Island Artist Cutie Bowles’ Growing Posthumous Fame

Cutie Bowles, in the seventies, at the All-Island Art Show.

Most painters with talent to burn are successful in their lifetimes, with Sotheby’s, down through the ages, stamping ever-higher price tags on their work. Then there’s the occasional neglected genius — Van Gogh is our prime example, who died a pauper, with only a single painting sold in his lifetime, but of course now art lovers practically grovel before his “Starry Night” or, well, any of his canvases.

But there’s a middle way: Combine talent with desire for a clean, exuberant life, sell your pieces locally, and avoid, for the most part, all those headache-producing cocktail parties at Manhattan art galleries. That’s the Vineyard way to be an artist, and it was certainly the way of Olive “Cutie” Bowles, originally of the Bronx, and later Park Slope and Oak Bluffs. She died in September 2001 at the age of 89.

Cutie was born in St. Kitts with something like 23 siblings. (I asked her daughter Olive Tomlinson for the exact figure, who shrugged: “22, 23: at a certain point you stop counting.”) In New York in 1945, Cutie met and married banker and photographer William Bowles. It wasn’t until 1971, when they bought a summer house in Highland Park, Oak Bluffs, that she began to paint seriously, although she’d already hit one out of the park when Countee Cullen commissioned her to sculpt animal characters for his book The Lost Zoo. The figures now reside in the permanent collection at Atlanta University.

So what did Cutie paint? The answer: Everything! Basketball figures, even though she had zero interest in sports, a Playboy nude at a window beside an array of flowers in a bowl, guitar pickers, dark cities, bright beaches, schoolkids in black-and-red uniforms, tour jetḗ dancers, and three handsome ladies at a bar, the work titled “Three Bored Whores.”

Gerald Ford in The MV Times wrote in the 1980s about Cutie’s style: Her “personal charm flows like a fast river downhill into her paintings, and she is absolutely undaunted by any subject. She could liven a corporate tax seminar. She could spark a cold engine on a damp day, light a fire with a single log and a check stub, touch off a torch, dazzle a drizzle and — always light up your day.”

In the meantime, she won plenty of awards, held an annual sale in her cottage to unload scads of finished work, but she never felt spurred to do somersaults commercially: “Life is too short. I know a great painter [probably Lois Jones; the two were tight friends], and she’s always tracking these big pictures back and forth, and I don’t want to. I’ve got too many other things to do. It’s a hassle!”

Her daughter Olive Tomlinson, also a painter, and a dear friend of mine, is considered by many to be the funniest woman on the Island. So I put the question to her recently, “Was your mother even funnier than you?”

Olive looked thoughtful, then said, “No, she wasn’t funnier. But she was nicer.”

I joked, “Well, that wouldn’t be hard!”

Olive laughed: “Yeah, a sock monkey could do it!”

Cutie’s bright oils, vital and sophisticated, continue to excite people as they’re spotted in Island living rooms. If she’d possessed any marketing instincts, she might now be considered the American Matisse. But wait. Her celebrity is growing. This August at the Oak Bluffs library, under the helm of 29-year-old wunderkind program director Nate Luce, her work will grace the walls of the large community room. Mr. Luce says the overall program is being called “The African American Literature and Culture Program.” Jamaican-born poet Safiya Sinclair will read her work, and Boston professor Nicole Aljoe will lecture on 18th and 19th century black American writers. Author Skip Finley will discuss black whaling captains.

And there’s more: Martha’s Vineyard Museum director Anna Barber is curating the full Cutie Bowles exhibit, while simultaneously putting together a catalogue of all the artist’s known works around the Island.

Do I hear Sotheby’s calling?


The opening reception for the second annual Oak Bluffs “African American Literature and Culture Festival” will be held Friday, August 4, from 6 to 8 pm at the Oak Bluffs library. The next day will feature speakers.

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