Painter of claws with a cause
By LOIS H. FEINSTEIN
Photography KIMBERLY DAWN
Francesca Owens sits in the solarium at St. Joseph’s Hospital in midtown Denver looking unexpectedly vibrant and healthy in spite of the multitude of sensors attached to her body and the IV pole with its tubing dripping drugs into her system.
The renowned wildlife artist had previously planned to chat at her Littleton studio until a little “glitch” came up — a few mini-strokes she suffered after scheduling the interview, necessitating her hospitalization.
However, neither the strokes nor the heart valve-repair surgery she underwent two months ago have put a damper on Owens’ enthusiasm for her current and future work. The tall, athletically built artist, with searching grey eyes and a shaggy Fawcett-do, has turned her hospital stay into a working opportunity. The staff has kindly provided a laptop; the nurses have been fetching her a Starbucks cappuccino each morning, and Owens’ portfolio occupies space on her bed. One of the doctors has even purchased one of her paintings. This woman knows how to network.
Her energy and consistently upbeat outlook have served the Bronx-born Owens well in her transition from a 17-year career as a stockbroker to her current niche as an internationally recognized wildlife artist and environmental spokeswoman. Her dramatic, vivid animal paintings reflect Owens’ own larger-than-life personality. A work called Pensive Zebra transforms the animal’s standard black and white stripes into an eye-popping mix of blues and oranges.
“I love vibrant colors,” Owens explains. “I use intense raw pigment and the highest-quality paints. I am not afraid of dropping chunks of paint onto a still damp first glaze. I’m not afraid to take risks with my art.” She also tilts her canvas while painting so that the colors run together to create unpredictable and interesting abstract backgrounds.
A propensity for risk-taking was the spur that convinced Owens to leave her work in the financial world in February of 2001 and take up art without having had any formal training. She enrolled in art classes and was soon receiving critical attention as an emerging artist. Spurred on by her success, she sought out and studied with artists whom she considered masters, including Victor Martinez, Stephen Quiller and Frank Francese. Owens credits all three with influencing her colorful, emotional and fluid approach to painting.
During her studies with Francese, Owens began to narrow her subject focus to the animal kingdom. One of her early works was discovered by Santa Fe gallery owner Barbara Marigold, who told the artist, “Francesca, your animals are wild!” Marigold offered her Canyon Road gallery to host Owens’ first exhibition, fittingly titled Animals are Wild, in 2005.
Owens soon found herself drawn to tigers as a focal point of her work. Why tigers? Looking back, the artist sees that there were many signs along the way, starting with her being born in the Chinese Year of the Tiger.
“Also, I have always been drawn to animal prints. All my clothes and all my home décor were either solid colors or animal patterns," Owens recalls. My friends realized it before I did. They said, 'Francesca, don't you know you've always had animal themes in your clothing and your home?' Until they told me, I guess it had always been subconscious for me." Even in the hospital, Owens wears a leopard print top, and her blonde hair is woven through with subtle orange stripes.
Once she started concentrating on her tiger portraits, Owens began searching for venues in which to market her work. She contacted the Save The Tiger Fund in Washington, D.C., and learned that a highly placed executive of Exxon/Mobil, a major corporate donor to the Fund, had bought one of her tiger paintings at the Santa Fe show and shown it to the foundation staff. Taking advantage of the opening, Owens presented her work to Save the Tiger, which promptly linked her with biologists around the world working to keep tigers from becoming extinct.
The information exchange was an eyeopening experience for Owens. “When I saw some of the photos of dismembered tiger parts — tigers chain-sawed in half, tigers caught in snares — they were absolutely brutal,” the artist recalls. “At that time, I felt another calling. I was not going to paint only beautiful, vibrant tigers, but I wanted to also convey the danger these animals faced. That’s when I conceived my second series, which I call Did I Die in Vain?”
Feeling that realistic depictions of the mutilated and trapped tigers would be off-putting to viewers, Owens chose to create hand-carved prints that use elements of the photos in an abstract way. “I took the theme and reinvented it so it could be displayed and therefore reach a greater number of people than those who might only read about it in environmental journals or the newspapers,” Owens explains.
The majority of the tiger pieces are rendered in black and white to emphasize the brutality and starkness of the subject, which is supported by their titles, including In Vain, Smuggled, Poached, and I Am Being Farmed. Currently the entire series can be seen at the artist’s Web site, www.francescaowens.com.
Did I Die in Vain? is in the process of becoming a traveling exhibition, having picked up sponsorship support from a variety of sources, including the Save The Tiger Fund, Reed Photo-Imaging of Denver, Colorado Lawyers for the Arts and the law firm of Faegre & Benson.
Owens wants to double the number of works in the show and plans to create a second series named Beauty of the Beast: Tigers Facing Extinction. She hopes to launch the completed show in late 2007.
As a result of her wildlife paintings, Owens is recognized not only as an emerging artist but also as a global tiger advocate. However, her artistic scope is not limited just to animals. Growing up with her Italian immigrant grandparents, she reaped the benefits of a close-knit Italian family, including a love of Italian art. In 1996 Owens went off on a pilgrimage to Italy to find her roots. She contacted a number of relatives who still live there and developed “amazing” relationships with them. She has traveled to Italy every year since and spends between two and four months there studying and painting.
This past summer she had two successful solo exhibitions in the town of Cortona and was hailed by Italian art critic Edo Barzagli, who said of her work, “The artist stresses colors with a chromatic and a remarkable richness. Francesca has a very strong and expressive poetic rendering."
Always open to artistic inspiration, Owens is currently planning to use her open-heart surgery experience as a jumping-off point for a new cycle of works. Although she has not decided on a precise format, she asked for, and received, some of the tubing used in her surgery, which she plans to incorporate into the pieces.
Owens also credits the surgery with vastly improving her cognitive and color senses as a result of increased blood flow to her brain: “On the one hand this (the surgery) has been a horrific experience; on the other hand, I feel that I’ve been given an amazing gift — the ability to see things more clearly than ever. I can’t wait to get started and see what this blessing brings to my work.”