Spreading his wings: Longtime local artist celebrates career with retrospective at Gallery 506

The model balsa wood airplanes hanging from the ceiling seem fitting in the latest exhibit at Gallery 506 at the Columbus Area Visitors Center downtown.

After all, New Castle native Bobbie K Owens originally planned to fly away to metro artistic fame and fortune soon after arriving in Columbus in 1989. This city originally was intended just as a taxi way for his flight to bigger and better.

Instead, the Dayton Art Institute graduate spread his creative wings, raised a family, and nurtured the idea that Columbus was the “art friendly” city, as he always labels it, that he sought all along.

“Before I knew it, my little girls were in college and Columbus had become home base for my art,” he said.

A sampling of that art, displayed over time from Canada to Belgium to Russia, is part of his eclectic, nearly 20-work retrospective exhibition “Bobbie K Owens: 32/200” through Aug. 14 in his first showing at the local space. The first number stands for the years he’s spent working here and the second references the fact that this is the year of the Columbus Area Bicentennial.

At deadline days ago, he was still adding to the collection that covers nearly all imaginable media.

The airplanes? The wings and tails carry his painted imagery, and highlight his love for such toys since his youth. They also seem to reflect a childlike innocence he has retained even at age 68.

“I’ve always had airplanes in my paintings,” Owens said, adding that some appear small and in a repeating pattern in the exhibit works.

His youthful exuberance also shines through with lighthearted stories he has posted as a part of the display. That includes the time at his first local studio, a second-floor Washington Street space, when he battled boredom waiting for paint to dry. So he filled paint syringes with water, leaned out a window and lightly splashed unsuspecting passersby.

“Those things would shoot across the street,” he said with a laugh. “The only way I worried about getting caught was from laughing so loud.”

He never has liked what he calls the more serious, self-centered element of art. That explains why he has enjoyed being a part-time art teacher off and on at ABC Stewart School.

“When you’re a teacher, you’re spending time telling people to look at themselves,” Owens said. “So that always has given me a balance.”

Maybe the other balance is his self-deprecating humor that tells people he remains genuinely surprised every time he sells a piece, along with a seriousness that acknowledges that sometimes in dark moments has wondered if his artistic life has had any impact or meaning.

“All artists, no matter what they say, are insecure,” he said, adding that life frequently has humbled him and reminded him of the dignity and importance of all work.

Before his art began selling regularly, he worked road crews, at foundries, sold Harley Davidson parts, and tackled much more. Perhaps that accounts for his easy manner and enjoyment with a wide range of people. He mentioned straightforwardly that that is responsible at least for his gratitude in life in general.

Moreover, he remains fiercely loyal to boyhood friends, two of whom were helping at his studio west of Columbus just last week.

“As an artist, you have to have a good network of people surrounding you,” he said.

Owens even has two semi-supportive and hyper cats, Shortstop and Reptor, who hang out at his west side Columbus studio, but scamper a bit when he breaks out the paint. He regularly refers to his art as a team effort, and gushes with enthusiasm over the assistance of other local artists such as Steven Newlin.

Jan Banister, curator of Gallery 506, has known and appreciated Owens’ sometimes unorthodox approach and art for years.

“This is definitely a fun exhibit,” Banister said. “It’s colorful. It’s large. It’s small. It’s whimsical. It’s wild. It’s zany. It’s every different kind of media. With Bobbie, you have to be ready for anything.”

She especially enjoyed Owens’ show of hodgepodge stamp art three years ago at 411 Gallery in downtown Columbus.

During a break with visitors at his studio, Owens surmised that his creative life perhaps is more about vision than the actual creation.

“Part of being an artist,” he said, “is getting people to believe in your dream.”

A 32-year collective show seems as good a proof as anything of just that kind of support.

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What: “Bobbie K Owens: 32/200” retrospective exhibition highlighting his 32-year art career here.

When: Through Aug. 14. Closing reception will be 5 to 8 p.m. Aug. 12.

Where: Gallery 506 at the Columbus Area Visitors Center, 506 Fifth St. in downtown Columbus.

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and closed on Sundays.

Admission: Free.