Latrobe Regional Gallery
A Wry Conjurer
In one of those moments that seems to enlarge with time, Owen shared this insight with me as we left a restaurant at the 2006 woodfiring conference in Flagstaff, Arizona: “I think you and I agree that it’s pointless to take ourselves too seriously, but to take what we do with clay very seriously, indeed.“
Call up some images of Owen’s work, and you’ll see what a couple of poets from my part of the world may have had in mind in their observations. When Robert Frost said, “I love the straight crookedness of a good walking stick,” we picture a thing whose purposeful integrity is enhanced by evidence of growth-experience; quite the opposite of what’s known as a “swagger-stick,” carried by military officers. If things had gone wrong in his life, Owen might have used his ample technical expertise to make conventionally “beautiful” work, calling attention to himself, as a swagger-stick does to its wielder, but that would have come at a dreadful cost to his alchemist muse. As it is, his pots call attention to themselves, and only tangentially to their maker, befitting both his accomplishment and humility.
When Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” she impishly invited us to look a little more closely, for the sweet fruits of attentiveness. And so we discover in Owen’s work clues to that happy persistence of his — not to make snazzy, readily marketable work, but pots that reward long looking, and that could only have come from an expert with the excitable heart of a novice. “Just look at this one,” he might suggest. “For several years I’ve kept in mind a few square centimeters of one of Chester Nealie’s pots, that reminded me of a Braeburn apple when it’s just gone off, and I decided to try to exploit that effect if I could suss it out. Instead, I got this dead ringer for the blush on a ripe Shiraz grape, but textured a little like the worn felt on an old pool table or a colt’s nose where it transitions into the epithelial tissue. I can’t wait to show it to Chester!”
When Owen’s name shows up among my e-mails I read his last, as a verbal entrée, because he is one of the very few ceramists who is equally articulate about clay as he is with it. He seems especially fascinated by an ongoing conundrum: information about his art and craft continually leads him to simultaneous states of understanding and mystification – a condition he perceives as delight. What could be more fitting for a person with a homonym for a last name; wouldn’t “Wry,” be equally appropriate? Befitting his inimitable wit, even his pots seem wry. Can pots be “ironical,” “sardonic,” “ tongue-in-cheek?” Some of their success may be in asking that of us.