Trying to Get a Sense of Scale – Tim Lowly’s Precious Labor by Matthew Ballou


Trying to Get a Sense of Scale, the new book of Tim Lowly’s work, tops my list of art experiences for 2013. Published by North Park University in Chicago and the Washington Pavilion Visual Arts Center in South Dakota, the book collects images and words connected to Lowly’s nearly three decades of artworks featuring his daughter, Temma. Tim has described his daughter as “profoundly and wonderfully other.”1 His works, and now this book, give us additional access to the impact of that otherness in ways that are evocative and moving.

For those of us who have been aware of Tim’s work for years, this book is a welcome, long-awaited treasure. His ability to bring a strong sense of presence and astonishing thoughtfulness to the acts of making and seeing paintings is well known. In Trying to Get a Sense of Scale we can grasp not only the scope and sequence of Lowly’s achievement as an artist, but also the additional perspective of powerful words that focus and enhance our understanding of that achievement. From the vulnerable, achingly beautiful journal entries by Sherrie Lowly to a genuinely significant text by Riva Lehrer, the book contains a variety of angles from which to approach Tim Lowly’s artistic labor of love.

Sherrie – Tim’s wife and Temma’s mother – gives us insights that only lived experience can obtain. The trajectory of her pain, struggle, acceptance, and joy in the context of Temma’s life and Tim’s painting is astounding. Her willingness to share her emotions and dawning realizations is a vital part of this book.

Riva Lehrer’s work as an artist and educator gives voice to “issues of physical identity and the socially challenged body.”2 In this way her perspective is particularly important to the discussion of disability, personhood, and beingness that Lowly’s paintings initiate. She asserts that Temma’s existence has allowed Tim to “ask what it means to be human if you don’t produce many of the usual markers of human behavior.”3 It is this very question that has stimulated much of the variety and tenacity of Tim Lowly’s creative life. Lehrer’s reflections are an important contribution not only to understanding Lowly’s work but also to understanding beauty, disability, humanity, and love.

The seven texts in this book are all fantastic. Each is rich and steeped with discernment. Each sentence deserves close attention. Each observation requires reflection. Each page rewards repeated visits. Trying to Get a Sense of Scale is a book that affords us a special vantage point from which to take in Lowly’s exceptional body of work. The contributing writers stand with reverence beside the artworks, ultimately allowing the artist’s experience of his daughter to shine through. He has spent so many moments with Temma, so many hours in contemplation of her unique beingness; this book is a way to glimpse some of the lessons he has learned in her presence.

Presence is, after all, central to Tim’s painting and other creative work. Whether he is allowing dozens of people to contribute to his paintings through their own marks or crafting music alongside his various band mates, Tim Lowly is invested in presence and experience. This makes perfect sense in the world of Lowly’s poetic painting, which is a realm of “attention and practice.”4 Great artworks always ask viewers to pay attention to something to which another person has paid attention. That invitation comes with existential implications; it offers transformation.

I have had the great pleasure of spending a bit of time with Tim, most recently at our two-person exhibition in Louisville, KY. He is a gentle soul who listens and sees with a remarkable intensity and intentionality. His words, pictures, and music carry a quiet authority, an authority not of demands or expectations but rather of stillness and contemplation. One senses no vain striving in his work, only the willingness to put in time – months, years, decades – on the long road of understanding. To be with him is to stand with someone who has learned silence from his experience of great mysteries. I’m convinced that much of his personal comportment and kindness of heart is directly connected to his life with Temma. Trying to Get a Sense of Scale is an opportunity to be near some of that kindness. Get the book, see the work, and touch a little bit of the astonishing beauty Tim Lowly has given to the world.


The exhibition Trying to Get a Sense of Scale is on display at Washington Pavilion Visual Arts Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota until January 26, 2014. See their website for more information.

The book is available from the Washington Pavilion Visual Arts Center (link above), as well as the CIVA bookstore here.

For more on Tim Lowly’s work, be sure to see his website and his Flickr.

1 Lowly, Tim. Internet Posting, Available online here.
2 Lowly, Tim. Trying to Get a Sense of Scale. Chicago: North Park University, 2013. Page 157.
3 Lehrer, Riva. “Beauty in Exile.” Trying to Get a Sense of Scale. Chicago: North Park University, 2013. Page 128.
4 VanderBrug, Kenny. “Temma and Paint.” Trying to Get a Sense of Scale. Chicago: North Park University, 2013. Page 138.