art, along with the opportunity to spend an extended stay in St. Louis.
“To me, freedom is when you are able to do what you love, and you’re able to tap into yourself and know your worth,” Fowler says. “Know your greatness, no matter what other people say or do, no matter the opportunities that are coming your way or not, just know that you’re great and you can do anything. Anything that’s positive, you can manifest.”
Through his residency and love for St. Louis, Fowler hopes he can create more bridges for other creatives in the city. He wants N2Existence to be a pathway to manifestation of dreams and goals for others.
“I think that more bridges to other places can help move St. Louis forward,” he says. “And also, more things like this. Creating creative spaces for people, letting people be free, and allowing more spaces for them to be free. Creating spaces for people to heal.”