The Arts Company | March 4–24
by Margaret F. M. Walker
The Arts Company has added a new artist, Tiffany Ownbey, to its ranks and is featuring her work this month.
It is the Nashville debut for North Carolina’s Ownbey, whose work has been shown around the United States, particularly in the Southeast.
Tiffany Ownbey’s works are reminiscent of outsider or folk art. She received formal training in ceramics and printmaking at the Savannah College of Art and Design and has developed a consistent aesthetic that easily goes from two to three dimensions and is grounded in the use of found objects. While there is never an overt message to her work, it does clearly explore people and their interactions. The heads and hands of her sculptures are often exaggerated in size—a visual manifestation of the fact that they are, she says, “our most distinctive parts and, I think, say the most about us.” Each work is thought provoking but in a way that invites contemplation rather than dictating a specific viewpoint.
The most distinctive element of Ownbey’s work is its materiality. She skillfully creates papier-mâché sculptures and collages using old sewing patterns, book pages, sheet music, stamps, labels, and just about anything else. Much of it is sourced from eBay and estate sales, though Ownbey said that she has made a trip to the World’s Longest Yard Sale for eight years running in order to find material for her artworks. People are now familiar with her and her work and will even send her interesting materials they come across. Therefore, a number of her works contain layers of history and personal stories within their very fabric. I asked if she ever incorporates photographs, which I imagined for sale by the bundle at yard sales. While photographic paper itself has not yet made an appearance in Ownbey’s papier-mâché, the blind contours for faces of her figures are in fact derived from found photographs.
It is always interesting with collaged works how the original life of a material—as a stamp, map, or pattern— coalesces into the larger picture of the artwork. Ownbey’s sculptures, though, incorporate more obviously found objects. Spoons find a new life as play weapons and teacups and flowerpots as hats. The artist once found a 1950s baby carriage that she said was so beautiful she just had to find a use for it, and she eventually incorporated the wheels as the base of a sculpture. Reflecting on this she shared that “it suddenly became an autonomous unit that could easily be moved around.” The spark of discovery and transformation here, finding new purpose for something that first caught her eye just for its beauty, has led her to continue incorporating wheels into many sculptures.
Often in Ownbey’s creative process she is working on many pieces at the same time. In doing so, she reflects, her imaginative energy continues to flow. Though her conception towards two- versus three-dimensional works is the same, moving between these two modes of expression regularly keeps fresh ideas in the forefront of her mind. Admirers of her work will notice this, too. The same sheet music that makes up the clothing of one person on a panel may in turn appear as the “skin” of a sculpture. This is, in a way, evidence of her consistency. Ownbey says that “since I have the same mindset towards my two-dimensional pieces as the three-dimensional ones, I end up using the same materials.” The final shape matters not with regard to the material at hand, creating an almost cousin-like connection between otherwise disparate works.
One of the most curious facets of the two-dimensional work is its simultaneous abundance and lack of texture. The eye perceives layers of torn paper and imagines not only the raised areas of their overlaps but also the vast diversity of feel from one to the next. Yet, in reality, the works are preserved with waxes and varnishes and have a remarkably smooth finish. There is in reality only the idea of texture, creating an interesting juxtaposition between what one sees and what one would in fact feel.
Similarly, small inconsistencies—often the product of the source material itself—reward those who are observant. They maintain an element of interest even while the overall picture is straightforward. Perhaps the best example of this is that most of Ownbey’s two-dimensional pieces have a whitish background. These are the edges of book pages, though that is evident only because of the occasional bit of type that the artist allows to remain visible. It is a subtle reminder that this material had a former life. Look for these random inconsistencies, this sharing of materials across works, for the exaggerated features and for the overall whimsical world born of Ownbey’s diligent commitment to elevating the craft of papier-mâché.
Introducing: Tiffany Ownbey opens with a reception on March 4 from 6 to 9 at The Arts Company and remains on view through March 24. For more information, visit www.theartscompany.com. See more of Ownbey’s work at www.tiffanyownbey.com.