|Left: Robert McGowan. Right: Robert and Peg McGowan as newlyweds.
Editor’s note: This story is the result of one of the final interviews given by Robert McGowan. Diagnosed in January 2012 with Stage II B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma, McGowan died Nov. 15, 2012, at home with friends and family. I’m honored to have a small part in memorializing an amazing artist and man and blessed to have had an opportunity, for a short time, to communicate with him.
“All artists want their work to live on for a long while after their demise. One’s work, as quaint a thought as it might be, is in many important ways like one’s progeny or even one’s very self,” McGowan said. “An artist’s life is in his/her work. An artist’s work is his life. We want it to live on into the future and to matter to those who’ll encounter it. It might be, psychologically, kind of a selfish thing really, childish perhaps, but there it is; almost every artist feels this way about his work.”
A talented artist, McGowan has been featured in a variety of private and public collections and publications throughout the world, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bank of America, Bank of Korea, American Literary Review, BRAND (UK) and dotdotdash (Australia). In addition, he has a collection of written works available at the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library.
“I’m very happy The McGowan Collection exists, yes, and I’m pleased much of my writing will live in published books.”
Now, through a generous donation from the Bert Sharpe and Patti Lechman Gallery, McGowan’s art work will be added to the collection at the Art Museum at the University of Memphis. His street named paintings, a tribute to Memphis, will have a permanent home in the museum’s collection.
“This means a great deal to me personally,” McGowan said. “I’ve wanted very, very much for these paintings to stay together, given their obvious relationship with each other visually, formally and given their being a direct representation of my relationship with the South Main District, which remains dear to me. I’m honored to be in the AMUM collection.”
McGowan’s relationship with the South Main District began in the 1980s when he founded the non-profit Memphis Center for Contemporary Art, which he directed for three years. The Center was created to increase local awareness of contemporary art.
McGowan’s interest in art began a few years earlier, when he returned home from the Vietnam War. Although he was almost finished with his degree in philosophy, McGowan wanted a new direction for his life. McGowan talks about his time in Vietnam in his book, NAM: Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories. Little did he know that, while in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange which would be later determined the cause for his January 2012 diagnosis of Stage II B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Unaware of the effect the war would later have on his health, McGowan worked to complete his Bachelor of Science degree at the then Memphis State University, but he also enrolled in art courses.
“I’d come by then to believe that I’d rather do something I could actually see and feel instead of speculating airily about the nature of existence and the universe. I’d come to realize such speculation is basically futile. It was my art portfolio that got me into the MFA program at Cranbrook Academy of Art,” McGowan said.
Armed with his newfound appreciation for a more tangible discipline and his art portfolio, McGowan entered the MFA program at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. After earning his master’s in 1973, he returned to Memphis to teach ceramics and art history.
He left his faculty position after about a year and built a studio in his backyard to focus on his own work.
“I came to have rather good success: a sellout solo show in a respected gallery in New York, interviews in major national publications, dealers on both coasts and elsewhere and work going to excellent collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” McGowan said.
In 1983, McGowan and his first wife, Annie Mahaffey, moved to South Main in an effort to assist with the revitalization of the South Main Historic District in Downtown Memphis. Recently, McGowan and Mahaffey received the 2012 Visionary Award given by the Downtown Memphis Commission recognizing their outstanding contributions to Downtown. They were part of the first residential rehab project Downtown.
“I’d thought I would continue with my art, but Annie and I both became consumed with our struggles on behalf of the District,” he said of South Main, which had pretty much been abandoned by the city and developers.
In 1988, their hard work paid off and the Memphis Center for Contemporary Art opened at 416 South Main Street, located in the same building as their home. While there, they were responsible for helping establish the South Main Historic District and founding the South Main Historic District Association, the Tennessee New Art Association and NUMBER, an art publication.
“NUMBER ... this was the idea of a friend of mine. It simply sounded appealingly minimalist. It comes from how journals are cited, as in: Volume 12, Number 1.”
Despite their tireless efforts, the doors of MCCA closed in 1991 because of lack of funding.
“It was extremely difficult keeping alive in Memphis an artist-run gallery focusing on ‘difficult’ contemporary art,” he said. “Memphis simply did not then have in place a support system for such ventures.”
Another chapter of McGowan’s life closed that same year. He and Annie divorced after 25 years of marriage. A dark time for McGowan, he left his South Main dreams of living and operating a gallery behind, getting a job at Davis-Kidd Booksellers as a media relations and marketing manager. His artistic career was on hold.
He soon met his current wife Peggy, who graduated from the University of Memphis in the late 1980s.
“I waited 40 years to find him, and he was worth waiting for,” she said. “I knew I would never marry a ‘suit’ or a ‘jock.’ We are disgustingly happy.”
By the time they married, Peggy had an impressive resume of her own. She attended Memphis State University in the early 70s while working part-time as a camerawoman at WMC-TV. Before finishing her degree, she left college to work on a traveling show for ABC, Almost Anything Goes. When the program ended, she moved to Los Angeles.
Her timing was perfect because companies were getting pressure to hire more women. Within two months, she was offered a job with NBC and ABC, but she chose ABC. Getting the job might have been quick, but acceptance took time.
“Some directors wouldn’t even talk to me,” she said. “One director asked the technical director, who was in charge of studio assignments, to take me off the crew. He wanted no women on his crew. To his credit, the technical director said, ‘if she goes, I go.’ We both stayed.”
She said she was told by a fellow cameraperson that she was taking away a job from a man who needed to feed his family. “I told him that I needed to eat too!”
Her perseverance paid off. In 1978, she won an Emmy Award for Best Camera Operator for her work on Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday, the first female to win the award.
“It felt great. I will never forget it. It was such a novel thing back then,” Peggy said. “When I went to the Academy to pick up my Emmy after it had been engraved, most of the female staff came to see me. It was very moving and made me realize that I had done a remarkable thing.”
Proud of his wife, McGowan wanted to make sure that when talking about him, she was included.
“I hope you’re telling the world about the Amazing Peg in addition to ol’ Rob,” he said, wanting the world to know about her accomplishments.
After everything he’s done and the places he’s been, what was the most memorable for McGowan?
“Most difficult question last, eh?” he joked. “The most important thing I’ve done ... I’ve sat here and thought about this question for a long time. I simply cannot answer it.”