On one canvas are pebbles Alice Owens once spotted on a beach, stylized with enough color to make it look like a reflection of a rainbow. On the next canvas is a compact Italian town nestled on a rolling hill. Above the structures, two sailboats float in the sky – they’re the result of a young dreamer’s imagination, Owens said. The next canvas is mostly different colored circles, with human faces, arrows and a compass floating throughout them – it’s a depiction of how the world moves through time.
Ask the almost-lifelong Wissinoming resident about any of the 55 paintings currently on display at the Tacony LAB Community Arts Center and she’ll tell you the inspiration behind them. Most paintings have a six-page narrative explaining the characters and scenes they depict, even if those stories aren’t on display, too. Owens wanted the viewer to be able to imagine their own story.
After all, Owens has been painting most of her 80 years of life without ever showing off her work. So she’s got a lot of stories to tell.
Owens started painting when she was in high school, at St. Hubert. She won a scholarship to the Moore College of Art & Design (back then the Moore Institute of Art) for a painting she had done, attending art school every Saturday.
“I was a poor kid from Wissinoming going to this prestigious school,” she said with a laugh. “It just opened my eyes.” She recalled being taken aback seeing all the art supplies like inks and paints the kids at the school had access to.
But she never found encouragement from her family to pursue her dream. Her parents were from County Mayo in Ireland, which Owens said led to them leading different lives than what people in Northeast Philadelphia are used to now.
“I knew by the time I graduated [being an artist or a painter] was all I wanted,” but her parents didn’t support that dream, Owens said. “That happened to a lot of girls especially.”
Her mother would look at her artwork and say, “That’s cute, Alice.”
“Boy, that word ‘cute’ drove me nuts,” she said.
It never stopped her from painting for fun, but it did result in family and friends rarely seeing her work. Once in a while someone visiting her house would see a painting she had been working on left out in a corner of a room, or she would give one away as a gift or sell one, but those were the only rare scenarios others saw her work – until now.
Her paintings will be on display at the arts center until July 30. Family, friends and local art lovers enjoyed the opening reception June 7, when Owens said she was “shocked” by the reception.
“I’m happy with them, but I don’t know if anybody else is,” she said. “They become part of your psyche or your friend or something.” Owens said she felt like her friends were being removed when they started carrying the paintings out the door of her home to take to the art center.
The display room was packed with visitors for the two-hour reception, and Owens received two bouquets of flowers from visitors.
Owens’ paintings range from any subject matter that strikes her at the moment – from people she’s seen in the news to concepts imagined in her head. She’s a fan of color – most of her work incorporates just about every shade under the rainbow, creating a surreal atmosphere to her work.
Owens took art classes at Juniata Park Older Adult Center, where she learned a Chinese painting method to just “move on and paint” without any sketching or preparation. She describes her style as intuitive, where she paints what she’s seeing in her head and nothing more.
“It just comes from my mind and my hand and my emotions,” she said.
She also got to utilize her creativity at Oxford Art Glass Studio, where she worked helping create stained glass for churches, restaurants and other buildings.
Owens is a firm believer that children should be encouraged to participate in art and parents should give them coloring books or teach them how to paint. She said it fosters their ability to create independently.
“Some people just say, oh he’s so cute. That’s not it. Take them downtown to see some art shows,” she said.
“I paint because I’m so attracted and love it. My hands and my mind have to do it. There’s no formula of why you paint or why you dance or why you play football – it’s just something interior that has to be expressed,” she said. “And I feel you’d be very unhappy if you don’t allow that to happen.” ••