Ron Ownbey


CREATIVPAPER Issue Eight,  March 17, 2018.

CreativPaper is a digital first multimedia platform for creative visual talent worldwide.  It is located in the UK. The Founder is Jimmy Outhwaite, and the Creative Director is Jefferson Pires. The interview took place via internet in October, 2017.

Interview : Cover Artist - Ron Ownbey (pages 8 - 17 of 126)

1. As a professional artist do you think it’s important for art to be a means of living a life and not a means of making a living?

One should make art because of one’s “passion” and need for expressing one’s self through creating visual images and objects. It’s where you grow and live as a unique person expressing your reactions and vision of the world and the images and fantasies that form in you mind. You have the need to create until life’s last breath. As Henry Moore, a modern British sculpture once said “ There’s no retirement for an artist; it’s your way of living so there’s no end to it.” 

If you are making and selling your art, that’s great. But you don’t create art just to become “famous” and make a fabulous living. Few who have that “dream” of making it as a “fine artist” will ever be able to achieve that level of artistic and financial success. You must live with art, crave it, talk and argue about it, breath it, have a circle of artist friends, family and others who appreciate it and relate to that which you create. In the end, what’s important is that you devote yourself to learning, growing, creating and living your life with art. 

2. Do you think it’s harder now than ever to be a professional paid artist?

Yes. If you have a great “portfolio”, good artistic skills and ideas one might find a position in the commercial/ graphic design side of the visual arts. But if you are a “fine artist” -a painter, a sculptor, a printmaker, etc- it’s extremely difficult. How does one intend to support oneself with a degree in fine arts when there is a relatively high unemployment rate for fine arts MFA graduates. 

Each year in the United States hundreds of graduate schools of fine arts graduate thousands and thousands of creative people who are dreaming of a career in the arts and being able to support themselves. Most will end up with some sort of day job in another field and work in their studios at night and on the weekends. In the long-term some will eventually be able to support themselves and their families from the sale of their art through galleries, art fairs and the internet. 

3. In today’s instant age where society and culture is used to getting everything at the tap of their fingers how important is it to take time to study the fundamentals and historical narrative of art?

To reach the height and level of a great athlete, a great chef, a great musician, or a great painter takes hours, months and years of focused training and continued practice. It’s long hard dedicated and painful work with no guarantee that one will ever reach that high bar that one’s passion for art strives to achieve. Quintus Horatius Flaccus a Roman poet and satirist (better known to us as Horace) once said “no man ever reached to excellence in any one art or profession without having passed through the slow and painful process of study and preparation.” 

The “instant gratification” so prevalent in our culture today is in stark contrast to this idea of study and perseverance in the pursuit of learning one’s craft. There are no “rules” in art, anything is possible. Yet, it is only though learning the techniques and fundamentals of design and composition, color harmony and relationships, interaction of shapes through repetition, contract, emphasis and all the other aspects of visual communication that one becomes “free” in expressing one’s creative vision. 

Learning through study and practice the techniques and technical aspects of the craft of art and knowing the historical narrative of visual creation helps to feed and expand one’s unique content and style beyond the “ordinary” and opens up the possibility of someday achieving that “excellence” that Horace wrote about so long ago.

4. Where has your work headed more recently?

During the 35 years that I taught design and composition fundamentals, color theory and relationships, and then computer graphics, I had little time to devote to my own creative output. Since retiring from college teaching in 2000, I went through a period of doing no art (spent a lot of time going to movies), and when I came back to my creative side I only did computer paintings on a MAC using Photo-Shop. Five years ago I got back to my love of painting. At first, it was like “I really didn’t know how to paint anymore”, so I have struggled and only now feel like I have gotten my “grove” back. 

It’s rather strange looking at what is now happen to my creative direction as I see figures creeping back into my recent work and more time spent on mixed-media compositions. It’s like I have come full circle, and am now back in graduate school working with the human figure and experimenting with mixed-media. Only its 52 years later and the work is now very different and I have no idea where it might lead. The thought of the journey is exciting as I see the past merging with the present. 

5. Drawing inspiration from others is an important aspect of the creative process but how would you stay true to your original vision?

That is always a problem when you find things in another’s work that you really like and would like to incorporate them into your own art. You simply struggle with those visual concepts to make sure that they are incorporated and transformed into you work in your own way so that they do not appear to be derived from the work of some other artist. It’s hard, but the final vision must be in your creative style, not theirs.

