Meet the Artists: Far-flung experiences motivate Ballard, Gowen

Benita Gowen says she saw so much gray and despair in the refugee camps that she is now drawn to color. Photo by Geoff Gowen.

This is the first in a weekly series of articles on the artists you can visit during this year’s Artists of Rappahannock Studio & Gallery Tour on Nov. 6-7, sponsored by the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC). For details on the tour, call 540-675-3193 or visit

Robert Ballard and Benita Gowen are among the artists that will be on the upcoming Artists of Rappahannock Studio and Gallery Tour scheduled for Nov. 6 and 7. The tour, now in its sixth year, is sponsored by the Rappahannock Association for the Arts in the Community (RAAC). Ballard’s gallery, R.H. Ballard Art, Rug & Home, is one of eight galleries also on the tour. Gowen’s personal studio will be featured, along with 14 other studios.

Ballard and Gowen both bring an international background to their work, although from different perspectives. Ballard’s is due to his career and travels; Gowen’s is on a much more personal level due to her life as a World War II refugee.

Like many artists, Ballard and Gowen have had many stops along the way in their careers. Ballard has been a curator, an educator, and gallery director of some of San Francisco’s top artists. He has worked internationally in New Zealand as director of the Govett-Brewster Museum, which houses the largest collection of contemporary art of the Pacific region. His own work has been in more 20 exhibits and hangs in 11 public and private collections spanning the world from the University of Guam to Brussels, Belgium.

Robert Ballard, at work in his studio, experiments with color, space and texture using chairs as the subject matter. Photo by Molly M. Peterson.

But the artist in Robert Ballard, who started painting as a teen, is alive and thriving in Rappahannock. His current passion is using chairs as his subject and the central focus of this paintings.

“I painted my first chair when I was in Paris. It started me on a path. Three years later, I am still doing them,” said Ballard, noting that he always works in series, his previous series being of a chapel in Italy.

“Chairs provide a structural, almost architectural form, upon which I can experiment with color, space and texture,” said Ballard, noting also that people read many things into his work. “Chairs can evoke memories of conversations and friends.” The exhibit at his gallery will also feature the quilted art works of chairs done by one of his four children, Alethea Ballard, who has written several books on art quilting.

Gowen, who turned to painting in the 1990s, has had an equally varied career in the arts. She worked in ceramics, commercial art, fashion and furniture design and construction. In the 1980s she turned to interior design, owning her own business, before focusing on art.

“I am making up for the happiness that was not in my childhood when I paint,” said Gowen, whose watercolor and acrylic works are noteworthy for their joyfulness. “I saw so much gray and despair when I lived in the refugee camps, that I am now drawn to color,” added Gowen.

As a child she fled with her parents to Germany when the Soviets invaded Latvia in 1944. She immigrated to the U.S. In 1949. The years in war-torn Germany have fueled a fear of war and its atrocities and a sense of disconnectedness she is still exploring in her life and work. Her work has been shown at the World Bank and many galleries, including the Middle Street Gallery in Washington, Va. Her personal studio will be one of 14 that will be open to visitors on the Nov. 6-7 tour.