By Carolyn Males
It’s the height of the pandemic, and I’m zooming with artist Jared Owens, he from his studio near Charleston and me from mine, one hundred-plus miles away. He’s about to tell me a tale that involves eighteen years of prison, a fistfight, a New York Times article, contraband bed sheets, jars of jailhouse dirt, an Egyptian mummy coffin — and that’s just for starters.
These diverse elements form the backstory of Owens’ new conceptual abstracts featured in upcoming shows at MOMA PS1 in New York and the African-American Museum in Philadelphia. Meanwhile he’s been written about in books and magazines including the prestigious Artforum. And we’ll get a glimpse of his dynamic canvases here at the J Costello Gallery this month.
But we’re getting ahead of the story. Let’s go back to when Jared Owens is about to have his life disrupted.
Owens’ epiphany came, oddly enough, after a brawl in the kitchen of Fairton, a federal prison in South Jersey. Five years into his sentence on drug-related charges, the then 37-year-old was overseeing food operations when a belligerent inmate got up into his face. Tempers flared. Punches flew and Owens ended up being hauled off to solitary.
Now if we were plotting a Hollywood narrative, here’s where Owens’ turn in this stark cell would lead to a dark night of the soul, complete with a swelling of strings to accompany a eureka moment of self-enlightenment.
Instead, Owens’ transformative spark happened later as he was being led back to his unit. That’s when he caught a glimpse of inmates hand-building pottery in the prison’s art room. The sight brought back memories of art classes he’d taken in junior high school and the way clay had felt in his hands. And, then there’d been the sheer freedom of picking up a brush and swirling color into vibrant abstracts. All this had been a part of his world before cocaine shattered it.
In one decisive moment, Owens changed his life. He joined the arts program. Then just as he had in the kitchen, he began taking charge. “I’m real alpha. Wherever I am, I’m alpha,” he declares. He would soon begin overseeing supply orders and teaching classes. As for his own education? Straight out of Dick Blick, the large art supply company. He’d study every material safety data sheet accompanying the products they sent.
“I wanted to know how the materials worked, their components, and the history of paint. And I especially love nerdy stuff like that Indian yellow paint first came from the urine of cows who ate mango leaves,’” Owens admits with a laugh.
He began painting portraits of family and friends for fellow inmates. (There was a rule against depicting the inmates themselves.) Not surprisingly, his “Marilyn Monroes” were especially popular. As for art tools, he improvised, using plastic spoons as palette knives and sewing needles for carving and incising clay.
Another turning point
“Then one day I saw an article in The New York Times about this painting that sold for fifteen million dollars. It wasn’t the money,” he says. “But I wanted to know, how does a piece of art go from being worth ten thousand dollars and increase that much in value in ten or fifteen years. What was that about?” He began reading more.
Bed sheets …
“Can you get me some new prison bed sheets?” It was a question from inmate Jesse Krimes, a talented artist who was serving a six-year sentence on a drug charge. He had an idea for a huge mural.
“Sure,” Owens told him and used his “sources” to get the requested contraband “art” supplies. Then using hair gel and a plastic spoon, Krimes transferred cut-up images from The New York Times onto them, embellishing them with drawings to create a compelling tableau about prison life. He titled it Apokaluptein:16389067, a combination of the Greek word for apocalypse and his own prison number. The piece, which took thirty-nine sheets and three years to complete, would later catch the attention of the art world and help raise the visibility of formerly incarcerated artists –– a movement that would propel them into the realm of museum and gallery shows and into the hearts of collectors.
Meanwhile, the Fairton duo would form their own college of two, sharing arts magazine subscriptions. “We read every single line, studied every single artist,” says Owens. “We took notes and basically figured out what was going on in the art world.”
The inside dirt
“I was sitting around with Jesse one day when he said creating art was about the materials,” Owens remembers. “So I said I’m going to grab the thing that no one is paying any attention to.” That something was soil from the prison yard which he sent home one jar at a time.
Today Owens is working on a series of paintings incorporating that very soil, sometimes dusting a canvas with it; other times mixing it in with gels or paints for texture. Now as we talk, he moves his iPad around his studio to show me works-in-progress. He aims his screen at “The Corner Cell,” a stark painting with geometric lines that sit slightly askew, creating a feeling of disorientation. “This deals with solitary confinement and the aftermath of what happens inside of what we call the segregated housing unit,” he explains. “So I chose a palette that includes the institutional blue the walls are painted to calm inmates down.” And yes, along with oil stick, acrylic and oil paints, there’s dirt from the prison yard.
Another piece beckons with bright Indian yellows. An intriguing line of dark shapes in the background on first glance look like buildings. But as he moves in closer, they emerge as shapes of people. “I haven’t yet determined what it’s going to be,” he confesses. “My paintings come by happenstance. I might start one way but then it ends up nothing like that.”
Next we step into his house and look at some of his early portraiture. When asked why he pivoted from portraits to abstracts, he grins. “No rules!”
Also on view are his ceramic vases. Several feature hieroglyphics embellished with gem-colored patterns. This prompts me to ask about that life-size Egyptian mummy case he did for a show at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia –– that strange 19th-Century experiment in “progressive” institutionalization that is a national historic landmark today.
For the grant-funded exhibition, he hand-carved the coffin from a massive chunk of Kentucky red oak and then painted and gilded it with the face of Larry Davis, a Bronx drug dealer who was murdered inside prison. The installation, a symbolic burial, sat in a narrow cell layered with peeling paint that once housed real life inmates who would spend their entire sentence in solitary contemplation of the deed that landed them there. Owens’ work spoke of what this man’s fate could have been had societal forces and circumstances led to a different path.
Which brings us back to Owens and the choice he made that put his life on a very different trajectory. His route will soon take him to Philadelphia, where he’ll join a collective with Jesse Krimes and other formerly incarcerated artists in a space big enough for artmaking and shows. But he also has New York in his sights. “I hope to be up there and represented by a major gallery.”
I have no doubt. LL
What: Jared Owens: Southern Exposure
When: Oct. 10-Nov. 10
Where: J Costello Gallery, Hilton Head Island