Hilton Head artist Joe Bowler: Creating and giving back

Joe Bowler’s “Dandelion Days.”
Joe Bowler’s “Dandelion Days.” Submitted photo

Things were quiet at Four Corners Gallery. Joe Bowler’s daughter, Brynne, had brought along some of the 30 pieces to be installed in the gallery. The images, for the upcoming Bowler exhibit, “Bluffton Connection,” focused on everything we count on from Joe Bowler.

Among them:

▪ A child dashing and splashing at water’s edge in “On My Way.”

▪ A narrative setting in “Keats” with two young women in billowing whites, set against a Lowcountry ground.

▪ A lovely young woman moving through a luscious Lowcountry setting in “Spring Walk.”

▪ A young woman, the folds of her white dress held with both hands, as she extends her bare foot into a reflecting pond in “Dainty Dipper.”

“The paintings all have a “Bluffton Connection,” said Charlene Gardner, of Four Corners. “Joe began this series about a year ago … and the entire collection in some way, is about Bluffton friends, Bluffton settings and Bluffton interests; they all portray the character of the people.”

At the Bowler Studio, Sea Pines

Light streams in through a sliding glass door.

Joe Bowler, approaching 87, was seated in the middle of his work area. A gray mechanical wheel chair, which he controlled with a small box, responded to his needs and commands.

Bowler contracted polio in 1958 while traveling in Paris. He battled courageously and recovered the full use of his arms and hands.

“The entire experience was incredible,” said Bowler. “But dealing with all of the challenges contributed to making me stronger and requiring me to accept and face my challenges, completely, and especially to appreciate the support of my family, my co-workers, and the medical professionals who saw to my re-entry into the life I wanted to live.

“I spend almost every afternoon in my studio,” Bowler added. “I used to say I was going full bore. Actually, I guess I still am. I have so much more to do. I’m learning something everyday, and I’m still focused on accomplishing outcomes I’ll be proud of. I want to create paintings that I believe are what they need to be.”

There is palpable order in Bowler’s studio, and in his daily schedule, which he attributes to the devoted assistance of his daughters, Jolyn and Brynne. Marilyn Bowler — not only his wife, but his partner — served as his artist’s representative and oversaw the Joe Bowler business. She passed away in 2008.

“Marilyn handled everything … she worked on all of the details that crop up in an artist’s life, so I could focus on my painting,” said Bowler. “So much of what we all have accomplished is because Marilyn, our driving force, saw to it.”

Early Bowler

“I really can’t remember when I couldn’t draw,” said Bowler, when I asked him about his earliest days. “I remember drawing bicycles and more bicycles, all of the time. It was before I was old enough for school.”

Bowler, who was born and raised in Forest Hills, N.Y., explained that the reason he was so anxious to start school was because he thought he knew something about his drawing that would be recognized at school and would set him apart from everybody else.

“My mother was very artistic … a milliner,” he said. “She encouraged my drawing and supported my interests. I really think we knew all of the time that I had a gift to see something and immediately be able to draw it as I saw it.”

One of Bowler’s career changing events came along in 1948 when, at 19 and living in New York City, he accepted in a kind of roundabout way an apprenticeship at Coopers.

“I got the job, worked hard as an apprentice, the whole time realizing that all I wanted to do was to become an illustrator.

“Coby Whitmore, an illustrator at Coopers, saw a painting I had done of a blond bride,” said Bowler. “He told me to mat it and he’d take it to ‘Cosmopolitan.’ Can you imagine?”

“Everything changed, again,” said Bowler. “Coby told me to bill them $1,000. Up until that moment, I’d been earning $35 a week.”

Bowler stayed on at Coopers, where he enjoyed an enormously successful career. During that time he enriched his life when he met and married his wife, Marilyn, who was attending Parson’s School of Design. Together they raised two daughters.

Bowler, the illustrator, was elected to the Society of Illustrators in 1952, and was named The Artists’ Guild of New York Artist of the Year. His portrait work in magazines opened another new door for him. One was the opportunity of portraying eight presidential candidates’ wives. The August 1971 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal had as its cover a portrait of Rose Kennedy. He was inducted into the illustrators Hall of Fame in 1992.

“I think that of the top most successful portrait painters, eight of the 10 started as illustrators,” said Bowler. “As an illustrator you must draw, compose, pose models interestingly, photograph. A portrait artist does all of this. It is the greatest training.”

When magazine illustrations were replaced by photographs, everything changed, again.

“Coby Whitmore, who had really started me on my way, started me on my way once more,” said Bowler. “We were buddies, so when he relocated to Hilton Head Island, he told me, in no time, that he felt the Bowlers should do the same.”

In 1972, the Bowler family moved to Sea Pines, and Joe’s fine art — figurative work and portraits — became his new direction. Another illustrator friend, Joe DeMers, had not only moved to Hilton Head, but had started an art gallery on the island. Bowler’s participation in that gallery was the perfect launch.

“An article about my work in “Southern Accents” kicked off the demand for my work in portraiture,” said Bowler. “Marilyn wrote it, and it created such an interest in me and my work.”

“Life changing, again,” said Bowler. “I applied what I knew about portraiture, figurative drawings and the concept of commission work. In no time I had waiting lists on my waiting lists of clients wanting portraits done of their families or clubs wanting to honor members or businesses wanting to honor officers. By the way, the list continues.”

Bowler continues to point out that the ability to paint a portrait is only part of what it takes to be a successful portrait artist. “A portrait artist must first, create a good painting,” said Bowler “But that is only part of it. My overwhelming challenge is to satisfy myself.”

Vibrant legacy

Joe Bowler — actually the entire Bowler family — have contributed far more than his stunning outcomes in illustration and fine art to our Lowcountry community. They have graciously offered such generous artistic opportunity to everyone their lives have touched.

“I don’t know two people that have given to and devoted more of themselves to the education of youth in the arts than Joe and Marilyn Bowler,” said Gardner. “Joe has spent many hours offering encouragement and sharing his expertise with young artists who have a plan to be as accomplished as he.”

“I’m proud to know and have known the Bowler family,” she added. “Joe and Marilyn and Jolyn and Brynne have graciously given so much.”

Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at

If you go

What: “Bluffton Connection” exhibit

Where: Four Corners Art Gallery, 1263-B May River Road, Bluffton

When: June 17-July 16

Details: 843-757-8185 or