Today it’s Costa Rican coffee over Guatemalan. Here is a man who can make an entire conversation on his favorite brews, and adventures in seeking the best coffee in the world.
I don’t think Owen Weston would mind if I said he has ‘been around the block’ a few. Conversation just flows when he speaks of his life as an “image maker,” as he believes he was “called to be.” And he believes that “All artists, whether they represent or not, all Picasso’s, all Rembrandt’s work is autobiographical. You can look in any direction. If it’s not linear, it’s a mystical, religious philosophical biography.” An image that comes to mind here is the priestess from one of Owen’s paintings in his show (and here in the blog) in which the evening star is reflected in her eyes.
His earliest memory in Paris, Tennessee, was, as a two year old, ”as I sat on a concrete porch with a hard-leaded pencil writing on a piece of blue construction paper, and I wrote what made perfect sense to me as an alphabet.” His mother, an accomplished artist herself, disagreed with him, “It’s not the alphabet,” and little Owen replied “Well, it looks like an alphabet!” I suppose this affirms his own way of looking at things. He was determined to find out what a real alphabet was about and became literate, he says, at the tender age of three, reading Kon-Tiki full of rather vivid images for one so young.
College found Weston with three majors: Music, Art and English. He attended Austin-Peay State University, the University of Memphis, where he earned a BFA, then the University of Tennessee which awarded him an MFA. Post-graduate work in Educational Psychology followed. The art major seemed very much to thrive, as we know. The music major played woodwinds in quintets, radio commercials, and gigs in West Memphis, until his hearing quality became “messed up” and distorted. As a result, Owen says he rarely listens to any recorded music. Indeed, art would seem all the more significant in his life.
The English major? I can tell you something about that. In submitting this blog to Owen for review, I found his attention to detail enormously helpful, (with a present tense question over past, plus, a few typos, a bit of odd-wording on my part), with suggestions made by his true English major-self. He was careful that I did not feel offended. On the contrary, I welcomed his discerning eye!
We, at BSG, find Owen a great supporter of the arts. We are happy to see him on most every First Friday. On one such evening, when I overheard him talking about techniques over a young woman’s paintings on exhibition, I found the artist and introduced her to Owen. I sensed the young artist quite liked his sensitive observations about her work. When I mentioned this today to him, I noticed a small smile as he admitted that after forty years of teaching he can be “pedantic.” He added, “ I know more than I show…and I hope to be of use to other image makers.” And as education has been good to Weston, he has certainly returned it in kind with thirty four years teaching at West High School here in Knoxville, and currently in other venues.
As one would expect, Weston has known some very significant teachers and mentors, not the least of which was Knoxville-born artist Joseph Delaney, who lived and worked many years in New York, then returned to his hometown and became an artist-in-residence at UT. Weston describes him as “wonderfully Bohemian.” One time “He looked at what I was doing, and with a mouth full of chewing tobacco, he said, “You oughta be a big name!” Weston adds, “It was one of my turn-around experiences.”
More recently, it was “Mr. Nick,” as he was known in Knoxville who “profoundly encouraged me” at a challenging time in Weston’s life. Gifford Nicolaides taught drawing and painting briefly in the area, and was a founder of the portrait group that Weston is still a part of.
I think it would be safe to say that Weston has been a prolific artist. He shares a time when he was a severely depressed young painter who would discard his work in a dumpster near his home. He was aware later that there was some activity around the dumpster. Years later, Weston attended an event in the home of some folks, only to discover a painting that he was drawn to. It had an odd familiarity. On closer examination he found his own signature attached. He asked the hostess where she got the painting and she exclaimed, “a dumpster!” Weston has the feeling that he has work all over, much of it found, and given a reprieve in a new home somewhere out there.
On his upcoming show, “An Introspective Retrospective,” Weston remarks that he is “re-emerging” from what feels like a long hiatus from the public and commercial world of art. And now he is taking the somewhat daunting steps to put himself out there,“at the insistence of friends” and his “long-supporting ex- wife.” These are friends who have heard his pronouncements of not wanting “to show any more,” not wanting “to do art anymore” while his friends would have none of it. And so, at the risk of invoking any ire from his friends, fans and supporters we have the return of Owen Weston and his images to the Knoxville scene.
And if that is not enough, Weston is reminded of the part in Dante’s Inferno in which Dante and Virgil find themselves in a pit of misery with heads sticking up from below. Dante asks (these are not verbatim quotes from the book) “Who are these people?” and Virgil tells him “The lowest pit in hell is reserved for the poet who doesn’t write.” This can be a sensitive point for the creative, and for Weston, who says “it certainly resonated with me.”
We are pleased to share with the reader a few of Owen’s almost mystical journeys in the form of Monk cartoons. (Signed copies will be available at the show.) Weston describes going into a state of mind in which he just does these drawings quite automatically, without the interference of thought. They are curious, amusing and at times, mischievious characters. There is something of a timeless quality to them. I would love to see him compile these into book-form.
Owen was still deciding which pieces to show when we talked, but you will see the painting I have already described, “The Cat Lady,” which he tells me he is not quite finished. (But he never really feels completely done with a painting. There just comes a time to let it go, and move on). The subject is a friend of his who might not be pleased with the outcome of her likeness, he says. Her penetrating eyes show a lot of life left in her yet. Weston participates in a portrait group. Through this one painting alone, one can understand a fascination with expression, with a good face. It is a face that is at once a caricature, yet is not. The gaze is highly intense, perhaps a bit disconcerting. A robust-enough feline walks on a railing behind her head, with a front paw moving forward while it looks back. It certainly speaks to me of a wistfulness in the process of aging, and shows his interest in the “mystical and ritualistic aspect of ordinary life,” as he puts it.
“An Introspective Retrospective” brings us his three main techniques as an image maker, with photography, drawing, and painting. When he told me he was thinking about showing ten of each, I envisioned someone who is fair-minded, circumspect, and orderly, but Weston suggests “orderly in thought” only. And he adds,“The texture of my life is quite dense.” For him, “An orderly place is a clear sign of a disorderly mind.”
And so, without having seen a lot of Owen Weston’s work, I can tell you to expect to be surprised. I certainly will be. A colored pencil drawing of a female nude that he submitted to one of our shows late last year, won a prize, not surprisingly. And this is typical of his work. The human figure has dominated Weston’s interest, and not landscapes. He likes to work with “plant life and architectural details” noted more in his photographs.
My pleasure today, was to spend a little time with Owen Weston, the person, to find him charming and mellow with a delightful sense of humor. When I asked him about a description of himself on a old Twitter account I found online, he listened as I read it to him and it still seemed to resonate. This is what he wrote: “old, health-challenged, benevolent, semi-heathen, dedicated to making art and understanding the way of things.” He asked me to make this his “artists statement” for the show. When we walked out of K-Brew I observed his rather fine silver-blue sports car. In a characteristic little tilt of his head, he explained that he “likes a bit of flashiness and technology.”
Broadway Studios and Gallery is excited and proud to have this distinguished image-maker’s work for the month of April. Let’s see what surprises a lifelong career, by a long-time Knoxville artist with hundreds of shows behind him, (his last major show was in 2002) has in store for us in his “Introspective Retrospective.”
And finally, I would like to thank Owen’s friends, (and “favorite ex” he points out), for encouraging his return to the art world, where, he does indeed, belong!
Written by Anne Ramsaur, artist at Broadway Studios and Gallery