The essence of life
Dartmouth artist John Borowicz's portraits almost seem to breathe
Originally published in The New Bedford Standard-Times on January 2, 2007
Dartmouth painter John Borowicz views portraits as a source of remembrance for the clients who commission his work. "When people pick up a portrait, they cry," he says. "The emotion is there." Portraits are also the ultimate test of his skill as a painter. He aims to capture the essence of the person, in a style so real, the subject seems ready to turn and talk to you.
The human form has captured 38-year-old Mr. Borowicz's imagination since he was a child, when his mother gave him a book called "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way." Like many a young artist, he was impressed by the dynamic pictures of superheroes swooping across the sky to do battle with the forces of evil. At the time, copying the Marvel characters and inventing his own seemed like just a fun thing to do. But he was developing the understanding an artist needs to depict the human form moving through space — proportions of the head and body, placement of the muscles, perspective, shading and mark-making.
Throughout his school years, Mr. Borowicz continued to draw on every available surface, even decorating jeans and jackets with superhero images and graffiti text for his friends. It wasn't until his junior year at UMass Amherst as a major in kinesiology, the scientific study of human movement, that he realized how seriously he felt about art. One night, he was supposed to be studying for an important science exam the next morning, but he was so intent on finishing a portrait of his roommate that he hated to stop drawing and prepare for the test. The roommate, sensing his frustration, suggested, "Why don't you just be an art major?" The next day, Mr. Borowicz walked over and applied to the art department.
At first, Mr. Borowicz used his skill in depicting the human figure to express his humanitarian concerns. "I believed that painting could make a difference," he says. Day after day in his studio at school, he painted scenes of the conditions of apartheid in South Africa on 6-foot canvases. This gave him a chance to work with the figure on a life-sized scale. After he spent a semester dedicated to painting, the university offered him a solo show of this politically charged series. Then Mr. Borowicz spent a semester at UMass Dartmouth, where he honed his technical skills still further. He studied design with Anthony Miraglia and painting with Laurie Kaplowitz, two professors whom he credits with giving him the technical tools to articulate his artistic ideas convincingly. When he returned to the Amherst campus, he presented a thesis show of 8-by-6-foot self-portraits in the guise of mythological figures, in an exploration of gender and power.
Soon after graduation, Mr. Borowicz met and married the love of his life, Wen La Barre, and the couple moved to a spacious studio in the King Philip Mill building in Fall River. Here he continued working on huge canvases that were "realistic to the point of illusion." When his work was accepted into the prestigious art publication "New American Paintings," his national career began to take off. He was offered shows at the Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York City and Pierogi 2000 in Brooklyn, and his work was featured in the Italian art magazine "Tema Celeste."
Then the chance to create commissioned portraits came his way. Ms. La Barre was working as a horse trainer, and when her clients heard that Mr. Borowicz was a painter, they hired him to paint portraits of their horses. He was excited by the opportunity to test himself in a genre in which convincing realism is all-important. His success in this specialized venue led to further commissions to paint portraits of dogs, and finally to paint human portraits.
Today, Mr. Borowicz enjoys steady portrait work. "What started as a sideline business has become the main thrust of my work and interest in painting," he says. The process of creating a portrait is complex. Mr. Borowicz starts by taking more than 200 photographs of his subject. He scrutinizes them all, then selects the one that to his eye best captures the sitter's personality. When he and his client have agreed on the pose and other details within the picture, he prepares a wood panel with up to 20 layers of carefully sanded gesso, a primer. It takes about three days to make a detailed drawing from the photograph, and then the artist begins "sculpting with paint."
Using pure linseed oil to dilute the paint, Mr. Borowicz starts with the area of the portrait that contains the darkest and lightest tones — often an eye — and works out from that point. This way, he always has the area of strongest contrast to refer to when working on the less dramatic sections of the painting. Each stroke of paint builds upon the next, until the illusion of three-dimensional form has been successfully coaxed from the two-dimensional surface. During the process of creation, the client makes regular visits to the studio to give feedback. Mr. Borowicz thinks of the portrait process as a collaborative effort between himself and the customer. Mr. Borowicz knows the work is finished when he presents it to the client and sees that flash of recognition in their eyes, when they sense that he has fully captured the spirit of the subject. His final step is to apply a protective coating of varnish to the painting's surface.
This year, Mr. Borowicz was commissioned by UMD to paint a portrait of Claire T. Carney, an alumna and former trustee, for whom the university's new library is to be named. The portrait, unveiled at a gala ceremony in October 2006, will hang in the library when the renovation process is completed.
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