Artist Gary Owens Hopes to Bring His Colorful Caricatures to the Classroom

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Photo by Sarah Owens

“[My paintings of famous historical figures] are caricatures, not portraits. I’m not a fine artist, I’m not a trained artist. The only training I had was in the fourth or fifth grade [in Georgia]. I talked so much and the teacher gave me some art materials and told me to get to the back of the room and get to work. You didn’t have the same [materials] you had today, so they took butcher paper and taped it on the back wall. They gave me a box of chalk and said, ‘Go do something with that and stop bothering us.’ I did that for two years. Then the people from Mercer University came over and were delighted with them. They said they wanted to use those drawings that I did for children’s art in their university library. After that, I went to military school.

I used to work for the state at the housing finance agency [in Raleigh] and then before that I owned a mortgage company down in South Carolina. I started this particular [project] in probably late 2012. I lived over on Greene Street and had basically turned an apartment into a studio. I believe MLK was the first one I did. [The reason the word ‘dream’ in ‘I have a dream’ on the bottom corner of that painting is split onto two lines is] I wanted to indicate to people that this was an important figure but also that it was done by an outsider artist. That’s why I dropped the ‘m’ [onto its own line] like it was a mistake, so that people would say, ‘Oh, well, why is that? He just didn’t know what he was doing.’

Rosa Parks

Then my daughter Sarah said she’d like to buy this house [on Dairyland Road with me and] with her husband, Ken, and their son. It was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen and we’ve been here almost four years now. In total there’s about six acres and New Hope Creek runs along the [perimeter]. It really is a beautiful piece of property. I used to work late at night; then we moved here so I became a family person and tried to set a good example. Most of the time I like the light [for painting in my studio].

What I would like to do is posterize these pictures and provide schools with posters. I’d like to be able to provide schools with a minimum of 10 free posters and the syllabus. If they wanted more, they could order another 10. It would involve interacting with history teachers across the state. Of course, they wouldn’t have to use the syllabus; they could do whatever they wanted. The reason I wanted to do this is I don’t think we’re paying attention to history in schools. I want history to come alive and [for students to] say ‘Oh, that happened during the ’50s when my [grandmother] was born.’ I would like to finish up in the next two or three years – and it’s going to take that long. Sarah and I already have a foundation set up; we just don’t have any money in it yet.

[The syllabus] would provide [teachers and students] with an idea of what I think the timeline [from 1943 to present day] means, how we went from one area of naivety in the ’40s to where we are now, and right now, we’re at each other’s throats. It’s a very dangerous, divisive time. I think if someone could weave that picture together and provide that to history teachers, maybe they’d be able to figure out what we’re doing and what we need to correct. History tells us what happened and art tells us how we felt about it, that’s my premise.” –as told to Jessica Stringer


Gary reveals the inspiration behind four historical figures
“Mother Teresa is one of my favorite paintings. She’s an inspiration to us all. Some of the paintings I literally dash off in a day because you get inspired about something. I think Mother Teresa I did in a day because it was going the way I wanted it to go.”
“You look at Elvis and you know he’s just going through all kinds of gyrations to get ready and do what he does.”


“There’s Anne Frank. You see how she’s more caricature-like? Her head’s too big and that sort of thing, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to emphasize her face like she’s screaming out at you, ‘We’re dying’ and ‘Where the hell are y’all?’”
“That’s Lyndon Johnson when he was a child. I remember him saying that most of the important things that he learned in life were taught on the back porch of his grandmother’s house. It’s not important that the features aren’t exactly right; what’s important is that he’s sitting there on the porch thinking about what his grandmother just told him. I tried to capture what a little boy sitting on the back porch would have looked like, not so much what Lyndon looks like then or now, but more about what might have been in his mind.”

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Jessica Stringer

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