Mixed-media artist Barbara Owen moved from sculpture to painting to sculpture again, finding a new voice in circular shapes.
For some artists, a change in medium comes organically. For Barbara Owen, it was a geographic necessity.
“Welding in a loft just didn’t work out.”
Owen discovered metal sculpture while studying art at Bennington College in Vermont. “The department was exciting,” she recalls. “It was loud and everyone seemed to have attitude and wear big leather boots—I wanted in! Using pulleys to hoist the metal, acetylene torches to cut and welding to attach, I just fell in love with it all.”
But after graduating, the Maine-born artist moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and didn’t have the proper space to continue pursuing her passion for metalwork. She sold her welding equipment, and focused solely on painting. “There is a magical thinking that happens when I paint that doesn’t when I form something three dimensionally,” she says of the difference between the two mediums. “I am using a different part of my brain. I find that painting is difficult and I like this; it challenges me and keeps me working.”
But even after a full decade of painting, Owen’s love of sculpture hadn’t left. A few years before moving from Brooklyn to Pawtucket, she made a dramatic shift in her painting style—from very “worked” abstraction to colorful, organic circular shapes. It was this change in approach that made Owen begin to think outside of the confines of the canvas, and once again consider three-dimensional works. It took a dozen years for Owen to return to sculpture; but instead of going back to the raw, unyielding power of metal that she once loved, she chose the soft adaptability of paper, using templates from her paintings to continue her study of circular forms.
“I’d wanted a break from painting,” she explains, “and started to explore making work that was unbounded by the dimensions of a traditional canvas support. So I decided to cut up the drawings and templates that I had previously used in the preparation of a painting. This cutting up process has now become a free-form way of creating new imagery, reconfiguring my original concept to give it new meaning. What was once discarded has become the material in which I make the work.”
In addition to the paper cut-ups—collages of spaghetti-like ribbons of paper—Owen began creating large-scale, sculptural installations that snake across walls in giant, slinky-spirals of color. Unlike her painting, which is made in her studio, the creative composition of Owen’s paper installations mostly happens on site. “I prefer not to be too prepared,” she says. “It works best when it is a revelation. There’s something freeing in this approach, because I simply can’t think about it for too long.”
Although Owen still loves painting, she is grateful to have found her way back to sculpture, and thrilled by the response to her paper installations. “It makes me happy when I see people look at my work with wide eyes and astonishment, and feel joy from the color pop. Color makes me feel that way, too; so it is a shared experience.”