March 5, 2012 · Updated 9:20 AM

Years working on tugs taught artist Marcus Bowcott there was a beauty and honesty to the logs and debris he saw floating in the river. / Sean Kolenko photo

There’s nothing quite like watching others make more money than you, especially when it appears that they do less. It’s a magical blend of anger, sadness and jealousy that, if left to fester, can lead to some scorched professional earth.

Every now and then, however, such observations mean opportunity. Meet artist Marcus Bowcott. In 1973, having just wrapped up studies that spanned art, English and psychology at Douglas College, Bowcott was working in Langley cutting down trees near the water.

One day, as he and his associates carried out their brush-clearing mandate, a tugboat cruised past them and a co-worker quipped: “the guy working on the tug is making twice as much as we are.”

And there it was — opportunity.

“I always thought that in order to be an artist I had to have time to think in my studio. I had to have time to make mistakes and practise,” says Bowcott, contemplatively.

“If I spent half the time making money I could spend more time on art.”

So, Bowcott turned his attention to getting on the tugs. His first attempts, unfortunately, proved unsuccessful, as he wasn’t the only one angling for the gig. But during a stint as a scrutineer for the New Democrats in Mt. Pleasant around that time, Bowcott wound up working with a dispatcher from the Canadian Brotherhood of Rail and Transport Workers Local 400.

They recognized each other from Bowcott’s trip to the hall looking for work. After some introductory banter, Bowcott’s NDP counterpart, Dave Crain, asked him if he had any log booming experience. The tugs, mentioned Crain, always needed people with log boom skills.

Bowcott jumped at the opportunity and soon found himself working on the water, a job he’d have on and off for the next 17 years. It was a grind, Bowcott admits, a business not suited for the faint of heart. But the luxury it afforded him was worth the achy back.

“If I was looking for an easy way out I was diluted,” he says, with a wise smile.

“But it was all so I could work. It wasn’t a choice, I had to do it.”

As Bowcott’s reputation and education grew — he earned a master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art in 1984 — so did his job opportunities. Upon his return from London, Bowcott began teaching part time at Emily Carr. Later he would work at both Langara and Kwantlen colleges before landing at Capilano University in 1991, a position he still holds.

The classroom, says Bowcott, is an inspirational place, an arena that reminds him there is still exciting visual art happening. Sometimes, the world doesn’t appear to value such output. Society can seem an artless, philistine place but the studios and lecture halls of the post-secondary world have a way of erasing those feelings.

And, he learns as much as he instructs. One’s influences don’t belong to a static repository, there are new and important lessons to absorb all the time. Since Bowcott began putting paint to canvas, his work has transformed as he’s found himself in different situations. His years on the tugs, for instance, showed him that there is a beauty and honesty to the logs and debris he saw floating in the river.

If there’s one core tenet to Bowcott’s work, it’s an honesty about his environment. His new series, Cruising America, depicts idyllic U.S. landscapes painted on the backs of RVs, all of which are stuck in traffic. That bumper-to-bumper world is an example of a modern landscape. It might not be the stuff of dreams or postcards, but that’s precisely the point. This isn’t a lesson in idealism — it’s a lesson in our surroundings.

“What is the mundane experience? Rather than go for beauty for beauty’s sake, be truthful to what’s in front of you. The Cruising America series comes from that,” says Bowcott.

“All I can do is respond as honest and deftly to what I’m seeing right now. What do we see? The end of another vehicle. That is the view from here.”

View Bowcott’s work at