For artist Tim (Grubbs) Lowly '81, art is all about relationships. That's why it should be no surprise that the subject for much of his work is family.
"Typically, the work I've done is very personal," said Lowly. "I feel a real connection with whomever or whatever I am painting."
Recently, Lowly has focused much of his creative effort on painting his daughter, Temma. In fact, a recent show at the Gescheidle Gallery in Chicago showcased seven of his works—all featuring Temma.
While Temma fits Lowly's perception of what an artist's model should be, she is not the typical painter's prototype: Temma is severely physically and mentally disabled.
She was born to Lowly and his wife, Sherrie, in 1985. "We had absolutely no preparation for her," said Lowly. "I don't think I had ever known a severely impaired child before Temma."
Because of her extreme impairments, Temma was not expected to live more than a few years.
Now 17, she weighs only 80 pounds and is fed through a surgically implanted tube. She is cortically blind, which means that while her eyes function normally, her brain can't make sense of the signals. She can't stand or sit on her own. She doesn't speak. She frequently has seizures. She does smile faintly on occasion, but her parents aren't sure that she knows them from anyone else. The Lowlys are her main caretakers.
"It's hard to say what our life would have been like without her," Lowly said. "Developmentally, she has changed very, very little over the years. For us it was a slow realization that things were going to be quite different in our lives."
Living with Temma has affected Lowly's life and work profoundly.
"Temma is strange, but so are most of us in our own unique ways," he said. "Part of the reason I paint Temma is because it's like a daily devotional for me. All of the things our culture so highly values—beauty, power, capability—my paintings have nothing to do with any of these things. I hope it challenges our notion of what is valuable."
Lowly's paintings often feature Temma in an everyday situation such as resting on the couch with Sherrie.
"My intent is not to make her out to be something more than what she is," he said. "But I don't feel that she is any less deserving of attention than anybody else on the planet. And in terms of what she has to endure just to live each day, there is no one more deserving."
His work has won critical acclaim, which is satisfying for Lowly. His shows have been reviewed by the Chicago Tribune, and he was recently featured in Chicago's free weekly, Reader.
Still, Lowly hopes for more.
"It's a natural thing for an artist that when you make something you want people to see, you want people to see it," he said. "My work is really hard. I mean there's a type of complexity to it. Over time people get it, but it's hard to sell. Who wants to buy a painting of a disabled child?"
Part of what makes his work complex is his faith, he said.
"I think it's impossible for one's faith not to be a part of one's work," he said. "Many people looking at my work have no idea that I'm a Christian, and that's fine with me. I don't want people to see my role as trying to convert them. The evolution of my work over the last few years—especially as influenced by Temma—has become less like taking this idea and painting it and more like having a belief and making a piece about that."
In regard to Temma, that belief is complicated. Sherrie, who three years ago received her master's in divinity from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and who is a pastor at Chicago's Berry Memorial United Methodist Church, says she "sees God in Temma."
"There's a basic theological principle behind Sherrie's talk about seeing God in Temma," Tim is quoted as saying in a recent article in Reader. "Jesus says, 'As you do to the least of these, you do to me.' Temma is among the least of the least, yet in some sense she's fully human . By saying that she informs my understanding about God, I don't mean to put her on a pedestal. It's more a matter of bringing us continually to what is essential about being human."
— Lynn Rosendale is Calvin's publications coordinator.
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