“Temma is a Great and Utterly Innocent Mystery”: Tim Lowly

Chicago-based artist, curator, musician and teacher Tim Lowly creates highly lyrical work revolving around his differently-abled daughter Temma (born 1985) – who has cerebral palsy with spastic quadriplegia. In Tim’s paintings, Temma’s quiet life is realistically and gracefully recorded and celebrated. Seemingly meaningless earthly suffering is unflinchingly faced, engaged with, finally transcended. Born in Hendersonville, North Carolina in 1958, Tim spent most of his youth in South Korea, where his parents were medical missionaries, his father being a hospital administrator. The artist attended Calvin College and received a BFA degree in 1981. The same year, he married Sherrie Rubingh. Since 1994, Tim has been affiliated with North Park University in Chicago as gallery director, professor, and artist-in-residence. Learn more about him…

Tim with Temma

Firstly, your childhood and youth. As the son of medical missionaries, you spent quite a lot of time in South Korea. You studied piano when you were young. Then back in the States, you attended Calvin College in Michigan for a BFA. You also taught yourself guitar then. How did the context of healthcare, evangelism and international exposure shape your artistry?

Curiously, my parents thought I would end up going to seminary. I was pretty serious about my faith, but I never thought of myself as a preacher, let alone an evangelist.  Perhaps the single most impactful influence from Korea started with finding out about the Minjung poet Kim Chi Ha and even more significantly, (later, when my wife and I returned to Korea to teach English in 1983-84) meeting the Minjung artist Lim Ok-Sang.  It was quite compelling to me how the poetry and philosophy of Kim Chi Ha unequivocally sided with the poor (the “minjung”) and was perceived by the military dictatorship as a threat. Lim Ok-Sang brought (and still brings) a similar progressive and justice-oriented political approach to his art-making.  Both the poet and the artist also deeply rooted their work in being Korean–in contrast to the majority of the contemporary art that I observed being done in Korea which followed international modernist inclinations. These examples led me to be interested in an art-making that was rooted in community, was socially conscious and regarded movements in contemporary art with a respectful skepticism.


Beyond, 2004, acrylic on panel, 10″ x 10″. Private collection, New York. 


Now, Temma’s situation. What exactly is “cerebral palsy with spastic quadriplegia“? How rare is it? Do you feel there is enough awareness of—and support available for—this condition in America?

What this diagnosis means is pretty broad and I can’t speak to it much beyond our very specific experience. Essentially “cerebral palsy with spastic quadriplegia” means for Temma that she is not capable of much volitional use of her limbs. More critically, her brain appears to be perpetually like that of a newborn. She does not seem capable of learning or understanding (which is always based on learning) much beyond a very basic level. Well, that is how one might think of Temma from the measure of “ability”. That measure has long since fallen aside in terms of how we primarily understand Temma: she is a great and utterly innocent mystery.

Your daughter, you write, is your “central subject”. I really liked your biography on Image. It states that your:

…paintings make us look at the things we train ourselves to avoid seeing: the problems of the body, and the problem of inexplicable suffering of innocents. But as we look more closely, the portraits call even our notions about suffering into question. Though tender, the images are also startlingly realistic. They don’t flinch from Temma’s condition, but rather than lamenting her, they do a sort of visual theodicy, giving us glimpses of meaning in something we tend to think of as being only senseless and painful.

It goes on, noting that your:

…vision, while meditative in style, reminds us that compassion is not the same as pity — rather, compassion is learning to “suffer with” another and to receive, in turn, something inexplicable and grace-filled from the one who suffers.

Would you consider that an accurate assessment of your work? 

That is a generous assessment of my work that I hope is somewhat accurate.  


Dear Protagonist, (a reverie regarding you in the perpetual present), 2013, acrylic on panel, 86” x 74”


I usually find it extremely difficult to even think of—let alone confront—the extreme suffering of innocents. Different religions have grappled with the issue through different mechanisms. Dharmic-karmic systems propose the theory of multiple lives; an agonising fate being the result of some elaborate ledger of past deeds and a mysterious cosmic calculus. The Judeo-Christian worldview highlights the Fallen state of the world and hopes to find a resolution for seemingly unfathomable pain in a bigger picture and peaceful eschatological fulfillment. A materialist might explain away the problem as the consequence of power struggles in nature. People have taken all sorts of approaches to intellectually and emotionally pacify themselves in this area. Why do bad things happen to good people—on a daily basis how do you deal with this clichéd yet supremely important question? Do you rationalise a lot? Or is your perspective more on the mystical side?

