Michael G. Owen, Jr. — Dallas Sculptor of Lead Belly
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
Above, three views of “Leadbelly,” the sculpted head of the blues legend, by Michael G. Owen, Jr., 1943.
Mike Owen (profiled here previously as the 15-year-old soap sculptor who made headlines at the 1930 State Fair of Texas), was the youngest member of the group of artists loosely affiliated with the Dallas Nine group who were making a name for themselves in the 1930s and ’40s. He studied life drawing as a student of Olin Travis and painting as a student of Jerry Bywaters, but he was most proficient as a sculptor. He is best known for his award-winning 1943 bust of bluesman Lead Belly, a piece in the permanent collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.
In a 1950 letter to the (then-) Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Owen recounted how Lead Belly sat for him in New York and sang “Goodnight Irene” as Owen worked on a clay model. Owen was living in Greenbelt, Maryland at the time, and Louisiana-born Lead Belly was living in New York City, but I’d like to think that the two men reminisced about their formative days in Dallas where Owen was a much-talked-about young artist and Lead Belly performed on the streets of Deep Ellum with Blind Lemon Jefferson.
I noticed in the newspaper article that the stone was called black Belgian marble. Actually it isn’t so exotic. It was quarried not far from Charlottesville Virginia, and is called Black Serpentine. It was the first time I have ever heard of the stuff being black. If you’ll notice it seems quite a bit more crystalline than marble.
The way I happened to do the head went like this. A young fellow I had known in Dallas by the name of Ralph Knight had gone to New York a year or so after I went to Washington. He was interested in folk music and became acquainted with Leadbelly. It was at Ralph’s instigation that I did the head — he got me the stone, sent pictures (I first roughed out the head in clay at home in Greenbelt) and then arranged the sitting at his apartment in New York. Leadbelly sat for me one afternoon and I finished the clay model at that time. From that I worked out the stone cutting, only being able to work on it in my spare time. All in all it was about a full month’s work, I guess. During the time he was “sitting” for me (playing his guitar and singing) he played “Goodnight Irene,” but at that time the folk music devotees did not consider the tune “true folk music.” Still it pleased me when it became a popular song. It’s too bad Leadbelly couldn’t have lived to see himself gain such popularity.
— Mike Owen, 1950
Sadly, Mike Owen’s career stalled soon after this artistic high point. He eventually settled in Oregon, where he was sidelined by illness. He died in 1976 at the age of 61.
I’m not sure how often the piece is displayed at the Dallas Museum of Art, but it’s a wonderful work of art. When I saw it a couple of years ago, I just stood and stared at it for ages. It’s really fantastic. And it’s fitting that it resides here in Dallas where Michael Owen was once a part of a group of Texas artists whose influence continues to be felt today.
Seems fitting to throw in a couple of classics from Mr. Ledbetter:
“Leadbelly” sculpture by Michael G. Owen, Jr. is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.
Photo of the artwork is by Paul L. as posted on Yelp.
Photo of Mike Owen from The Dallas Morning News, July 24, 1938.
Photo of Lead Belly from Wikipedia.
Quote from Mike Owen’s letter to the DMFA (April 11, 1950) can be found in the superb book Lone Star Regionalism, The Dallas Nine and Their Circle, 1928-1945 by Rick Stewart (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, Dallas Museum of Art, 1985) — the best book on Dallas art of this period.
Read the Handbook of Texas entry about Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly/Leadbelly) here.
Michael G. Owen, Jr. was a fairly prominent artist in Dallas when he was very young. For a large collection of Dallas Morning News articles on him (including a rave review by Jerry Bywaters of his first one-man show) as well as a few grainy photographs of his artwork from this period, I’ve collected them into a PDF which can be viewed here.
Other Flashback Dallas posts on Owen:
- Young Mr. Owen’s star turn as the teenager who carved the WFAA transmitter plant from 8,400 pounds of Ivory Soap is here.
- Owen’s monument to SMU Mustangs’ mascot Peruna, commissioned in 1937, is here.
Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.