Saturday, December 11, 2010

Finding the artist in you.

Childhood was scary in many ways. In retrospect I think that was because there was an artist inside me, and I had no idea what that meant. Being small, quiet, nearly silent, and very sensitive to sound and turmoil, I saw many things that delighted me and many that frightened me when I was a little girl. 

Patterns on my linoleum floor transformed to wiggly caterpillars at night when, hearing voices, I awakened. The bright lamp light  was downstairs, where the voices came from, and absent near my bed. With no illumination I couldn't bring myself to lower my feet to the floor. The squirmy apparitions seemed real. I was awake, so I thought, but the swirling creatures were still there. 

Self portrait, Joyce Owens

I had other visions and insights. I saw candy vending machines in the basement. When I was awake and not dreaming I found a furnace instead.  I was sensitive to  pain, not my own, but other people's. I would chastise my sister when I thought she was mean to someone. She said I didn't understand. But I saw things that bothered me; my mother believed me and honored my ideas. She was the saving grace that allowed me to step into an area I knew nothing about. And knew no one who did!
Eloise Owens, opera singer, my mother

What remains from my childhood memories includes moving to the house around the corner, far away from the house I had lived in from the time I was born. I was told NEVER to go around that corner to the house we had hurried out of in the dead of winter because it was on fire. That burned out house, I was told, might swallow me up! The floors were gaping holes. Stay away!! 

After the fire. After the divorce. After my childhood changed forever. 

I realized I had lost my childhood photos in that fire, except for about three when I quizzed my mother about the lack of photos of me! She reminded me of the fire. How does one remember a life with no images to prove what happened? I remember some things. I recall walking to kindergarten, and kissing Henry or Harry, a boy in my class when my brother pushed us to try. (It was not so great! I still recall the sloppy attempt. I did not want seconds.) I remember my best friend Phyllis who lived next door on a block that had 2 houses facing a lot across the street. We lived on Glenwood Avenue. Without photos/images to reinforce those memories mine are weak, at best.

Everyone who knew me later thought my father, who I was never photographed with, as far as I can remember, had died. He hadn't. Not then. I have mostly hidden my childhood stories. I really didn't think they were anything to dwell on. "That's life! Deal with it."

My mother, big sister and brother became my mother and father. They loved me, the youngest of three, and cared for me; I was different, not really like them they told me once in a while. And we had different fathers. Theirs was my mother's first husband. She married my father because he was nice to her when she was ill. She felt obligated. She always said she was glad she married him because I resulted from that union, but she really couldn't stand him after a while.

My mother insisted I understand I had to be able to take care of myself. I had to always be able to stand on my own and make my own decisions. My mother reinforced this, even as she supported me. I figured out what to do to become an artist. It was desire, and it was encouragement from teachers who saw something in me in high school, college and grad school.

Among some befuddling situations, one thing was very clear to me in my childhood; I said it in 3rd grade. So I am an artist, and plan to continue to be an artist and learn more each day about this fairly mysterious job choice.
I do worry about the aspiring artists. Art classes in public schools are often limited. Serious approaches to contemporary art practice is usually overlooked because the people who are teaching have not experienced it in many cases. Our culture depends on artists of all kinds but doesn't usually treat artists as the precious commodities they are.
Asian Girl by Kyle F. Anderson, my son, an aspiring artist
The scariest thing is that artists still don't get the respect, the money, the emotional support and the thanks that many deserve, sometimes until they are dead. I think that is least, I hope so.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Understanding Myself: Growing up artist

So what to do when you are born to be an artist, if there is such a thing as a born artist?

I'm the itty-bittiest in this photo. My brother Reggie is tall on right. Herbie, our tall friend, at his party, on left.
Not sure I was an artist then, but my mom said people could not believe I did the drawings she showed them when I was 5 years old. According to her, her friends said I needed to go to art school IF I did the pictures! OK cool...I was a 10 year old who was always a little out of sync with the "normal" people. (I really don't remember much before 10.).  I didn't care if I looked like everyone else or dressed like everyone else or thought like everyone else! What does it mean when a child is  "in her head" so much, dreaming of things, imagining home with fairy tales and other books I was lucky to have. If you have a kid like this be gentle, he or she is probably an artist!

Strange that people liked me, anyway. Even though I was really on another planet. When I noticed they liked me I wondered what there was to like? I moved as through a mental fog. Physically I moved quickly, always anxious to reach my destination.  At a young age I found dance class. I really loved dancing and still do. I took ballet, tap and later African (that practically killed me!). I took myself to dance classes when still in elementary school. I took myself to art classes and even won a blue ribbon for my work. Lucky again, the neighborhood playground offered these classes and I could go on my own since it was about two blocks away from my house in Philadelphia.

My mother said most creative types have multiple talents, except her! She could only sing, she said, but she said I could do a lot of things! Among my gifts was my ability to figure out what to do with my hands, she told me. She  watched me, trying to figure out how to hold her hands when she sang, admitting she never knew what to do with them, but I always seemed to know exactly what to do with mine!

