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Bitterman's "Lot 18" exceeded Rexroth's expectations. "I don't feel like there is a huge amount of artists in this city who invest in their studio practice on a level that they rent a plane," she says.
Rexroth, who works primarily with emerging artists, says she has learned from observing Cowdin as a businessman.
"I didn't realize how artists were working collaboratively with businesses and institutions," she says. "We've become barterers and traders more. We're learning how to use our value to our advantage in the community while helping others and building relationships."
As cranky, authority-questioning Bitterman, Cowdin has in fact become a touchstone for young local artists like those Rexroth curates at Subterreanean. The Charlotte Street Foundation selected him as a mentor artist for Urban Culture Project studio resident Andrew Erdrich.
"We were skeptical of being assigned someone," Erdrich says. "Because we were both skeptical, things started off on the right foot."
The two have become friends, and Cowdin enlisted Erdrich's help in transporting his work to Indianapolis.
After her visit to Point of Interest, Imig dropped by the Reading Reptile one day, hoping to chat about art.
"We started talking about some of the work he was working on and some of my past work, and all of a sudden we were bouncing ideas off one another left and right. We decided we should attempt to collaborate on a project and see if we could make it work."
The two hope to curate a selection of artwork to install in a grocery store — pending the cooperation of a grocer.
Sean Starowitz, who runs Bread KC along with Erdrich, is in talks with Cowdin about collaborating on a project that focuses on abandoned properties in Kansas City. As a Kansas City Art Institute student, Starowitz heard a rumor about a local artist who had been kicked out of the graduate program at Cranbrook Academy of Art for destroying an Eliel Saarinen chair.
The story was about Cowdin, the perfect legend to inform the Bitterman character. (And it's true.)
Starowitz says he admires the older artist's dedication to maintaining his voice.
"He runs the Reading Reptile and has a family," he says. "He lives this double life. In school, you're told you shouldn't have a family. And Pete's done that. He's gone against the institutional ideas of what makes success."
Cowdin took an unconventional path to become Bitterman. He studied studio art at Carleton College in Minnesota, then attended Cranbrook, from which he was indeed expelled in 1987, after an art project that involved — yes — the deconstruction of lunchroom chairs designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. Thus began a 20-year gap in creating art.
It was a banana that ended the dry spell.
In 2007, Cowdin and Pettid made and installed a gigantic papier-mâché banana outside the Folly Theater that was rendered to look as though it were crashing through the historic building's façade. "Staying the Course" was part of that year's Avenue of the Arts series, and it marked a reversal of what Cowdin says was a conscious choice to set aside his art making.
"For me, making art has always been a little dangerous, emotionally speaking," he says. "When I'm doing it, I don't fuck around, and that can make me a little crazy — sometimes a lot crazy. I know this, and I knew it would not be a good thing to pursue when the kids were younger. So I didn't."
Cowdin, who started working at Reading Reptile in 1988, introduced A. Bitterman as a pen name for the children's book reviews he wrote for the store.