The Vibrant Art of Joyce Owens Friday 23 September, 2011


When I first saw Joyce Owens‘ work, I was impressed by the vibrant color and beauty of her paintings and sculptures. Her pieces are exhibited across the United States and internationally. Here Joyce shares her creative method and inspirations. How did you come to the place you are now as an artist? I see things […]


Artist Joyce Owens

When I first saw Joyce Owens‘ work, I was impressed by the vibrant color and beauty of her paintings and sculptures. Her pieces are exhibited across the United States and internationally. Here Joyce shares her creative method and inspirations.

How did you come to the place you are now as an artist?
I see things in overlapping, multifaceted, and multi-angular ways so, first of all, the question seems to be about place; I am a Philadelphia transplant currently residing in Chicago. Then of course, the question is how I got to this place as an artist; I count that from the time I said out loud I would be an artist in 3rd grade. I became an artist after accepting that I am an artist by nature and work at being an artist by choice. I have spent my life observing, questioning and responding to what I see in a visual way. It has not always been easy, but it is natural.

Can you discuss your sculpture work? You incorporate a range of materials in your sculptures. How do you choose which materials to use? What are your favorite materials to work with?
I work with wood, both found and purchased. I love rusty metals and any odd elements that are one-of-a-kind, not necessarily traditional art materials. I like wire, beads, fabrics, papers hardware, and of course paint. I will de-construct anything to find a particular element that I like.  Sculpture is another challenge, and a natural inclination that I pushed back, I thought, only realizing recently that I regularly produced sculptural works. I relish the opportunity to solve problems by pushing into the 3rd dimension.

Survivor Spirit Mollie Painting by Joyce Owens

What subject matter do you like to explore the most?
I see a face in every crack and cloud and have been fascinated with and curious about what is transmitted to others by facial design and expressions. I am a figurative artist. I explore ideas via the figure that often deal with race, and the continuing weight of being African American in a world that still mostly racist. For me materials and process matter as much.

In a world that is saturated by images and with the speed of communication being what it is, where do you think painting and sculpture fits in all of this?
Traditional painting and sculpture exists within the heart of the changes. Technological advances tend to breed more of a desire for the handmade. The easier it becomes to create images via computer software and photography, the more people value the work that I do making one piece at a time. Advanced technology that enables speedy communication is great because it allows me to show my handmade images to more people around the globe who respond well to them.

What have been some of your favorite projects?
Usually the last one is the one I love best. I am working on a sculptural commission. A collector couple gave me a wooden, broad framed shelving unit and asked me to make an art work for him and his wife. It is turning into a piece that includes inserts of individual sculptures that will end up in a cohesive expression of the idea. I am working on an Ofrenda for the National Mexican Museum to honor Dr. Margaret Burroughs. I have numerous projects that are in the works and all of them are interesting to me. I am process-oriented and not product oriented, so I like to work every day as much as I can.

Sunshine on a Blues Day by Joyce Owens

Many of your paintings display vibrant color. What role does color play in your work? I was intrigued by the use of warm and cool colors in your pieces and how they play off of each other.
People often comment on this aspect of my work. I have been told by art teachers and others that I am a “natural colorist”. When asked about my “natural” abilities I can surmise that living with my mother, Eloise Owens, who was an opera singer and wore colorful clothing influenced me. Besides her preference of dressing in brighter colors, she had red floor to ceiling drapes, lavender wall-to-wall carpets, various colored pillows, sofas and chairs that I lived with growing up. We also had lots of books with lovely pictures, magazines, newspapers, a piano, and a garden where we grew roses. Lots of people are exposed to similar stimulus. I just read it a certain way that comes out in my work.

Old Rhythms New Beats by Joyce Owens

As a viewer of your work, I am drawn to the layering of it. To me there appears to be layers within the narrative as well as the way the paint is applied to the canvas. This is my personal interpretation, but is layering something that you strive for in your work?
Absolutely, a terrific observation on your part…I even titled a solo exhibition “Layers, Levels and Lives”. I am intrigued by materials. Art supply businesses and catalogs are like candy stores…But mostly I am intrigued by the layers of life. I perceived the density of life early on. Nothing was simple growing up. As a result “complex” and “complicated” do not scare me. I am mostly intrigued and sometimes puzzled and thoroughly engaged by life’s entanglements. I have come to embrace my intuitive side as well as my educated self over the years, enabling me to trust myself. An artist I can work out real life ideas through visual expression. I go to a canvas or hunk of wood without a solution, but with many questions!

Survivor Spirit Series by Joyce Owens

I was intrigued by your collections: Survivor Spirits and Pillars. Could you talk a little about those series? What made you want to create those pieces? Why was it important to you?
Sometimes my figures and faces show up as portraits from history. Always, these faces express my interest in the underexposed images in American history; especially in issues around race and gender. My series, “Survivor Spirits,” is one example of this. I was distressed about limited perceptions of slaves. My belief is that rather than pity or be embarrassed that we are the progeny of slaves, we should recognize ourselves as survivors, specifically, the survivors of the fittest. The weaker slaves died before they arrived here during the transatlantic voyage. Others who lived despite poor housing, poor food, no education, no health care and exhaustive, never-ending, spine-bending labor, survived. Those who were left alive made it despite lynching, burnings, being dragged through towns, run out of towns, despite redlining and segregation and Jim Crow. Despite hatred. Despite all that happened to us, the ancestors of slaves, we are here. So I call the paintings of the last living slaves photographed during the 1930’s “Survivor Spirits” because these slaves lived despite everything. Through these paintings I hope we will love our history and not waste more time and energy hating the ancestors of the oppressors who sometimes still oppress.  We should love what we managed to achieve against the odds, and build a legacy our grandchildren will be proud of. Pillars represent some of those progeny of slaves who did the right thing by standing up to support their communities. They are the ordinary people who did extraordinary things: putting a neighbor’s child through college, paying for the funeral of a cousin’s husband. Taking in a niece’s children when she and her husband fell on hard times. Pillars series represents the folks who were community builders.

What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Artists make art, so I advise artists to work. Don’t wait to be in the mood to make art. Don’t need special music or even a special place. Make art because you are an artist. Each of us is different. So each artist has to find his or her own way, but if you don’t make art, then maybe you are not an artist, and should search deeper to find your true self.

What are you working on now?
I have a solo show opening at Waubonsee College in August. I am working on a 4-person exhibition at the Koehnline Museum that opens in January. I am one of the four artists. I am working on several invitational group exhibitions from one on Shakespeare to one on Margaret Burroughs to one of President Obama. I am curating an exhibition at the National Mexican Museum that is part of their Day of the Dead. Sapphire and Crystals artists will create an ofrenda (altar honoring the dead) for Margaret Burroughs.

What does living unchained mean to you?
It’s what I have done all my life. I tried to conform for a bit, I had to let that go. Not matter what my family expected or my friends wanted I am who I am. Being “unchained” means I don’t obstruct who I am. I try not to stand in my own way.


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