Monday, December 29, 2014

Turning construction into creativity

Anthony Owens enjoys working with his hands to create beautiful objects with tile.

His three-dimensional murals can be seen at various locations throughout Frederick, Md.

And if that makes the 59-year-old Boonsboro man an artist, then so be it.

Although he grew up as a diplomat's son and spent his childhood in Asia, Owens identifies himself as a regular blue-collar guy who, through circumstances, found that he had artistic talent.

Owens calls his journey to art a "kind of confusing story because it's very unconventional."

"I've been a general contractor my entire life," Owens said. "I've been self-employed for 36 years. Then, ironically, 15 years ago, I was living in Frederick County but working in Washington County and fell off a roof and nearly died. In the process of recovery, I was led to believe I should be doing things less physical."

So Owens, who was in his mid-40s at the time, decided to order some mosaic tiles "just for the heck of it."

He had no formal training, except years of laying tile for bathroom floors with his company, Anthony Owens Modeling and Repair.

He said as a child, he didn't feel he was exceptionally artistic, but he felt he might be able to turn his construction know-how from practical to art.

"I just ordered mosaics, and that was that," he said.

Owens started attending art shows up and down the East Coast, and was selling his mosaic art pieces. But eventually, he stopped.

Then about three years ago, Owens was on a job with his company, where he was preparing a wall for a mural.

"And to thank the gentleman for giving me that job, I gave him something I made," Owens said. "He said, 'Holy cow! Can you do this to the mural?' I said, 'Well, I'd give it a try.'"

And with that, Owens went from his smaller pieces to larger-scale public pieces of art. That was six murals ago; he's working on his seventh.

"A mural, by definition sounds like a really cool picture," Owens said. "But I actually don't paint at all. So to make my murals unique, different and one-of-a-kind, I add a three-dimensional component."

Mosaic, he said, is actually kind of a broad term.

"Some of them are glass tiles, some of them are floor tiles I've shaped to make different figures," he said.

Owens said what he does is not that common in the United States.

The last mural Owens finished was Frederick's first civil rights mural of Lord Nickens, a local civil rights leader. The piece was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and is on the side of the Bernard W. Brown Community Center on North Market Street in Frederick.

The mural covers 80 feet. Owens worked with artist Jack Pabis on the piece that not only includes a portrait of Nickens, but seven 7-foot-long birds.

"It took an enormous amount of time. It's thousands of shaped mosaics," he said.

Owens said he takes a different approach with each mural. Sometimes clients tell him what they would like, sometimes he has his own ideas and other times he and his clients work together to produce the end product.

"For instance, when I did one at The Banner School in Frederick, I asked them what they wanted, and the headmaster and I came up with a plan," Owens explained. "When I did one with the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, the person I was collaborating with wanted to do something abstract, so we came with some ideas and interpreted it together."

Owens said he has footed the bill for some murals himself. But he was paid for his work and time for one he completed for the Frederick Housing Authority's civil rights mural.

The two murals he's known for the most, he said, are the "North of Fourth" mural, sometimes referred to as "Sun and Moon," and the civil rights mural. They were made from discontinued floor tiles. He worked with Pabis on both.

"You literally get a box of 12-by-12 tiles and somebody says, 'Make seven birds look powerful and taking flight,'" he said referring to the Nickens piece.

He said each job is "intriguing and challenging."

Owens said Pabis painted the tiles for three of the murals. For the other ones, he used other products, such as glass mosaic tiles, which are highly colorized.

"You always end up buying more material than you end up using," he said. "It's a strange thing because I don't know anybody else that does it, so I don't really know how to compare it."

To make the civil rights mural, Hood College donated studio space in which Owens and Pabis did their work. However, he said the mural he's currently working on often is on the floor of his house. Sometimes, parts of a mural can be found on his living room and bedroom floors, he said.

"People think that artists are screaming liberals or ex-hippies, there's just a preconceived notion," he said. "The biggest kick is that when people find out who I am. They're like 'It's him.'"

Owens said that working on murals with the tiles isn't far removed from the basics of construction.

"Because I think there's an artistic element to almost anything you build with your hands — if you're building an addition, if you're hanging drywall — these skills have been taken for granted in this country," he said. "My fellow blue-collars are very talented men. And many of them, maybe not all, but many of them have artistic capabilities they're not even aware of. And I was fortunate enough to go down a path which led me into exploring what is inside myself. I, by no means, believe that artists are any sort of elitists or have some grand vision or anything like that."

Because he's still a blue-collar guy, he still has to pay those blue-collar bills by keeping up his contracting business. He said as people have realized he is the same guy responsible for doing the Frederick murals, he has gotten requests for more elaborate tile work at homes and businesses, such as the Celtic symbol in front of the ladies' bathroom at Bushwaller's in Frederick.

And although he has done most of his work on the other side of South Mountain, Owens said he wants people to know that he's a Washington County resident.

"We do a lot of cool things over here," he said.

When it comes to interpreting his work, Owens said he doesn't "really care what people see."

"The main theme I try to transfer in art is there really is magic out there," he said. "Life can go in many directions that we can't control. But what we can control is that there really is a sense of magic out there, and hope and color and just positive karma."