 Here is a rare photo of my mother and father with my grandmother. My mother was performing in a movie theater! That's her poster in the windows!

So, how lucky was it to be born a natural artist, the youngest in a family of three children who were spread apart enough that we were almost only children and almost no one paying much attention to what I did. Our mother was divorced and traveled to sing, but always made sure we were protected. And she understood the urge for creativity. And I had plenty of time to dream! I felt alone, though, because no one else drew or painted but me. It certainly wasn't the same as singing or taking photos or playing piano. We had all of that among my uncles and mom!

She thought I was strange (yes, my Mother!). She even told me my grandmother thought I was strange. Let me tell you, once you hear your grandmother thinks you are weird, there is nothing that can harm you! But most importantly my mother honored my creativity.  When I asked for piano lessons she found a teacher. When I asked for art classes she allowed me to go. When I said I was going to be an artist she said OK. She indulged my attempts to sing, encouraging me even though I was insecure next to her powerhouse of a voice. She really hoped I would sing because she could pave the way for me. But I had pictures in my head that needed to come out. So with no idea except I wanted to make art I decided to pursue it! My mom did stipulate that I had to be an art teacher because everyone knows artists don't make enough money to support themselves!!

Tune in for more tales of growing up artist!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sometimes people say things that move me

Always a slow reader, I eventually wondered why, as I observed other people skimming a page, seemingly satisfied that they knew what was there.

Do other people do this? 
Thinking it over, I realized that I make pictures from the words I read, a slow process. Reading   is similar to making a painting or drawing for me. Rarely, is either a quick process. When I see my friends speeding through a novel or even a newspaper I envy them. I, instead, visit each word, one-at-a-time. I turn it over weighing it, deciding if it works, or if the writer meant to use a better word, or if I would have used a different word and what the word means in relation to the rest of the words that surround it, maybe saying it out loud. 

Seeing an organized grouping of curves and angles, that could form a portrait, but instead form some meaning in another way and hearing the sound of the word spoken aloud is like seeing a rose and smelling its fragrance. Can you imagine words acting out their own meaning?

If a writer turns a phrase that sounds new to me, I get love-stuck (no, not lovestruck), this time savoring the flavor, getting accustomed to the new taste, unwilling to bite into anything else so I can hold on to the delicious experience. Taking a spoon of sherbet by reading a mildly sweet and bland paragraph to cleanse the palate, is the only solution. 

So, I heard something that stopped me this weekend and I wrote it down. That happens, too. I hear a sequence of words that convey an idea in a way that just says it all. These seem to be rare occurrences, but I think we know one when we hear one. This Rhythm and Blues singer, in an interview on NPR, was describing her many years performing and her experiences and said:

"I've done things that people have dreamed of with people they have dreamed about." Bettye Lavette.

In this life how often does anyone get to say that? Forget about saying it so glibly, so masterfully organized and on pitch! The bonus is having the privilege to say it because you have lived that life.  

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Artist as Writer

I have spent my life transforming my thoughts to visual images.

Personal emotions that I might never articulate because of shyness, or because I just don't know how to, have shown up in my art work. My lifelong search to be an artist has been realized through my paintings that are often populated with imaginary people who express my joy, my pain, my longing, my curiosity and more. I can be other characters through art. I can be young or old, male or female, even a bird or tree...My paintings inhabit who I am. I articulate my concerns for my community around racism, sexism, and fairness by painting my responses to these issues. I tell the story about the lives of slaves from my perspective and tout their resilience in a series I call
Survivor Spirits. I honor my family ancestors through another series I call Pillars

My need to be educated about my history and the world has inspired me to educate others. Art allows me that. People see in my paintings pages and chapters summed up in one visual image. 
Now, I am also embracing my love of words. I have been writing an art blog for a couple of years. Text has crept onto my visual images and the images have grown to include multiple pages. I have had my writing published at the Museum of the African Diaspora's "I've Known Rivers" project, for the Chicago Now blog run by an unnamed major Chicago newspaper, The Studio Project  the Department of Cultural Affairs operates this year and my surprise!

This blog will present my art but mostly my words and some of the things I have learned and would like to share with you. For example, I discovered some time ago that I believe in play and taking chances. Art allows me to indulge that tendency. I have always had it. My friends were shocked when I pierced my own ears, or straightened my own hair or dyed my shoes pink, just because I wanted to. But I was foiled each step of the way when I went too far, and finally tried to conform. I never really have, but I lived a safer life than I really wish I had...I want my own sons to believe in that sense of play and adventure. Safety is over-rated. If we don't take intelligent chances, we don't get anywhere! My curiosity was often squelched when I was young, traded for safety. But I don't advise it and so here I artist who had hoped and believed my work could speak for me, now recognizing I have always been a writer and always immensely interested in expressing myself through words, too.