It probably sounds strange, but I actually don’t think about “suffering” much in relation to Temma. At least not in terms of the “why?”. I suspect that the answer would be no less complex than life itself. While Temma probably deals with more pain than most people, her demeanour is generally peaceful. Today she’s kind of grumpy.


Trying to Get a Sense of Scale, Acrylic on panel, 21 × 18 in.


In a 2002 write-up in the Chicago Reader, you have mentioned:

Part of my fairly political agenda is to say that disabled children are a part of life. These are not freaks. What I’m saying is that we should advocate for eyes of compassion that see human beings as human beings, rather than separating them into the beautiful, the ugly, the normal, the freak.

Why do you think there is such a stark distinction between “the normal and the freak”, “the beautiful and the ugly” in our contemporary world? I think that social Darwinism and a free market built strictly on competition have something to do with it. It’s only the able-bodied and mentally agile who can survive and master this environment. The emphasis is forever on fitness and functionality. Anyone who cannot belong to the economic sphere is instantly and automatically deemed unnecessary for the human sphere itself. A human is one who must produce and sell a good or service. Anybody who cannot do that bit easily becomes the other, the inessential, a drain on resources, a liability. This logic is pervasive. It may sound fine initially but after a while can get pretty disturbing. I’d love to know your thoughts on the matter…

Economic “productiveness” is a major consideration, but it seems to be natural for humans who are in positions of power to define and to privilege the “normal”.  One thing about “disability” is that there is no “normal”: that is, “the disabled” are a group of people who are by definition (as defined by those who consider themselves the normal) not normal, but they (“the disabled”) are otherwise as different from each other as they are from “normal” people. We (my wife and I) as “white” middle-class highly educated individuals occupy a place of privilege in a society that is generally affluent. Those factors have contributed to our having the material, emotional and vocational ability to have Temma continue to live with us. We are grateful that it is possible for her to live with us and for the way she anchors our lives. I’m inclined to think that those who have bought into the kind of worldview you describe as having—ironically–made for themselves an impoverished (spiritually speaking) home.


Shift, 2002, 40″ x 60″, acrylic on panel.


Two of your pieces captivated me immediately: “Temma on Earth” and “Culture of Adoration”. In the first, Temma is comfortable on the ground, it looks as if she is in a harmonious communion with Creation. In the second, she is in a most important position—the object of enquiry to a roomful of creative people. Tell us more about these projects…

I have done a number of pieces where Temma was lying on the ground—because she can’t walk or sit on her own, lying down is basically her natural position—and as I was working on various pieces of sculpture and other paintings, I began reflecting on the way in which she is a reminder of our relationship with this earth. The effect of gravity on her is a simple metaphor for the nature of human existence. After I had done these series of sculptures, I photographed them and sent the photographs to my parents. My father called me on Easter Sunday and said he thought I should do a sculpture of Temma after the resurrection. That sparked a long conversation about the resurrection and ideas of what the resurrected body would be like. Contemporary notions of the resurrected body, I think, are actually largely driven by a Renaissance-based idealism of the human body. Although Temma on Earth” is set in an existential present as a meditation of life “on earth,” the reference to the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy will be done on earth as in heaven”) might be seen as raising the question of what the resurrected body might be like.


Temma on Earth, 1999, 8′ x 12′, acrylic gesso with pigment on panel. Collection of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle.


In the painting, you’re seeing this figure from above, yet when you see the painting, it is a bit disorienting because she is above you and floating on the wall. She simultaneously appears plastered to the earth and yet floating like an angel. This disorienting perspective, where the viewer is seemingly suspended visually up in the air above the subject is referred to as the “God’s eye view” in cinema.


Culture of Adoration

About “Culture of Adoration”: I was preparing for an exhibition with Koplin Del Rio Gallery which was at the time located in Los Angeles, a place that one might think of as the centre of our culture’s adorations (of beauty, celebrity, fame…). Thinking of the art historical precedent of paintings of the “Adoration of the Magi” I was struck by how in those paintings the (often many) people were formed into a kind of community by their common act of adoration of the baby Jesus.  Further I was interested in how a drawing class turns it’s corporate attention–a kind of adoration–to a model and in a sense by that shared act the class becomes a kind of community. Then I was thinking of the radically disorienting experience one has of observing and drawing someone like Temma.  In her being she presents a rather jolting revision of what a “model” is. She doesn’t pose or make any attempt to present an idealised self. She simply is.

Temma’s Object (1), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


Temma’s Object (2), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


You have a touching series titled “Temma’s Objects”. Temma’s personality here emerges powerfully through her very absence. Why are you attached to these particular things?

