Gaza Bowen, an artist, shoemaker and teacher, died of cancer at her Santa Cruz home on May 27. She was 61.
Mrs. Bowen, who hand made shoes in her studio, taught a series of workshops, classes and lectures on footwear — their construction, its history and what footwear could say about society and cultural roles.
When her husband, Dennis Wheeler, met her 29 years ago, Mrs. Bowen gave him a small book filled with shoe terminology.
“She said that I needed to study that if I was going to have a steady relationship with her, and she quizzed me on it the next day,” Mr. Wheeler recalled.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she made functional shoes that sported vibrant colors and unusual patterns. Then she explored shoes as sculptures. Her work has been featured in museums from Berkeley to Los Angeles to Germany. Perhaps her best-known series, “Shoes for the Little Woman,” was a group of shoe sculptures created mostly from cleaning supplies: elaborate high heels constructed from kitchen sponges or wooden clothespins, sometimes decorated with pot scrubbers.
She acknowledged that her art had both humor and irony, but Mrs. Bowen took exception to her shoes being categorized as “whimsical.”
“I know that it’s humorous, but I think that the humor is either masking — or making — the statement palatable,” she said in a 1997 interview in The Chronicle. “There’s more to them for the person that cares to look. In that humor, I’m trying to make a statement about women and fashion, and women and household cleaning, and women as sex symbols.”
In recent years, Mrs. Bowen’s interest turned to salvaged materials. She and her husband would visit local dumps in their Subaru station wagon and return with anything that caught her eye, from a 55-gallon drum of buttons to a metal above-ground pool frame. This inspired works such as Bibliotheca Memoria, a life-size reading room with books and furniture built entirely from detritus.
When she was 48, Mrs. Bowen took up the Japanese martial art of Aikido and had earned a second-degree black belt by the time of her death. In the past two years, while struggling with her illness, she took an 18-day boating trip through the Grand Canyon, snorkeled on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and began to delve into a new art medium: woodblock and linoleum prints. She spent much of her time this spring enjoying the couple’s garden, her husband recalled, in a gazebo constructed from a 12-foot satellite dish, covered with kiwi vines.
Mrs. Bowen is also survived by her son, David Bowen of Santa Cruz; her sister, Michelle Press of Connecticut; and many friends.
A memorial service for Mrs. Bowen will be held at 2 p.m. on June 25 at North Bay Aikido in Santa Cruz. Her family encourages donations in her name to the Women’s Empowerment Network, 309 Center Street #547, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, to support a women’s clinic in Mulukuku, Nicaragua.
Kelly Hill, Chronicle Staff Writer 2005
Gaza Bowen built library like installations and individual books from scavenged detritus. Her work speaks of memory and decay, reverence and disregard. By using the book format she emphasized the link between our cultural values of disrespect for the physical world and the environmental crisis with which we now live.