Stepping out on the deck outside of Howlin’ Books on 8th Avenue South with artist, songwriter, and bookstore owner Gwil Owen, the sky is spitting out an ocean of blue against the backdrop of a yellow brick wall. Having just looked at his recent collage work, the colors of the world seem a bit more vibrant. Archetypal visions and mayhem are dancing like spiked sugar cubes in my head. The flavors of the day seem a little stronger and cutting, the conversation a little deeper. I find myself wanting to write 900 words for this article, cut them up in pieces and throw them down randomly on the page, just to see how it would read. That’s what Owen’s work does to you: It seems to spawn creation itself.
“I’ve got a friend who can contemplate a subject for a year,” says Owen. “After that, he’ll sit down and write a beautiful song about it in about five minutes. My life never happens like that. It’s just not the way I work. My thing lives in the moment. I start throwing something against the wall and I find something that sticks to it . . . and then I find something that sticks to that . . . and then again.
“It’s a perfect metaphor for making a collage, really,” he says. “The thing I’m learning is that everything I need is already inside of me. When I started my used book business years ago I discovered that everything I’d done previous in my life was useful. All those years I spent as a kid, devouring books and science fiction, was knowledge I could use in selling books. When I became a songwriter, all the years of listening to records was useful for that. And now, being a book dealer for years seems to have become useful in my ability to make collages. It’s crazy.”
Looking at Owen’s collage work is like taking a walk through a surreal world spit out tenfold then devoured again by itself. It bounces up at you like a wounded survival story with a heart. It’s topical, archetypal, and moving. It’s a world put on edge by a truth that may scare you a bit. Made mostly of inspiration and cutouts from old books and manuals he has lying around, Owen has found the creative in the discarded — gold in the trash pile.
Born in Syracuse, N.Y., and raised in rural Ohio, Gwil Owen moved to Nashville as a songwriter in 1983. After kicking around for a few years, his band, The Thieves, was signed to Bug/Capitol Records and put out one record, “Seduced By Money,” in 1988. He went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1999 for a song co-written with Allison Moorer called “A Softer Place to Fall,” which was featured in Robert Redford’s film “The Horse Whisperer.” The Gwil Owen/Kevin Gordon songwriting collaboration “Deuce and a Quarter” was recorded By Keith Richard and Levon Helm for the album “All The Kings Men,” which featured performances by Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana.
Somewhere along the line Owen started a small business selling books online. Last year he partnered up with Grimey’s New & Preloved Music and Jessica Kimbrough to open the wonderfully inspiring Howlin’ Books on 8th Ave.
The collage work came back to him after a longtime friend asked if he would create a collage for the cover of an album he was working on. Owens had played with collage back in his younger days and agreed. What he found was a creative avenue that had been missing in his life. He began ripping up old books, manuals, and scraps of paper he had lying around and pasting images together real time (no computers).
“What came out,” Owen says, “came out fully formed. It’s something I had inside of me that I had no idea was there.” He spent the next six or eight months making work, and then approached Meg MacFadyen, owner and operator at Art & Invention Gallery in East Nashville, with his work.
“Gwil came in and showed me what he was doing and I had my socks knocked off,” MacFadyen says. “He has taken collage to a whole new art form, I think. The work is elegant, beautiful and interesting, as well as thought provoking.”
She hung his work in her gallery right away.
When asked if making collage has made a difference in his creative life, Owens replies, “Oh it’s huge! I mean, I still make music, but I don’t have all the tools I need to make that a lot of the time. So I had this desperate need for a creative outlet. What I’ve discovered is that I can take these old books and magazines that come across my desk every day, cut them up, and sit down there in my basement and make these creations quietly. It doesn’t wake the kids, and it’s the exact same process as making music for me.”
Willem de Kooning was once quoted: “Sometimes there can be no creation without first destruction and in that case destruction becomes a creative act.”
And that’s what it feels like is going on here. There’s a semblance of something put together with the muse of a bygone master, working with form and function by feel, without a plan. It’s deconstruction, abstraction, and idea carved in and from a momentary subconscious spark and reconstructed for our viewing pleasure.