John Mowen leaves legacy of creativity, fearlessness
January 26, 2014
The community lost an ardent soul last week when John Mowen, owner of the Mowen Solinsky Gallery, died after a brief illness. He was 60 years old.
Mowen, who moved to Nevada City in the early 1980s, had briefly owned another gallery in Nevada City before opening the Mowen Solinsky with Steven Solinsky in 2004.
"John was always willing to take a risk, always pushing that way," Solinsky said. "He loved the excitement and potential, loved the possibility of what might be revealed, what he might find, what he might see."
Mowen's enthusiasm carried through his personal, professional and creative life; he was known for taking adventures and new paths.
After working in leather for 30 years, he ventured out into different mediums, discovering stone and bronze sculpture, which, according to his son Sky, ignited a passion that quickly grew.
"When he was creating in the shop, he had an excitement in him, especially when he was creating new works instead of pumping out pieces for orders or shows. I could tell he was excited, skipping around the shop."
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Art shows played an integral part in Mowen's career and the success of the gallery.
It was the arduous work and travel of attending shows that brought the two men together, but Solinsky said that the idea of staying home and selling their works sounded much more appealing than traveling every weekend.
When the gallery's current Broad Street location opened up, the two tapped their resources to fill the space with a unique and upscale selection of works, many of which were from artists they had met at various shows.
"We realized to have a gallery that appealed to all different tastes, we needed to have a good sampling of different types of works," Solinsky said.
"We knew where to find great work, and John was a good front man for the gallery — had a lot of friends and connections. He was a good negotiator."
When the economy began to waver, Mowen considered closing but persevered, incorporating more functional art with lower price points.
Though he anticipated taking a more relaxed approach after Solinsky retired, Sky insists he just got "fired up."
The father-son team would attend shows and Mowen would connect with five or so artists, packing their van to bring more pieces back to Nevada City.
"I'd ask him, 'Where are we going to put all this stuff?'" Sky said.
"He had a passion for it. He had a crazy artistic eye, knowing what works and what doesn't work. He was always looking for the next killer artist."
Mowen believed art had the power to create change on a large scale, those who knew him said. In a recent interview on Art Revealed, he stated his interest in medicinal art — "the capacity of a piece of art to create ease as opposed to disease."
Fellow artist Paul Steege met Mowen at the Mountain Stream Meditation Center, where they were both very involved.
The two also attended many art shows together.
He recalled a recent show in Mill Valley where he noticed how people entering Mowen's booth were immediately affected by his art, then the man himself.
"His booth was kind of like a sanctuary," Steege said.
In addition to his love for art, Mowen also had an affinity for poetry, a strong passion, most would say. He was an aficionado of the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, whose words were integrated both figuratively and literally into his artwork.
His love for poetry and verse spilled into his everyday life and business, as Kathy Frey, who helped compose the gallery's newsletter, found.
"I thought it'd be a straightforward newsletter, and he ended up writing letters that were more like poetry," Frey said.
When not in the gallery or on the festival trail collecting awards and new artists' work, Mowen fed his wanderlust with adventures most only see in movies.
He completed the Camino de Santiago, a 500-plus mile journey across Northern Spain, just this past spring to commemorate turning 60.
"He loved to travel," Sky said. "He'd been to Nepal, Tibet, Southeast Asia and recently a big part of Europe. Traveling was one of his main passions."
Solinsky fondly recalled a trip where they sailed the islands in the Gulf of Thailand.
"John wanted to live now, not put it off," he said. "It was little risky in some ways. He was willing to take the risk. Life was always interesting around John."
Katrina Paz is a local freelance writer.
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