romy owens, Photographer: Interview

Update, 2012-05-12: Images below have been removed due to link rot. Visit romy owens' website to see her latest work. romy owens is a photographer and arts enthusiast living in Oklahoma City. She takes many photographs, curates the third floor gallery at the Gaylord-Pickens Museum, visits other people's art openings, and eschews capital letters.

SA: Where were you born, where have you lived, where did you go to school, and how did you come to be in Oklahoma?

ro: i was born in okc at baptist hospital on easter sunday in 1970 and it snowed that day.  i was raised in enid.  here are the schools i attended:  glenwood elementary, monroe elementary, emerson junior high, enid high, tulsa university, phillips university, webster university, university of oklahoma, and oklahoma city university.  as an adult, i have lived in tulsa, st. louis, leiden (the netherlands), enid, boston, eaton center (nh), nyc, and okc.  i came to be in oklahoma as a layover while couch surfing in 1996.  and it stuck.

SA: What do you think Oklahoma artists have to offer that's unique?

ro: an aesthetic and ethic that hasn't been jaded by the competition, popular opinion, and criticism, like one might find in a larger art market.

SA: Did you train in photography? What about other media?

ro: well, i got my first camera at age six, and i worked in a darkroom for the first time at age ten.  i bought my first nikon at age seventeen.  and i've always been an avid photographer.  however, i studied photography as art starting in 2002, specifically traditional black and white darkroom photography.  i have studied painting, drawing, screen printing, and installation art.  and graphic design, of course.  my strengths lie in photography.

SA:  Is it more challenging to find gallery work as a photographer than as an artist working in other media, like painting or sculpture?

ro: yes.  oh my god.  totally.  there are many people with recognizable influence in the creative culture, as well as the art buying world, who maintain that photography is not an art form.  and they can suck it, because it is.  i think it is not uncommon that when a photograph is in competition with other media, the other media is almost universally regarded as a higher art, and photography rarely wins best in show in multi-media exhibitions.  whatever.  photographers just keep on truckin'.

SA:  I enjoy the strong compositions I see in your work, lots of bold colors and fields of texture. How did this visual style develop?

ro: i fully admit that i am strongly influenced by the work of postmodern photographers that came before me.  i'm extremely drawn towards abstract expressionism, and line, color and texture are the things that pull me into a shot.  i developed this style on my search for graffiti while traveling, and then i would find that the section of wall right next to the graffiti was often times as, if not more, aesthetically pleasing.

SA: What interests you about urban sights, like signage, walls, buildings, etc?

ro: the short answer is the history.  but equally as important to me is the challenge of finding that place that someone would pass every single day and never really appreciate.  these buildings and signs are omnipresent, but largely ignored.  when i'm out exploring, i impose an entire imagined back story on cracks in the sidewalk or the bricks that make up a building.  that story largely exists in my mind.  sounds insane, maybe, but personification has been a longtime quirk i've had.  just ask my stuffed animals from childhood.  i promise you, they'll agree.

SA: You are currently using a technique in which you cut prints into strips and sew them back together in different configurations. When and why did you start doing this?

ro: i started piecing sections of photographs together in 2005 for an incredibly practical reason.  i wanted to work larger than my 8"x 10" printer would permit, so by printing the photos out in sections and piecing them together like wallpaper, i was able to create much larger images.  the first one i did was four by six feet.  it was pretty awesome.  it was ruined by a leaking ceiling in the main studio room at ocu.  that sucked.  anyway, i started sewing the seams of the photos together in 2007 because i didn't like that the edges or corners could, and depending on handling, eventually would, curl up.  it was out of necessity of permanence that i sew everything into place.  i would never dare to take exclusive credit for the idea.  my superdeluxe friend jason hackenwerth introduced me to the art of doug and mike starn in 2004.  anyone familiar with their work would see an obvious connection with piecing bits of a photo together to create a larger image.  and in 2005, while i was studying david hockney's photography, i read that hockney once said that he believes photography is a lesser art form, yet he created enormous fantastic photo collages of landscapes and urban-scapes that contradict his own statement, almost as if to demonstrate the only way he could see photography being an art form.  arrogant, yes.  however, these post-modern techniques totally influenced me.  i created my own variation.  actually, i will take full credit for the o.c.d. sewing.

SA: Can you describe how you punch those tiny holes and sew such meticulous stitches?

ro: let me know if this describes it to your satisfaction. i use a metal ruler and the pointy end of a compass (the circle making tool), and i score the holes that way. then i puncture the score marks, with a needle an two thimbles. then i go back and sew.

SA: Are you naturally precise or do you use tools to assist in that process?

ro: tools. although the exactitude has definitely made me more precise in gauging measurements and levelness.

SA: I feel that when women artists use things like sewing in their work, it's easy to pigeonhole that work as a comment on femininity. Do you have any thoughts on that?

ro: well, in fact, i do have thoughts on that.  i really thought sewing would stamp my art as definitively feminine, which doesn't bother me at all, being a female and all.  i think people tend to call work feminine with the intent of it being a back-handed compliment.  however, i don't think calling art feminine is insulting.  and in fact, when people use that description in a way that implies anything negative, i tend to think less of the person making the comment.  and i have to say, i am surprised by the number of people i meet who tell me that based on my artwork, s/he thought me a man.  i always think that is odd.  i've heard my imagery is masculine from more than a few people, and when someone says it, they seem to be complimenting me, like my imagery is better because it's masculine.  whatever.  that's redonkulous.  oh, and i've heard that my stitches are so detailed that it seems like a man did them.  and frankly, that's just insulting.  a man didn't do it.  basically, i am female and therefore, by default, i make feminine art, and that can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.  i think my art is a pretty accurate reflection of my uber-feminine personality.  (sarcasm, intended.)

