Here at CreativPaper, we deal with different artist's on a daily basis, each with their own stories of triumph, despair, love and heartbreak. But ever so often we come across artists that inspire you to the core. Born in West Hollywood, California in 1938 Ronald Ownbey is one of these individuals. His varied career, ranging from his time serving in the U.S Military to returning home to be a student, teacher and artist is inspirational, to say the least. We recommend you get comfortable before you start reading this one.
You have a rich and varied career, ranging from serving in the armed forces to teaching at Mt. San Antonio College, California. We all have moments of confusion as far as our passion in life is concerned. When did you find yours?
Growing up during the 40’s & 50’s, my brother and I would spend each summer on my grandparent's fruit ranch, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California not far from the town of Bishop. It was here at the age of 14 that I first discovered that I like to draw and paint, especially the surrounding rugged landscapes that were abundant at the ranch and in the nearby Mammoth Lakes area. Around this time I also went to an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History where I saw the paintings of Renoir (LA back then did not have a separate art museum). I knew at that point that I had a passion for art but was not sure if I had any real ability or how I might be able to make a living creating art. When I was stationed with the US Army in Germany during the late 50’s, I was able to go on leave to Paris and London and the art I saw in their museums knocked me out, and I knew that when I returned to the States I wanted to pursue studies in studio art, especially drawing and painting.
How important is the evolution of skill as an artist?
Extremely important. As Quintus Horatius Flaccus (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.” Knowing the historical narrative of what has proceeded one, the development of materials and techniques, the infinite number of ways of composing the elements and principles of art into a visual statement, frees one to explore their natural form of expression. I see so much art that is sadly deficient in quality, content, and individual expression. It’s great to see many people expressing themselves through art, but while there are “no rules” and anything “is possible”, there is a continuum of artistic quality and ability. One must be well prepared to be free.
Could you tell us a bit about your time at Otis Art Institute?
The four years that I spent at Otis Art Institute were an amazing journey for me, where I learned so much and expanded my creative artistic vision with the help of many faculties, especially professors Joe Mugnaini, Wayne Long, and Richard Haines. It was great being in a place where everyone was involved with creating art both day and night. During the early 60’s there were only a few dozen art galleries in Los Angeles (as opposed to hundreds now) and the once a month evening gallery art walks on La Cienega Blvd were a must visit for my classmates and me. It was here that we experienced the first west coast showing off a not so well known east coast painter named William De Kooning. The Ferus Gallery had the first showing of the then unknown Andy Warhol with his small Campbells Soup Can paintings: they were $200.00 apiece, and I almost bought one (little did I know what would happen). During that show at Ferus, I had arranged for Andy to come and talk with us at Otis, but instead, he sent a double, so I asked for our money back. Norman Rockwell spent a week with us in our drawing class with Joe Mugnaini, and numerous other art celebrities would visit us from time-to-time. It was exciting, hard work and long hours, a lot was happening, and in May of 1965, twenty-two of us finally graduated with our MFA’s. Then, reality set in: how were we going to make a living?
You define your work as personal reflections and interpretations, do you make a note of these before you start working on a piece or is the canvas your diary?
Almost everything I do in my work relates to something that I have experienced or has happened to me or my family or something that I have observed or discovered in nature. The art might also be related to what is going on in the world or ideas that stem from my dreams. I might do some preliminary sketching of these visions or ideas, but the canvas is usually the diary where I work out all of the details.
What has been the greatest cultural influence on your work as an artist?
Ancient Egyptian art and contemporary Surrealism hold a very special place in my artistic development and psyche. Symbolic shapes are often used in depicting ideas from myths and other personal tales in my art. Modern masters that have influenced my work include Miro, Gorky, Dubuffet, DeKooning, Pollock, Matta, Francis, and Gerzso, among others. Some contemporary artists that have inspired me include Lee Bontecou, Mark Bradford, Ingrid Calame, Mark Grotjahn, Elliott Hundley, and Matthew Ritchie. Through all of this influence, I hope that my art retains my voice, expression and style, and the process of doing it is where I live and am alive as a unique individual. Being true to one's own vision is the most important thing, regardless of what is going on in the current visual art world.
Your work throughout your professional career is deeply varied yet is consistently layered, could you talk us through your creative process?
In my work I tend to use biomorphic and structural shapes, linear movements, patterns and systems to visualise ideas from my dreams, past and current happenings, myths, and images of nature and the human environment. I am drawn to ideas that reflect the inner and outer functions, reactions and rhythms of things growing and changing. When the idea has formulated in my mind, I sometimes will do some quick general compositional studies or search for photographs that relate to the idea. For example, the source material for the painting “Body Dwellers” was a series of photos of body mites and microbes that our bodies need for good health and function. I first did a few sketches of these tiny living organisms and then went directly to the canvas. The canvas is usually the battleground where
I struggle with the colour and composition and work out all of the details of the painting. Until the painting is finished, any part of it can be changed or modified at any moment, including the initial idea. The whole process has to be fluid for me, not pre-set before I start.
What excites you the most as an artist?
Discovering new visual relationships in nature, the human environment, and especially other artistic people who are doing personal, exceptional quality visual work and understand the power and importance of a personal creative process.
You had a 60 year retrospective of your work in 2014 which we must say is quite an accomplishment, What was it like for you seeing your journey as an artist in one room?
Overwhelming, and a bit frightening. I could see the development and progress that I had made in my personal vision over the 60-year period. Looking at earlier work, I realised that I probably could no longer create it in that same manner, and it was hard for me to believe that I had ever done it in the first place. It was strange. My life experiences have changed the way I now tend to perceive things.
How has the pace of technological advancement influenced you as an artist?
When I first started teaching at Mt San Antonio College in the mid 60’s, I taught Drawing and 2-D Design. In the late 80’s, and as Department Chair, I realised that our students would need to know how to do art on the computer if they were going to have any chance of a career in graphic design, so I started the program in computer graphics. I taught that program for a little over ten years until I retired from teaching in 2000. I did very little drawing and painting during that period, concentrating instead on using Photoshop as a painting program for my images and printing them in very small editions. I still do that, and often in the process, I will come up with new ideas for my paintings.
Could you tell us a bit about your time spent in the Sierra Nevada mountains as a child?
In growing up, I was fortunate that my great grand and grandparents had a large fruit ranch high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, 20-mile north-west of the town of Bishop in the Owens Valley. My family lived on the ranch for a few years when I was in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, and I went to a one-room schoolhouse in Round Valley, ten miles below the ranch. There were 6-grade levels, one teacher, and about 20 kids in the school including three Piute Indian kids. In early spring each year I would watch the cowboys herding the cattle from the ranches in Round Valley, past our ranch road as they took the cattle to upper Sierra pastures for the summer months. When my immediate family no longer lived on the ranch, my brother and I would still spend each summer on the ranch with my grandparents. My grandfather would hire the Piute Indian women to come up and pick the gooseberries and currents that he raised, and they would bring their kids and make an encampment in the willows and stay for several weeks as they picked the berries. My brother and I had great times each summer playing with the Indian kids. It was during these summer stays on the ranch that I started to draw and paint.
We would like to thank Ronald Ownbey for taking the time out to answer our questions. This interview was first published in the March 2017 issue of CreativPaper Magazine which can be read here.