Artist Interview: David Gowman

Today I present to you a most humourous interview with artist, David “Mr Fire-Man” Gowman. He’s a musician, gardener, and maker of horns, as well as a self-described class clown. I promise his words will make you laugh. Read on…

Tell us about yourself:
Today, in the third month of my 46th year, I find myself an instrument-maker engaging community with interactive entertainment by way of performances with a small orchestra dominated by hand-made wooden horns.

But that is more about what I do than who I am. Properly described, I should be seen as the archetypal class-clown determined to escape a long cycle of disappointing corporate employment by creating his own much happier, if less fiscally responsible niche.

How long have you been an artist and how did you become one?
I can think of two starting points separated by several decades. Initially, in 1970’s Kitchener, Ontario, an artist was a person who could draw or paint (or even both!). In grade three I won great accolades from my peers upon completing my Weasel Project (yes, a project about weasels) on account of two very believable illustrations (pencil and guache) of weasels. This conference of status was an impetus for me to apply myself further in the hopes of gaining more praise and social standing from my classmates, an impulse I feel to this day.

Somewhere along the line, I determined to make a career out of my art skills, and promptly sold out to the advertizing industry as an illustrator/designer/prostitute-for-hire, a ten year career that feeds the satire in my performances to this day.

My epiphany came in 1995, in a windowless cubicle, in a Fundamentalist-Christian-owned advertizing agency, in an industrial park in deep Etobicoke, where 75 of us worked mostly for a KFC account. I was using my hard-won skills to render technical drawings for the 64 page deep-fry equipment user’s manual, a task my art director sold to me as ‘a soul-sucking job from hell, but with plenty of billable hours’. That horrible job was finally impetus enough to quit, move to Vancouver and take a chance on my own, self directed work.

Do you work full time or part time as an artist? If part-time, what do you do to support yourself?
I used to be a ‘full time’ artist. My first ten years or so in Vancouver, I made ends meet by selling paintings real cheap-like out of a pizza restaurant in Gastown. But the desperation as a semi-obscure Canadian artist is no trip to the playground. Lately I have two, four-hour-a-week jobs: one cleaning my building on Sundays, and the other as the gardener for a lovely co-op near Granville Island. Both jobs pay $100 each time. Combined with the occasional caricature gig entertaining at conferences or municipal events (yes I am still at least partly a corporate whore), and workshops through community centres, my habits are being supported.

Empress wood

Sticks harvested from the Empress Tree

What are some of your favourite materials to work with?
Currently, my favourite material is wood from the Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) on account of it’s habit of growing long, straight, hollow* sticks very suitable for horn making.

*mostly hollow

bill hook demo

Tell us a bit about the process you go through to create your work:
First there’s the pollarding of the Empress tree, a heavy pruning that leaves only about four feet of trunk remaining. This causes it to sprout new branches which grow very fast and often straight up. At the end of the winter, they can be harvested and cured on the porch, out of the sunlight. Once they’re dry, they can be chopped and glued into appropriate horn-shaped configurations.

Another process worth mentioning is composing music and rehearsing with my band, an enterprise I would liken to herding wet cats with a broom, only the wet cats all have opinions and never answer their e-mails.

Horn in progress


Where do you find inspiration for your work, and what keeps you motivated?
I think of my work as a voice in the wilderness crying out against corporatism and religious dogma. What keeps me motivated is the certainty that, at least here in Canada, the ecologically-minded secular socialists are losing the fight at the cost of human rights, freedoms and the future of our drinking water.

Plus, the band is getting tighter as we practice. We’ve had some really good sets, lately.

Legion of the Flying Monkeys in performance

Legion of the Flying Monkeys in performance

Is there a favourite project or piece of artwork you’ve created? Tell us about it:
Tough to pick favourites. But this is a recording from a set we played at Raw Canvas (a restaurant) with pictures from the Means of Production Garden in Mount Pleasant, wherein I am heavily involved.

Tell us about other artists who have inspired you:
I have the great fortune of knowing Ken Clarke, a master sculptor in Gastown who has played a large mentorship role with me over the years. Ken is known for large cast faces and figures he produces in series, but I know his more private stone work that is more Zen and abstract.

Other than art, what are you particularly excited about right now?
There’s a new lunch place on Cambie street called Meat & Bread selling roast pork sandwiches. It’s not easy to convince my pesco-vegetarian wife that this is something I really need. But it does have me particularly excited right about now.

What are some of the biggest challenges you feel artists face today?
In Canada an artist must overcome the inherent social standing of ‘Canadian Artist’ which is only one step removed from ‘homeless person’ or ‘pan-handler’ in the minds of the average citizen. In this milieu, a hopeful creative-type can spend far too much effort seeking to achieve legitimacy when what they really need is to find their peers and get on with the task of making art.

What is special about the arts community where you live? What’s one thing you would change?
I live in the Core Artists’ Co-op in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s only actual Artists’ Co-operative. The larger community here in Gastown is very affirming and often feels like Sesame Street for its friendliness and camaraderie, despite being in the midst of rampant, street level human suffering.

If I could change one thing, I would end the war on drugs. Not very realistic I suppose but it sounds much better than telling you about the people I’d like to kick out of my co-op (the violence-threatening alcoholic, the delusional, violence-threatening homophobic, or the non-participant rich kid who illegally sublets to strangers and doesn’t submit his taxes).

Where can people find you both online and offline:

Offline: Walk down to Main and Alexander Street. One half block East, stand on the North side and yell, ‘Hey, Fire-Maaaaaaaaann!.’
That should work.