Detroit Artist and Icon Gilda Snowden Is Living History
Like the artist herself, Gilda Snowden’s studio space is steeped in a rich history. Artists Jerome Ferretti and Aaron Timlin previously occupied the space, so it almost vibrates with creative energy. To focus on a single work of Snowden’s art is like trying to choose from hundreds of Pinocchios as they came to life, vying for attention. This visually delicious space contains decades-worth of the artist’s works. It’s a big space divided into sub-spaces. There’s one area where pots of wax heat for encaustics, another where she works on paper. The sponge-tipped paintbrushes and spray paint Snowden prefers are from artprimo.com, a graffiti artist materials website. There are works from her famous “Tornado series” done during the ‘90s. The “Cass Corridor Artists” whom she admired and later exhibited with influenced a series of assemblage pieces. Close by, there’s a current series of abstract flowers.
She is one of the winners of the 2009 Kresge Artist Fellow, interim Chair of the Fine Art Department at the College for Creative Studies, and has an exhibit of 29 paintings up at the new Henry Ford Health Center. Yet to Snowden, it’s just another year.
I settled down on a loveseat splattered with dried paint, feeling deeply privileged to have the opportunity to be with this legendary artist in her sacred space, in the midst of her creations. The following represents moments from three hours spent listening to the unfolding of the life and work of this remarkable woman.
Coming from a long line of physicians on her father’s side, Snowden learned to value education at an early age. She attended Cass Tech,
but it was not until well into her studies did she discover that the school did in fact have the Art and Science program she had requested. A counselor had misspoke and told her such a program did not exist. As a result, Snowden ended up in the Home Economics Department and began to make “something out of nothing” in more ways than one. Like everything in her life she undertakes, she went at it giving 150 percent. The artist discovered the Merchant Apparel Building (which ironically later became the Broadway Gallery) and stocked up on yardage and patterns to create outfits nightly that she wore to school the next day. Working on the best Singer sewing machine money could buy, she sewed her own clothing, including a wool coat throughout high school.
Snowden discovered her love for art while attending Wayne State University. Struck by a Van Gogh painting, she became inspired. Her first painting classes with artist John Egner caused her to recognize her abilities and helped her see that “just putting paint on the canvas seemed simple and kind of fun.”
After four years at Wayne, Snowden graduated with a degree in Advertising. She remembers another pivotal moment in her career, when she applied as an intern at the J. Walter Thompson Agency. While showing her portfolio to a Mr. Brennen, he pointed out that her techniques were obsolete. “Those were used in the ‘50s,” he told her, and took her into a room filled with fine art. “This is creative,” he said, “and what you should be doing.” Snowden’s response was to throw away her portfolio and never look back.
She enrolled in Wayne State’s MFA program. Receiving a professional scholarship, Snowden majored in painting. Soon she began hanging out at Alvin’s with the other “Cass Corridor” artists, many nights sleeping on the floor of her studio. It was at Alvin’s she met her husband, William Boswell. Boswell was a bartender at the time.
Snowden’s accomplishments and contributions are endless.
Snowden has work at the DIA in their permanent collection and is represented by dealers Sherry Washington and Dell Pryor. Current projects include working on a series of small sculptures for a fund-raiser at the National Conference of Artists, Michigan Chapter. At the end of October, she will travel to the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha to jury an Artist in Residency show.
The artist begins her day by making breakfast for her daughter then heading to teach and tend to administrative duties at CCS or to hit the studio for 12 or so hours. She always has several series of work going simultaneously and doesn’t miss a night creating a daily agenda on the computer before she retires around 1:30 am. The agenda is pages long, and includes long- and short-term goals, lists and more lists of projects, phone calls to make, emails to send, and appointments.
A long-time advocate for artists, Snowden is motivated by a deep desire to represent Michigan arts and artists in a positive light. She wants the world to see that even though Detroit has gotten some bad press lately, a strong base of creative people exists in the city. Snowden rarely misses an exhibition opening of students, or fellow artists, frequently videotaping to document the event. Her videos are archived on Utube. She regularly shares on Facebook, always with a relevant post relating to the arts. She sees her videos and technology as “way to link the arts together globally,” likening it to a “broadly linked quilt.” Her current show at the Henry Ford Health Center is not to be missed.
Snowden’s father would be proud. She says he was never disappointed by her decision to become an artist; he told her, “Anybody can be a dentist, not just anybody can be an artist.” What he wanted for Snowden was “to be the best.” And on that wish she certainly came through, not only for him and but for the entire city of Detroit.
Encaustic Painting in Gilda’s studio