SA: That's funny, because in thinking about the question of "feminine" art I also thought that your work was, not masculine, but not feminine either. (Androgynous art?) What I'm getting at is that even though you use the sewing technique, which someone could classify as "feminine," I find your work completely un-girly. On that note, do you participate in the Girlie Show?

ro: i did in 2006 and 2007.  i wanted it to be one thing, it turns out that it's another.

SA: Are you a completely digital photographer?  Do you do all your work at home, or do you use a traditional photo lab?

ro: yes, since 2005, completely a digital photographer.  so so so much more affordable.  holy crap, when i think of all the film i would have needed to buy, i throw up a little in my mouth.  i do all my work at home, and i don't use a traditional photo lab for anything.

SA: How do you like the job of curating the gallery at the Gaylord-Pickens Center?

ro: first, it's a museum, just to be clear and totally la-di-da and fancy about it.  second, it's so awesome!  i'm constantly challenged and learning.  and i work in the art industry.  and the hours are completely accommodating.  and the people who i work with at the museum are so superdeluxe.  it's an ideal dream day job for an independent artist.  i'm super lucky.  i'll keep doing it as long as they let me.

SA: What are your thoughts on working with a gallery contract as you do with Steven Kovash?

ro: well, i have to say for the record that stephen kovash is pretty rad.  he's taken a huge risk in opening a gallery and representing artists and i'm lucky that he still wants to represent me, as diva as i try to be.  being under contract hasn't impacted me personally, as the group shows i tend to participate in are under the umbrella of non-profit gallery exhibitions which are allowed in my contract.  and i have the freedom to show outside of the metro area.  so i haven't seen a downside to being under contract.

SA: How did you develop the Photo Booth project?

ro: it started as a part of the entertainment provided for ovac's 12 x 12 this past september.  but i was so thrilled with the results that it is now an ongoing project that i hope to develop into a massive installation one day.  i love the photo booth project.  i can't wait for the next time i get to do it, which hopefully will be in january.  i've heard it referred to as party pics more than once, which i think is just another way to denigrate photography as a lesser art form.  and even with that, i'm categorizing party pics as a lesser art form, which is rather hypocritical of me.  party pics could be art, but not every photographer capturing party pics is an artist.  how's that?  anyway, i really don't see the photo booth as party pics, and i'm pretty insulted when i hear that.  it's interactive art and it's a relatively accurate form of telling a very short story.  i'm not directing people in any way, and oftentimes i'm not even paying attention to what the people are doing when i snap the shutter.  in fact, what i am doing is stealing souls, and the image that results definitely informs the viewer about the person being photographed.

SA: Who are you looking at? Or listening to, or reading?

ro: ooooh, i'm looking at my nephew a lot right now.  he's so freaking awesome.  the coolest three year old i know.  and i don't know why but i find myself looking at ryan reynolds a lot.  well, i do know why.  i don't think that's why you meant by the question, but it's true.  my nephew and ryan reynolds, for totally different reasons.  and i'm also looking at a lot of art by sally mann and walker evans.  and i'm listening to a lot of e.l.o. right now.  in fact, that's what i'm gonna put on myspace right now.  and i wish i were reading a super book right now.  sadly, the last book i read was the final harry potter in 2007.  and the most recent thing i've read was the most november issue of oklahoma today magazine, cover to cover, while on the train from okc to ftw.

SA: What are your career goals as an artist?

ro: my career goal is to be included in a whitney biennial before i die.  everything else ultimately leads to that goal.

SA: Have you entered the Whitney Biennial before?

ro: no, but i've only been an artist for three years. i will. for the record, i was sorely disappointed in this year's biennial, but i still love it and it's still my eyes on the prize goal.

SA: What is an artist stereotype that fits you? And one that doesn't fit you?

ro: i guess some people might call me eccentric which i think is true of lots of artists.  the creative class tends to be eccentric.  that's what gives us our creamy goodness.  one that doesn't fit me is that i am not a slacker.  i'm very organized and try to avoid any hint of flakey artist, which i find many artists embrace because it allows them to be slackers.  that bothers me.  slacker artists tend to make the entire profession seem slacker-y.

SA: Where and when can we see your work (including on the web)?

ro: 1) istvan gallery (1218 n. western, okc) always has a piece or three of my art on display.  2) my flickr is a wading pool of butterscotch pudding to go through, since there are over 9000 photos.   most of what is on my flickr is my longest running on-going series, "kids i know," which will one day be a massive installation.  but there are other loosely organized sets on my flickr too.  3) i have a lot of photos in my myspace photos.  4) one of my 2009 goals is to set up my own awesome website.  and then i can interview cool artists like you, sarah, and spread the love.  5) or if someone really wanted to see my art, they could buy a piece of it and hang it in their home and look at it all the time.