Michael Owens looms disproportionately large in my life; a presence in four of the rooms of my home to be precise.
For a man I shared a house with nearly 40 years ago, and whom for the past ten years I haven’t spoken with more than four or five times a year, his captivating, fluid, imaginatve and appealingly surrealistic view of the world are welcome aspects from many perspectives: Thought provoking shapes, innocent, often humorous, and always harmonious; a world of balance and equalibrium.
As I write I am looking at three of Michael’s abstract works; for some inexplicable reason I have stuck with the name Michael, although I know some of you know him as Mick or Mike. The largest, also my favourite, is White Fish, a three colour lithographic print from 1984. The second edition of a run of eight prints, one of which is inside the vaults of London’s Tate Gallery. It’s about a metre square and he gave it to me as the price of me driving him home late one night from a show he was exhibiting at in the Barbican.
I don’t know what the two smaller paintings next to it depict (above) but I am very fond of them nonetheless; a bit fishy, perhaps, and organic in a colourful Petri dish sort of way. He presented me with them for no reason at all at The French Bar, in Soho after a long lunchtime. Michael has always been generous like that. His oldest friend John Hewitt, who he met at Manchester Polytechnic and who has remained by his side to this day, has a theory that Michael has given away more art than he’s sold. He’d rather the art was enjoyed than clutter up his studio.
There is another of his in the dining room downstairs. More fish, painted and cut out and reassembled as a three dimensional marine collage. Another, my most recent acquisition, Dancing Party/Come As You Are is on wood and is the size of long playing record sleeve depicting a pair of abstract groovers with big hair against a background of what looks like 45rpm discs, affected in greens, umber and black. Another print Face To Face, dating back to 1981, has cartoonish sea horse creatures amid waves of musical notes. And a seventh, Mick’s sweeping take on Wiltshire’s eighteenth century, White Horses, was bought for my mother many years ago and is currently in the attic awaiting wall space.
Thinking about it I probably possess more Michael’s works of art (he prefers the word “images”) than many people’s entire collections.
Born in Bootle in 1955 and a lifelong supporter of Liverpool FC -Michael studied Fine Art at Manchester Polytechnic, moving to London in the early seventies and enrolling at The Royal College of Art. Upon graduating he won the Atlantic Paper and the Berger Colour Prizes whereupon he was offered art foundation and degree teaching positions in Bristol, St.Helens, Taunton, and London.
It was through beer rather than art that we became friends, plus the fact that he was dating a friend of my girlfriend at the time. He seemed to know everyone worth knowing on the London art scene. He exhibited work throughout the capital, drank at The Chelsea Arts Club, and hosted ‘soirees’ at a three storey terraced house in Brockley, south east London, a stone’s throw from Goldsmith’s College of Art that was teeming with eager young artists in search of a mentor. I’d never known a house like it, especially lived in by someone so young: The walls stripped and replastered, the floors sanded, and huge pieces of art throughout. Open and airy it was just the sort of space in which to entertain the art and ply them with classic Lancastrian “snacky wackies”. Michael enjoyed life in the art fast lane but was grounded by his working class roots.
Despite being at the centre of a social maelstrom that would exhaust lesser men, the partying, the drinking and eventually the women, Michael never slackened his pace of work. Organised and prolific he filled each working day with prints and sketches, framing and exhibitions and catalogues, and roll-ups and beer and terrible jokes. He told me the worst joke of my life – but I still remember it. “That dog’s on a lead. It must be a detective.”.
Such professional drive came at a cost and life around Michael, despite the jokes, wasn’t always a barrel of laughs. He once threw me out of that Victorian house. I’d moved out some months earlier and returned one evening to encourage him to take a bit easier on the hooch. Friends were concened. It must have looked quite ridiculous two slight, shorter than average men floundering on the doorstep until one of them, me, tumbled backwards and the heavy timbered door slammed shut.
Quite out of the blue, in the early 90s, Michael was diagnosed with ME and osteoporosis. The constant pain and invasive medication meant couldn’t hold down regular employment. Confined to home for long stretches his debilitating and painful condition did nothing to stem his creativity. In fact some of his most exciting and vibrant pieces of work emerged during this period, showing them at London’s Discerning Eye and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. His condition deteriorated and for long stretches of the past few years he has been restricted to one room in a low ceilinged basement flat, a half a mile or so from the house he hosted his vibrant parties in, increasingly relying upon friends and neighbours to keep an eye on him and deliver his food.
With a wheelchair to ferry him to and from the pub it’s proven quite a palaver getting in and out of his subterranean studio/home where every inch of space in the front living room is decked with Michael’s vividly primitive ornamentations. On a recent visit he wanted me to experience the perfect British breakfast at a cafe in the heart of Brockley. He wouldn’t let me help as he dragged the folded wheelchair up the small flight of steps whereupon he reassembled it. Believe me it’s not easy trying to pretend that you’re oblivious to the suffering of a friend who steadfastly refuses assistance of any kind. The breakfast was sublime. Michael knows a thing or two about the simple pleasures.
It was one of these friends, Fred – with his own cafe nearby, who found Michael dead, alone. He was 62. The police were called and there the story ends. Only the art survives. Mick’s intuitive images, full of colour imagination and a sense of freedom that fill rooms with light and warmth and charm.
I’ll let his closest friend John Hewitt, who studied with him and remained by his side all of his life, explain:
“His coded visual narratives are often sparked by a word or phrase that will become the title of the completed piece of work. Images may appear in the form of bold personal symbolism, or they might evolve into complex emotive charts, mapping relationships, memories and moods.
“More often than not, their meaning is transcended in their making; like the great twentieth century modernists that Owens so strongly admires, his works need no more justification that the pure pleasure of their visual contemplation.”
Mick Owens: September 24 1955 – March 8, 2018