Jessi Bowman: FLATS presents

Jessi Bowman is a photographer and curator based in Houston, TX. Her interest in photography began at an early age, leading her to pursue a degree in Art History and Photography at the University of Houston. She has juried for United Photo Industries, contributed to spot Magazine, worked with FotoFest International, Project Row Houses and previously served as Exhibitions Manager at Houston Center for Photography where she curated the show Sight Lines in 2016. Jessi is also the founder and co-producer of FLATS, a pop-up photography exhibition series that showcases local artists. Her passion for photography and local photo communities has led her to collaborate with organizations that focus on bringing art into non-traditional spaces.

BEF: Hey Jessi! Thank you so much for the interview! How’s it going?

JB: Thank you for having me, Brenda! I’m doing great!

BEF: Can you talk about what FLATS is and how it came about?

JB: FLATS is a nomadic photography exhibition series held in homes around the Houston area. We want to shine a light on Houston’s vibrant and diverse photography community and inspire a new generation of patrons to collect and appreciate photographic art. Any Houston-based artist who uses photography in their work is open to being shown at a FLATS exhibition, and we believe that no one should be excluded from the joy of connecting with photography that moves them. We want to uncover and amplify distinct points of view in Houston photography, and we do this through intimate exhibitions that are designed to create immediate connections. No previous art appreciation experience is needed— just come as you are and explore what Houston photography has to offer.

BEF: A staple of FLATS is that it is hosted in a home, usually of a fellow artist and/or friend. Why is it important to switch it up from the white-wall gallery space and into the community?

JB: The main goal is comfortable and relatable. Like all art, fine art photography has a place in one’s home as well as in gallery spaces, so we show in homes to give patrons the opportunity to see the work as it might exist in their home.

We love the traditional white-walled gallery spaces, but there are some potential art patrons in Houston who can feel intimidated in those settings. Hosting FLATS in homes is immediately more disarming to these folks who want to get into the art scene but don’t feel ready to mingle at a traditional gallery. At the same time, the events still maintain a certain level of sophistication that makes the art patron “pros” comfortable, yet they have a unique intimacy that we think is special to the setting.

Speaking to the fellow artist and/or friend part of your question, the people who volunteer their homes are oftentimes people we meet through the local art scene, whether it’s an artist or a patron. In many cases, they don’t become our friends until they have hosted a FLATS. It’s kind of funny; when we first started, we thought that finding people willing to volunteer their home would be the hardest thing to do. But we’ve never been short of people who want to host a FLATS. We’ve had folks who we’ve never met before find us in the crowd at a FLATS exhibition and give us their contact info. It’s amazing.

BEF: How do you see the pop-up nature of FLATS helping to create access for artists to showcase their work?

JB: This may seem like splitting hairs, but I like to think of FLATS as a nomadic series, rather than a pop-up. Pop-up exhibitions are sometimes more ephemeral by necessity, even going so far as to feature work that’s created specifically for that show. With FLATS, we like to exhibit from artists’ main body of work, whether it’s a series they’re currently working on or one that they’ve completed.

And that distinction is what I believe is the answer to your question. We’re providing a platform for local photographers to show the work they must put in the world, that they are deeply connected to and have a driving need to show others. By giving them the space to show this work in places that are by their nature more comfortable and relatable, we’re creating opportunities for them to connect with the people who are inspired by what they’re doing. That could be a patron or even other artists.

BEF: What do you look for when putting together a group of artists and picking the theme for an exhibition/event?

JB: Whether the exhibition is curated by a guest or is devised in-house, the theme is largely up to the curator. It can be something they’ve noticed in the artists they’re following or something that’s inspired them in their own pursuits. Sometimes the theme grows out of the artists that we want to show and sometimes we go looking for people to fit an idea we have.

In the end, the main thing we look for is common ground between the artists. There are so many people working in Houston today who don’t realize that their work is thematically rhyming with someone else. We take pride in connecting artists who don’t yet know each other, but whose work overlaps in some way. We care about this aspect so much that we wrote it into our mission: each exhibition must feature two artists who have not previously worked together. We want to foster closer relationships between photographers working within the community and provide a platform to amplify their voices. To our eternal joy, being in a FLATS has inspired some of our alums to collaborate on other projects.

BEF: FLATS is growing! You recently opened a film lab that offers black and white as well as color film development. Where do you see this piece of the project growing into?

JB: We first had the idea for the lab after the last lab in town stopped its film processing services. Houston is the 4th largest city; it should have an affordable, local film lab to serve our thriving film photography scene. Even if you’re not an artist and you just like using disposable cameras for special events or on vacation, you should have an affordable place to take the spent cameras where you know they’re going to treat your film with care.

As we’ve continued, the dream has expanded out further. Eventually we want to create FLATS community darkroom space for photographers to come shoot, process, scan, and print film of all kinds. When you’re a young artist, one of the tragedies of leaving the university setting is losing access to the wonderful resources those institutions provide. If we can step into that gap for people who don’t have the money to rent a studio space for themselves, we can help foster more creatives and inspire them to stay and continue to enrich our community. This is also an extension of our long-term goal of starting an artist-in-residence program.

BEF: Do you have any upcoming events or announcements we can look forward to?

JB: We’re aiming for our next FLATS exhibition to show in the New Year, but in the meantime we have FLATS Lab open for pickup/dropoff three days a week—Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays—from 10am-6pm. So come drop off film if you’ve got it!