Paul Fowler portrait

Paul Fowler


Paul M. Fowler (1953-1989) was a Boston-based artist whose work focused on calligraphy. His interest in calligraphy was sparked when he was a student at Massachusetts College of Art (Mass Art) in the early 1970s. Perhaps the first exhibition of his calligraphy, Expanded Vision: The Artist as a Group, on view at Mass Art’s Longwood Gallery in 1974, consisted of a series of calligraphic works jointly produced by Fowler and three of his classmates. Fowler left Mass Art without finishing his program in order to pursue calligraphy in greater depth.

In 1975, Fowler became a member of the Society for the Study and Experience of Beautiful Writing in America (SEBWA). That same year, he and fellow calligrapher Colleen trekked to Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth) to study with internationally renowned graphic artist, calligrapher, and teacher Howard Glasser and Scottish calligrapher, artist, and teacher Tom Gourdie. In 1977, SEBWA evolved into the Lettering Arts Guild of Boston, with Fowler as one of its founding members. He was an active member of the Guild for five years, including president in 1979. The Guild organized lectures, workshops, and exhibitions for its members. It had group exhibitions at the Boston Athenaeum, the Piano Factory, and the Boston Architectural Center, to name a few. The impressive bulletins produced by the Guild over the years were also a space for members to advertise their course offerings. Courses offered by Fowler in his Cambridge studio are listed in several Guild bulletins. Archives for the Lettering Arts Guild are located at Mass Art. Fowler left the Lettering Arts Guild of Boston in December 1981, as his work, as he described it, was “heading in new directions.” However, in a letter to the Guild, he acknowledged, “My association with the Guild since its earliest days has been one of the most significant factors in both my personal and artistic growth.”

In summer 1981, the Guild held an exhibition at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMB). The location of this exhibition intersected with Fowler’s new pursuit of undergraduate studies there. He received a BA in English literature from UMB in 1982. From 1983 to 84, Fowler spent more than a year in China, teaching English at the University of Science and Technology, in Hefei, Anhui, continuing to pursue his calligraphy, and traveling around the country. His time in China further advanced his understanding of Chinese calligraphy and provided him a more in-depth perspective on Chinese culture as a whole.

When Fowler returned home, he worked as a freelance calligrapher and at the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, in August 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS. In spite of his diagnosis, Fowler continued on with his life. In addition to work, he volunteered to do AIDS education workshops at the AIDS Action Committee of Boston, participated in “AIDS: Keeping Abreast of Current Issues and Trends” at the New England Deaconess Hospital, a program designed to keep doctors up to date on the treatment of AIDS patients, and contributed to the PBS documentary Making a Better Doctor. In 1988, he gave a talk at the Joslin Clinic to 200 doctors and nurses on the physical and psychological ramifications of living with AIDS, which he described as “a chance for me to express my own opinions—both good and bad—to people who work with or anticipate working with AIDS patients.”

In 2023, Gallery 5 at Emmanuel College, Boston, held an exhibition of Fowler’s calligraphy. The exhibition explored two dominant themes regarding his choice of subjects: music and literature. His appreciation for the literary arts was articulated by Fowler himself, when he wrote to his friend, poet Jane Barnes, from China in 1984, “There are times when the power of words overwhelms me—when [words] pierce my heart with their truth.” Fowler’s musical taste represented an eclectic mix, from David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin to Mozart and Beethoven, to Bartok. For his memorial service, he requested that Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs sung by Jessye Norman be played. (For documentation of the Emmanuel College exhibition, see here.)

Fowler’s calligraphy is beautifully described by the words of his friend Colleen, another member of the Lettering Arts Guild, which she shared at his memorial service. She observed, “His calligraphic work always made a strong statement. It strove for beauty, was sensitive to detail, and it was flamboyant yet wedded to classicism. . . . His work spoke of his passion for living. . . . This gay man, who had the courage to educate by his open, gay pride, gave me the gift of myself.”

As a former student of Mass Art, Fowler learned of photographer Nick Nixon’s project to photograph people with AIDS (PWAs). Fowler had an intellectual interest in the project as an art work, but even more, he was motivated by an interest in conveying the experiences of PWAs to a wider audience in the hopes of improving PWA patient care, not necessarily for himself but for others dealing with the virus. Nixon’s work was controversial from the start, but the project, particularly the text that accompanies the book that resulted from the project, titled simply People with AIDS, provides important documentation of the lived experiences of the people who participated. For a perspective on the project by Fowler’s sister, art historian Cynthia Fowler, see here).

Fowler died on March 14, 1989. After his death, his family created a quilt panel for Fowler to be included part of the Names Project AIDS memorial quilt. (See here.)