By Mason Riddle
(This article appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Art Voices Magazine, Volume 41).
After a ten-year hiatus, which artist Ron Ownbey labels as “painter’s block,” the California native resumed painting and drawing in 2011, an event to be lauded. Why? Because Ownbey, who was born in West Hollywood in 1938, has vigilantly constructed a remarkable and fertile life, donning the multiple hats of professional artist, dedicated college professor and family patriarch with equal aplomb. His practice, spanning six decades reveals a fluid thinker and a proficient maker who works across media with equally skillful results.
Ownbey is a prolific artist by most standards and his work was celebrated in a 2013 exhibition titled From Mind Thru Hand: A 60 Year Retrospective 1953-2013, at the Mt. San Antonio College Art Gallery. The show’s lavishly illustrated catalogue, with an insightful essay by Peter Frank, puts into perspective the breadth of Ownbey’s practice.
Making art is integral to Ownbey’s DNA. He began drawing and painting as a child during summers spent at his grandparents fruit farm, Swall Ranch, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Accompanied by his younger brother Rich, the pair played with the children of Piute Indian women who harvested the fruit. Not surprisingly, work by a teenage Ownbey depicts Swall Ranch’s rocky, sagebrush-filled landscape marked by pine trees, and portraits of Indians. By the mid-1950s, Ownbey’s landscape paintings are realistic but expressive, and reveal his early understanding of color as demonstrated in Ranch Landscape (1956). His detailed drawing The Birth of Venus (1955) demonstrates a precocious grasp of how to render the human figure.
As From Mind Thru Hand substantiated, Ownbey is comfortable working with most media. Although the majority of his oil on canvas paintings, pencil and ink drawings, woodcuts and etchings, digital inkjet prints and cast metal sculpture are stylistically abstract, many evoke or include representational elements ranging from the human figure to various flora and fauna. The figure claims expressive territory throughout Ownbey’s expansive oeuvre, particularly in his drawings and prints.
Ownbey’s work is also unified by a graphic sensibility and a native use of line. As Frank notes in his essay, Ronald Ownbey: A Unfurling of Avatars, “Ownbey…has displayed, even relied on, a graphic emphasis in his art from his earliest output. Whether painting, etching, sketching or working digitally, Ownbey does not simply rely on line, he thinks with it. It provides not simply the bones of his work, but its sinew and its skin.”
Ownbey also possesses a keen eye for color. From his earliest landscapes in muted earth tones, to his more vibrant abstract paintings in both expressionist and surrealist modes to his kaleidoscopically hued digital work, Ownbey uses color in a sophisticated and clear-headed manner. For example, his color pencil on paper drawing Dragon and Snake (1986) is stylistically straight out of a fantasy genre and is executed in luminous veils of yellow, gold, green and rose that it all but requires sunglasses to view. Whether one likes a particular work or not, it is hard to argue with Ownbey’s ability to expressively link color to subject matter.
Even the most abstract of Ownbey’s work is visually propelled by a sense of narrative, no matter how oblique, that almost exclusively reflects personal experiences. “My work is personal. I make work about me, whatever is going on is at the foundation of my work,” Ownbey stated in an April 25, 2015 telephone interview. “My work reflects what is meaningful to me, and that is depicted in part through color. A painting or digital print may reflect conflict, in me or the environment, or it may be about something positive.”
But what path did Ownbey forge to achieve From Mind Thru Hand? What life decisions led to such a prolific career? For one thing, he understands the importance of timing. “Timing is critical to our emotional and spiritual well-being as it applies to everything that affects our lives, such as career situations, relationships, financial matters, and living arrangements,” he wrote in his catalogue.
So this is how Ownbey timed his life. After graduating from Covina Union High School in 1956, he enlisted in the US Army for three years, planning to get service duty out of the way before he attended college. After basic training, he was stationed in West Germany and was able to draw and produce a few paintings. More importantly, he took short leaves to visit art museums in Paris, London and elsewhere, which confirmed his idea to become an artist. Upon returning to California with little money, he enrolled in Mt. San Antonio College in 1959 where he majored in art and was recognized as one of the Twelve Men of Distinction in his graduating class of 1961. Ownbey went on to study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles on a full scholarship and was recognized as an Outstanding Student. He graduated from Otis in June of 1965 with both a B.F.A. and an M.F.A degree with High Distinction, with a major in painting and a minor in drawing.
Ownbey began applying for college teaching positions and when he was offered a fulltime job by his alma mater Mt. San Antonio College, he accepted. He began teaching in the fall of 1965 and little did he anticipate he would teach there for 35 years, much of it as Chair of the Art Department. Along the way he married, had two children, and was later divorced. Since a youth, Ownbey had been enthralled with the ancient cultures of Egypt and Imperial Rome. During sabbatical leave in 1974-75 he traveled to Egypt, where he went down the Nile River, and to Nepal and India. Unlike many academics, who are trapped by their teaching schedules and administrative duties and all but quit working, Ownbey managed to sustain a rigorous art practice throughout his teaching career. In the late 1980s he spearheaded the college’s computer graphics program. After teaching drawing, design and computer graphics, Ownbey retired in June of 2000.
With much free time post-2000, Ownbey visited art galleries and museums and did not always like what he saw. And he began to suffer from his “painters block” beginning in 2001. In 2004 he resumed working digitally on the computer, but it was not until 2011 that he started to draw again. And subsequently paint. Ownbey currently lives in a light-filled loft in South Pasadena where he is again making work. His 2013 Strata Crumple, an elegant, modestly-scaled oil on canvas composition in jewel tone hues of green and blue that suggests layers of organic leaf forms, is testimony that Ownbey has regained his creative sea legs.
Frank suggests that Ownbey does not work in a specific style, but rather in an eclectic “pan-style” that is rooted by his deft use of line. Yes, his work references many 20th century artists, but Ownbey has carved out his own practice, one that is dictated by his utterly personal approach to subject matter. “My work reflects my family, the history and state of the world, and the moment in time in which I exist. The fantasies, emotions, feelings, reactions, and ideas spring from my mind, tempered by my heart and travel through my hand onto the paper or canvas.” Indeed, a productive life well lived.
Mason Riddle is an art critic, curator, and freelance writer on the visual arts, architecture, and design, based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her reviews and articles have been published in Artforum, Architectural Record, Architecture MN, Dwell, The Star Tribune, Public Art Review, Art Voices and the Walker Art Center magazine among others. She is former director of The Goldstein Museum of Design and MN Percent for Arts in Public Places program. Riddle has a M.A. degree in Art History and Museum Practice from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.