(This article appeared in Pioneer Trails, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1992, and is available at Heritage Station museum.)
An exhibit unequaled in the history of the Umatilla County Historical Society drew crowds to the Pendleton-based museum throughout April and May of this year.
The exhibit featured pen and ink drawings of Daniel Webster Bowman, a long-time resident of the Pendleton and Echo areas.
To just call them pen and ink drawings is misleading. The drawings are the result of thousands of tiny strokes and occasionally circles, at times extremely precise, and others producing a vague yet tantalizing effect that makes you want to stare - and continue to stare.
As a small child in Pennsylvania during the final quarter of the 19th century, Bowman would work at his drawing late into the night, while his mother rocked in her chair, smoking her clay pipe. But he hid his work the minute his father came around - Papa considered them "sheer nonsense" for a boy to produce.
Bowman, was born in 1872 in Clearfield County, Pa. One of 15 children and blessed with a father who found plenty for him to do on the farm. Bowman was in his late forties before he found blocks of time to work on his art. He moved with his wife, Hannah Barrett Bowman, to the Pendleton area in 1894, and later to a farm near Echo.
ver the years his drawings centered on both Oregon scenes and memories of his native state of Pennsylvania. He also relied for some on pictures he had seen in newspapers.
For a showing at the Portland Art Museum, Rachael Griffin, curator, commented that Bowman's landscapes have an almost "out of this world" effect on the viewer. Yet one, of the Hotel St. George in early-day Pendleton, is primitive in its stark directness, making you want to smile. In that drawing every brick is drawn with the pen and the lace curtains are shown in detail, yet the cars on the street, she said, are "sort of awkwardly drawn; they don't quite sit down on the street."
Griffin called Bowman one of many primitive artists who produce their naive and charming works ... the kind that you see at the " County Fair." However, Bowman's have something else, when you scrutinize them closely.
The drawings, for the most part, are made from thousands of tiny, tiny strokes, sometimes little circles, or tiny curved strokes which are a little like fur. "One can scarcely imagine the time spent on one of these drawings." Griffin noted. Yet those dots create darks so velvety you want to stroke them ... they produce a tangled, lacy mass which forests become in the dusk ... they produce the tops of mountains with a pale clarity that is like chiffon."
A picture of Multnomah Falls, produced from bottom to top and including the bridge, startles you with Bowman's creation of a dining car in the foreground. You can see people at the table, and almost what they are eating, from microscopic dishes. So precise is the picture he creates you can even see a teapot on the table - if you look very closely.
The charm of Bowman's unique method of pointillism is retained through most of his life's work. His formal schooling was only through the fourth grade. He spent six weeks in art school at one time ... but he couldn't square the teaching with his own vision, already almost developed, so he returned home and pursued his art in his own way.
"He found himself in the deeply-felt, almost magical landscapes of mountains and forests - our own Northwest landscape. Over it he cast his magic veil of dots and creates a new view which seems to transform the rocks and lakes and dark trees into something else - to lift them into another world or back into some past which we have never read of in histories."
The exhibit was coordinated for the Umatilla County Historical Society by Bowman's daughter, Ester Fife of Echo. She gathered pieces of the artwork from her sister and other relatives' collections, as well as her own.
Bowman's pictures were not exhibited to the public until 1964 when Fife showed them to the late Betty Feves, an internationally-known sculptress who lived in Pendleton. Feves found them impressive and an exhibit was arranged at Eastern Oregon State College. Several others followed including the one at the Portland Art Museum.
During his lifetime, Bowman made no money on his pictures, except those sketches made of homes and farms around the country, for which he charged $25. These drawings are still scattered over the area from Walla Walla to Burns.