At the time one of my former students Rachael M. Gonzalez was working as a caregiver for Temma, I proposed that we make a series of collaborative drawings of objects from Temma’s life and care. The selection of the objects was fairly intuitive and by both Rachael and myself. Rachael would start the drawing, taking it as far as she felt she could (defining for herself a kind of emotional distance/proximity to Temma). I would then continue working on the piece until it was done.


Temma’s Object (3), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


Who are your favourite artists? 

There are many artists whose work I find myself in conversation with.  Following are a few that come to mind. These aren’t ranked other than the first listed who I would say has been the most important for me: Antonio López García… George Tooker, Andrei Tarkovsky, Arvo Pärt, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Guy Chase, Giovanni Bellini, Lim Ok-Sang, Richard Rezac, Zinaida Serebryakova, Odilon Redon, Fra Angelico, Wonsook Kim, Robert Gober, Diego Velázquez, Vija Celmins, Vermeer, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Rembrandt, Tim Hawkinson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Yoshihiro Suda, Gerhard Richter, Vilhelm Hammershøi…

What are some of the most memorable depictions of infirmity or suffering in general that you have encountered—both in visual and literary art?

Several pieces by Käthe Kollwitz (who belongs in that list above), Riva Lehrer (who also belongs in that list above) is a phenomenal contemporary artist/author whose depictions of “disabled” persons are profound (although not principally about infirmity or suffering). The author Kenzaburō Ōe is probably the single most important artist for me as far as someone who has integrated his art-making with the life of/with his disabled son Hikari (who is a composer).


O Bright Sea, 2013, acrylic on panel, 45 × 74 in – here shown in a collaborative installation with Nnenna Okore. Nnenna Okore is a colleague at North Park University and we have done collaborative installations on several occasions.


Temma’s Object (4), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


As an art educator, what are your principles? 

This would be an article in itself. A friend once described a dream he had: in the dream I was leading a group of people on an excursion.  I kept turning over rocks and marvelling at what was underneath. That, in brief, sums up my teaching philosophy.

Who are some of your most outstanding students?  I have had many outstanding students, but I am particularly indebted to a number who have worked with me as assistants over the years.  All of them extraordinary: Dean Ramos, Hendriksma-Anderson, Daniel Breems, Christen MattixRobin Spencer, Charity Kittler, Katie Cooper, Rachel M Gonzalez, Daniel Warren Johnson, Laura Prentice Wennstrom, Erica Elan Ciganek, Maggie Hubbard, Tim Erickson and Jeannette Habash.


Without Moving (after Guy Chase), 2010 – ongoing, acrylic on panel, 75″ x 120″. This project involves an on-going participatory component in which the dark gray field of the painting surrounding the figure of Temma is slowly being covered by a meticulously painted field of black dots. These dots are being applied by Tim Lowly and a variety of other participants who paint dots starting in proximity to dots that have already been painted and count the dots This quasi performance/action component of the work only takes place during the course of the work’s exhibition when Tim is present. Started in 2009 this work has been shown numerous times and over 120 people have participated in the dot painting.


Temma’s Object (5), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


What is the greatest thing you have learnt from Temma?

Perhaps not knowing. Interesting question, but I don’t have a good answer.  

If you had the opportunity, what changes would you make in the discourse around disability at the practical policy-level?

I would leave that to Temma’s remarkable caregiver Ellen Herbert who is more aware of and engaged in such discourse/action (she just said, “Fully fund Medicaid!”).

Finally, do you still make music?  

Yes, see baby-mountain.tumblr.com

Find Tim on his website (www.timlowly.com), Facebook (www.facebook.com/tlowly), Instagram (www.instagram.com/timlowly), Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/timlowly) and Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Lowly). The artist is represented by Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Seattle.


Temma’s Object (6), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


Temma’s Object (7), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


Temma’s Object (8), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


Carry Me, 2002, drawing on panel, 108″ x 48″, private collection, Chicago. The following North Park University students appear in and provided collaborative assistance with this work: Robin Spenceer, Yoonhee Kim, Amanda Hasse, Michelle Ness, Heather Yanul and Krissa Harwood


Parel, 2014, acrylic on panel, 14″ x 17″


Temma’s Object (9), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


Temma’s Object (10), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


Temma’s Object (11), Rachael M Gonzalez & Tim Lowly, 2016, graphite and ink on Schoellershammer board mounted to MDF, 6″ x 6″


La Bergère d’Arcadie (“The Shepherdess of Arcadia”), 2016, acrylic on panel, 24″x 15″

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