Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stops and Starts: Christopher Owen's Studio Practice


What happens when artists stop making art? In this blog series, we hear from artists who have restarted making art after a hiatus and how they got back into their studio practice. For Christopher Owens, the hiatuses seem almost a part of his studio practice.
Chris Owens, untitled
The first big break came on the heels of grad school. I started working at the Museum of American Art in D.C., as an exhibits specialist. I found myself surrounded by things that I didn't understand and things that overwhelmed me in terms of their beauty. I felt confident enough as far as skills were concerned, but I didn't have a clue about what I wanted to do. I didn't see any need for another still life, or another landscape. I knew perfectly good landscape painters who had plenty of paintings to sell.

There were people whose work I loved, and I remember thinking that I didn’t want to become a mimic of that type of work. I would draw from time to time, and the drawings were tortured. I remember overhearing curators in conversations about how good or important one person’s work was in comparison to another’s. I remember thinking that most of the reasons they had were not so important to me.

When I moved to Canyon Texas, I rented a big house outside of town, and you would think with all that space and all that quiet, I would be able to get something done. I was there for about two years, and never picked up a brush.

Time went by, and life changed around, I was still working in museums doing the same kind of work, only more of it. Through those years I had been doing things, art things, some small, some a little more aggressive. There were constructions, like sculpture, made of wooden drawers, glass, nails, bits and pieces of junk, collected over time for some unseen reason, there were some academic things, portraits, more drawing, a mural in a dance studio. I was moving closer to finding what interested me and what made me want to work.

The big change, although at the time it didn’t seem so big, came when I began teaching studio classes. I felt that I had to have some answers to all the questions that I had been asking myself. This self-imposed objective helped to provide only more questions. That seemed to be the truth of it. I could teach mechanical skill, and theory, but I couldn’t teach anyone how to make art. Classes began to include more conversation about the ways we think and the ideas we have, and what seems to be important. The answers to these questions are always changing and should. In the process of preparing for classes, I would try things and see if they could work. This kept the game moving, and helped to generate work.
Chris Owens, untitled, charcoal
All I can tell you is that if you try something new, if you engage in conversations about what ‘s important, and if you look in different places, there may be answers. To think that these breaks, in the work will stop is na├»ve. Every time I stop working on a piece and have to start another, I get those run away feelings. I use little tricks to keep working now. I work on two things at a time, and move back and forth. I draw a lot, and work on paper, collage, paint, charcoal and pencil, or all together.

These past few months I’ve been working in a space at The Atlas Life Marriot building in downtown Tulsa. The space is being given without compensation for artists to work so that visitors can watch a progression of the work and talk to the artists. I had never worked where people could watch, and you can imagine the dialogue inside my little mind. Yesterday I noticed that I could hear voices but wasn't paying much attention to what they were saying, and had gotten quite comfortable with the hallway spectators. I have enjoyed having walls to work on, and conversations, and simply saying that I have no idea what I’m doing, just looking for something that isn't self conscious and predictable. I have enjoyed explaining why I use peeps in the work, and why there are black plastic funnels attached to the bottom of an old wooden ironing board.

I know that those runaway feelings will come back, and I know that somewhere out there on the horizon is a bathroom renovation riding in full battle dress toward me, and will find me a reluctant opponent, and afterward I will begin again.  Meanwhile there’s work to do and opportunity. So today I’ll go back and draw some more and maybe learn something new, and get closer to the other end. Did I forget to mention that I got a new tank of gas for the welder a few weeks ago?

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