6. What are you reading right now?

I am currently just getting into the book Popular Culture by Marcel Danesi, a professor of anthropology, semiotics, and communication theory at the University of Toronto.

I am also about to re-read two books that I read back in the 60’s when I was in graduate school.These essays had a great influence on my thinking at the time and I am anxious to see and learn from them new insights applicable to the turbulent times we are now experiencing.

The Courage to Create by Rollo May, an American existential psychologist. Creativity does not come easy and the courage to struggle is necessary to the process of making art. “We express our being by creating. Creativity is a necessary sequel of being” proclaims May. 

The Dehumanization of Art by Jose Ortega Y Gasset. Gasset was a Spanish philosopher and essayist who was active during the first half of the 20th century. Modern art, nonrepresentational art is unpopular with the masses since it has abandon the realism and the romanticism that the public adore. The arts don’t have to tell a human story nor use the human form but rather should deal with its own forms. The public must find and learn a new way of viewing the arts accord to Gasset.

7. What in your opinion is the importance of archiving and cataloguing one’s work?

It is important to catalogue your art as you go along (once a month if not more often) including notes about titles, media, sizes, grounds (paper, canvas,etc), completion dates, who has purchased your work and the names of galleries, museums, shows and art fairs where they have been exhibited. 

You will find that having this information will be invaluable as you enter art fairs, have your work in galleries, sell your work, and down the road perhaps publish a book of your art. In 2013 a 160 page book was published covering 60 years of my art. It included 357 illustrations of some of my work, mostly in color. Over the years I had kept track of most of my art but gathering the information needed to form the book, I found there were gaps. There were some lists of works but no photographs, and some photographs but no information or code numbers. After searching and borrowing works back from collectors so that I could get them photographed, I was able to form a master list of most of my creative output. There are still many pieces missing and I wish I had been more deliberate over the past 65 years in archiving and cataloging my art.

Back in the early 60’s when I was in graduate school at the Otis Art Institute, I was able to sell art through several galleries in order to raise money to help pay for my education. The gallery owners required that I have some system of numbering each piece so that we both could keep track of the work. That’s when I developed the coding and information system that I still use to this day. 

Every finished work has a code which tells me the media and when it was finished. Each code starts with the letter “O” for my last name (Ownbey), followed by the media code and then the finished date.OP110574 tells me it is an oil painting finished on November 5, 1974. OACP031715 tells me its an acrylic painting finished on May 17, 2015. OPD (pencil drawing), OCPD (colored pencil drawing), OMM (mixed-media), OWC (wood-cut), and so on. This code number placed on each work plus additional notes that I record, I keep in a binder as well a digital data-base

You need to develop a numbering and information system that makes sense to you, gives you all the details about the work that you might need in the future, and includes a high-resolution color photograph of the art. 

8. As an artist what are your thoughts on the environmental changes we are facing? Especially in California where you are?

California is very concerned and way ahead of most other states in addressing the environmental damages that we as humans have inflicted upon our planet. In 1976 at the college where I was department chair, students and faculty use to dump all sorts of toxic materials down the drains in studio art classrooms. In 1976 we were the first college caught by the Environmental Protection Agency of doing just that, and were forced to remedy the situation. 

A collection system linking all sink drains in studio classrooms to a large underground double-walled storage tank was installed. When the tank filled to a certain level an alarm system would go off and we would alert a company certified by the EPA to come and suck-out all of the contents of the tank. The material would be transported to a certified EPA site where the toxics would be scrubbed and neutralized. All colleges in CA are now required to have such a system for all studio art classrooms. 

The general public as well as artists can take any toxic materials to certified collection sites for proper disposal. In South Pasadena were I live, several times a year the city will sponsor a “collection day” where the EPA will come and collect toxic material for later disposal. All California artists should be aware of this free service offered in all counties and not put paint thinner and other toxic materials down sink drains or pour them into the dirt outside their studios.

9. An exhibition covering 65 years of your work as an artist recently took place earlier this year in Los Angeles, what was that like?

The exhibition took place at the Makeshift Museum located in the arts district near downtown Los Angeles. Selecting the art, borrowing works from collectors, and setting up the exhibition was time consuming and hard work, but went very smoothly. After the exhibition was installed and before the opening evening reception took place, I spent a couple of hours walking around and looking at the art that I had created since I was 14 years old. It was very strange and surreal looking at art that I know I created. Except for recent work, It was hard for me realizing how I ever made this art. I would never be able to do it again since I am now in a very different place with years of life experiences behind me which makes me feel and see things in a very different light.