Give a 15-Year-Old 8,400 Pounds of Soap and He’ll Carve You a Radio Transmitter — 1930

by Paula Bosse

Michael Owen, Jr., boy soap-carver 1930

by Paula Bosse

In 1930, 15-year-old sculptor Michael G. Owen, Jr. carved a replica of the WFAA transmitter building out of 8,400 pounds of Ivory soap. And why not? It was a big draw at that year’s State Fair of Texas.

Mike Owen, a student at well-to-do Highland Park High School (although Dallas artist Olin Travis, who had him as a pupil at about this time, described him as being “very poor”), had been sculpting all sorts of things, from the age of 3. He had begun winning awards when he was 13 or 14, one in an earlier “soap modeling” contest sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Not only did that soap-carving award result in young Mr. Owen being commissioned by Sanger Bros. to carve a model of the downtown skyline (I’m not sure this commission was ever actually completed), he was also asked to create an attraction for the State Fair: a replica-in-soap of the WFAA transmitter plant located on Northwest Highway near Grapevine (see a photo of the transmitter building and tower here). Owen worked from blueprints of the building and a bronze model supplied by the Belo Corporation (owner of WFAA), and Proctor & Gamble supplied the huge bars of Ivory soap (12 bars, each weighing 700 pounds). The finished piece was an “exact replica” of the 50,000-watt transmitter plant and was touted by Procter & Gamble as being the largest soap sculpture ever executed. It was a big hit at the 1930 State Fair of Texas.

Michael Owen went on to become a professional artist, with early enthusiastic support from Jerry Bywaters. He was associated with the Dallas Nine (and was, by far, the youngest member affiliated with that somewhat amorphous group), and I will address his more serious non-soap forays into the art world in a later post. But, first, back to soap!

The photo below shows Mike Owen’s finished product, which took him 12 days to complete.

owen_wfaa-soap_degolyerBelo Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU

It’s difficult to tell what the size of the finished work was from this photo, but it was described as being five feet high and seven feet wide. So… big. When it was displayed at the fair it was, for some reason, bathed in blue light. After the 12 days it took Owen to complete this sculpture, I bet that kid was squeaky-clean and positively reeked of Ivory soap.




Sources & Notes

Photo of Owen’s soap carving of the WFAA transmitter plant is from the Belo Records collection, DeGolyer Library. Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University; more information on this photo can be found on the SMU website here.

Other Flashback Dallas posts on artist and sculptor Michael G. Owen, Jr.:

  • For a look at Owen’s professional career as a sculptor, see my post “Michael G. Owen, Jr., Dallas Sculptor of Lead Belly” here.
  • To read about the Peruna monument SMU commissioned him to produce in 1937 (when he had just turned 22), see my post here.

UPDATE: Read about a recently discovered large painting by Owen up for auction in Dallas in 2019 here.


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.