As a child growing up in Detroit, I was oblivious to my father's career as an artist. As long as he picked me up on Saturday morning and gave me paper to draw on I was happy. Like him, I began to draw when I was very young. I took great pleasure in it. You might say that my art career began in the sixth grade when I traded little drawings of nude women for extra desserts and cartons of chocolate milk in the lunchroom. Life was good.
As a teenager I sensed that there was something special about Carl Owens. I remember being a bit puzzled when my teachers, who had never met my father, seemed to know who he was. Carl Owens' home also served as his studio and gallery. It was full of art, supplies, equipment and strange objects and I loved it there. I marvelled as I watched him complete artwork for the Anheuser Busch "Great Kings of Africa" ads and other prominent illustrations. He encouraged me to pursue my own artwork. Still, Carl Owens life centered around his work and my life centered around my growing pains and special projects, such as bewildering my mother and finding creative ways to torment my younger brother.
Fast-forward to the late seventies: Doors long closed to deserving people of color were slowly creeping open. To many of his peers, Carl Owens was living proof that it was now possible for an African-American artist to make a living as an illustrator dealing directly with Fortune 500 clients. Also, he bypassed galleries and sold his fine art directly to a growing base of middle-class African-Americans many of whom were buying art for the first time. As a young adult I knew that Carl Owens was a playing a substantive role in the forward movement of African-Americans. I was proud of him but didn't say the words. I was entirely focused on my degree and budding career. Moreover, I was following that curious path that led from my African-American upbringing to an enticing new suburban life in a primarily white setting in central Florida.
As a grown man I would return home to Detroit until it wasn't home anymore. I had succeeded in escaping the violence that plagued the city but had unwittingly escaped my own culture. Carl Owens said that I had forgotten my roots, and it was true.
In the 90's I tried hard to "make up for lost time" with my father and discovered that it just was not possible. Still, we had a great time. Now that he is gone I can't help but think of our relationship as a half-finished painting, but in the words of Tony Soprano, "what are you gonna do?"
Carl Owens was an excellent example of someone who knew from an early age exactly why he was here. That kind of certainty added clarity to his life. From his point of view, he was here to make art not meet the expectations of others. I have no memory of him ever saying or doing anything that even remotely resembled self-doubt. To him, life was all about controlling the direction he moved in. He sought to simplify his life, reduce its' bulk, build it for speed and travel light. As he got older, he put limits on the number of hours he would work and with the exception of his Jaguar XJ8, curbed the desire for material possessions. He made a point of travelling abroad on a regular basis and reached out to younger African-American artists. Carl Owens collected the art of young artists that he wanted to encourage instead of the art of his peers. The older he grew, the more he smiled and the more he respected time. His goal: To have more disposable time and to enjoy the passage of time.
Someone famous said "In the end all you have are the people who love you and the work you leave behind." The people who loved him made sure he knew it. The work Carl Owens left behind will be organized into a digital book about his life and times now in writing to be released in several months. Until then, I offer you a reprint of Carl Owens biography below. Enjoy.