by Paula Bosse
I’ve written about Michael G. Owen Jr. previously (see links at the bottom of this page for the three Flashback Dallas posts about Owen) but only in terms of his artistic achievements as a sculptor. I knew he had been a student of painters Jerry Bywaters and Olin Travis, and I had seen a couple of prints by him, but I was surprised to see the painting above which is currently offered at auction by David Dike Fine Art here in Dallas. Dike himself was surprised to see this large painting with stylistic echoes of the Dallas Nine group, of which Owen was a peripheral figure.
The untitled painting, estimated to have been painted around 1943, shows a man playing a guitar who resembles blues legend Lead Belly (whom Owen sculpted in 1943) surrounded by a black woman and child, by a white woman and child, and by a white man, presumed to be a self-portrait of Michael Owen. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that if the male figure standing at the right is Michael Owen, then the white woman and child are his wife Lois Schwarzwaelder Owen and his oldest son Michael Gordon Owen III (born in November, 1940).
This is quite an accomplished painting for an artist known primarily as a sculptor, and its discovery will surely boost Owen’s importance as a Texas regionalist artist.
Mike Owen was born in Oak Cliff in 1915 but lived in the 3500 block of Normandy Avenue in Highland Park for most of his life in Dallas, from at least 1923. His birth certificate has his father’s occupation as “lawyer,” but something must have happened between then and 1920 when census reports and city directories had his occupation listed variously as a farmer, an automobile painter with the Ford Motor Co., a sand and gravel merchant, a “laborer” with the Town of Highland Park, a roustabout, and when he and his wife (and most of their family, including the young, married Mike) moved to El Paso around 1941, his occupation was listed as “pipe-fitter.” Mike attended Highland Park High School, but the large family (there were at least six children) was not well-to-do. Olin Travis, the noted Dallas artist who was one of Mike’s art teachers, described Mike as “very poor” — he was able to take art lessons by winning scholarships, and he often scrounged for materials wherever he could (including a discarded block of red granite from an old Maple Avenue home which he used for an early sculpture).
Owen was something of a prodigy in Dallas art circles (he received a scholarship to the Dallas Art Institute when he was 14), and he was certainly a known figure in the exploding local art scene of the 1930s which was led by fellow artists such as Jerry Bywaters and Alexandre Hogue.
Mike Owen seems to have left Dallas sometime in 1936 for New York (see the photo below), but he was back in town in 1937 when he was commissioned to do the wonderful Peruna memorial which still stands on the SMU campus.
photo by David Steele
He continued to work and exhibit in Dallas until about 1939, when he seems to have left the city for good.
After having lived in El Paso and the Washington, DC suburbs of Maryland for a time in the 1940s, he and his wife and their two young sons moved to the Pacific Northwest where Mike paid the bills by working as a draftsman at an engineering firm in Corvallis, Oregon while continuing to create art.
Mike Owen suffered what must have been a debilitating series of setbacks, particularly in his later years. In 1942 in El Paso, his 16-year-old sister Sue was killed when a car she was riding in was hit by a train; in 1960 his wife sued him for divorce; in 1964 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; in 1965 his 18-year-old son William was killed in a motorcycle accident; in 1970 his father died; and in 1971 he had to abandon his artistic pursuits because the progression of the MS has made it impossible to shape clay with his numb hands.
Mike Owen died in Kennewick, Washington in April, 1976 after a twelve-year battle with MS. Even though he was not widely known, his obituary ran in newspapers around the country, possibly because of the lurid circumstances. The first two sentences read: “Noted artist and sculptor Michael Owen, 60, lost a 12-year battle with multiple sclerosis last week and, it was reported, died in a filthy trailer. He was buried at his own request without services in an unmarked grave at Desert Lawn Memorial Park with only his 90-year-old mother and a friend to mourn him” (UPI wire story May 5, 1976).
In a 1969 interview, Olin Travis, Mike’s childhood art teacher, said (possibly with some exaggeration) that Mike was “as good as Rodin…. Yet Dallas has never recognized this man” (DMN, Aug. 23, 1969).
The painting at the top of this post will be offered in Dallas at auction on November 9, 2019. It has an estimate of $80,000-$150,000.
UPDATE, Nov. 9, 2019: Dallas has recognized Mike Owen now — the painting at the top of the page sold at auction for $190,000 (not including the buyer’s premium).
Highland Park High School senior photo, 1933
From an application for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate, 1936
Sources & Notes
See the auction listing in the David Dike Fine Art Fall 2019 catalog here — the painting is Lot 128 on page 37. The auction will be held Saturday, November 9, 2019 in Dallas at noon. UPDATE: The painting sold at auction for $190,000 (not including the buyer’s premium).
Read about the painting and how it was brought to Mr. Dike’s attention in a Sept. 25, 2019 article from The Dallas Morning News here.
Read the previous Flashback Dallas posts on Michael G. Owen Jr.:
- “Give a 15-Year-Old 8,400 Pounds of Soap and He’ll Carve You a Radio Transmitter — 1930”
- “Michael G. Owen Jr. — Dallas Sculptor of Lead Belly”
- “The Peruna Monument — 1937”
More Flashback Dallas posts on the local art scene can be found here.
Copyright © 2019 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.