Questions for Paula Owen: An interview by artist Gary Sweeney

I first met Paula Owen and her husband Ben in 1996, shortly after they moved to San Antonio from Virginia. She left her job as Director of the Richmond Visual Arts Center to take the helm at the Southwest School of Art. Under her direction, the Southwest School has taken a major role in the San Antonio art scene: it has quadrupled its space, quadrupled its budget and in the fall of 2014 it will introduce a Bachelor of Fine Art degree program. In transforming the school into a major art institution, she has managed to snag such blue chip artists as Vincent Valdez, Justin Boyd and Margaret Craig to teach there.

In addition to her administrative skills, she’s also an accomplished artist, and her Zen-like demeanor and soft-spoken modesty (she credits almost everyone else for the school’s success) hide her energy and enthusiasm. The final question is an inside joke: Paula’s husband Ben is an extremely talented bluegrass musician.

What’s your first art memory?

When I was about seven, I drew an elaborate tree that my parents were so proud of that they showed it to an art professor who came to our house for a special event. He told me that I should look more closely at trees. Bark, he said, is not brown, but black and grey. Tough love, I guess, but I began at that early age to use my eyes differently.

Do you think some people are born with natural talent?

I think everyone is born with the ability to express themselves creatively. All babies dance, for instance, and usually before they can even walk. All children draw with ease, even those who grow up to say that they can’t. However, I think talent, like other characteristics, is distributed along a spectrum. While everyone is born with some, others are born with more. I also think that to be an artist you have to have more than talent; you have to have the fire in the belly.

What was the biggest surprise you learned about being an arts administrator?

I learned that the day-to-day work had little to do with art, but that having passion for the art provided the fuel for what was necessary: strategic planning, budgeting, marketing, information systems, fundraising, personnel management, etc. I also learned that many of my predilections as an artist were applicable in administration: an aptitude for experimentation and risk-taking, a comfort level with ambiguity, a tendency to constantly tweak and edit and most of all, a respect for art and artists.

I see the accomplishments you’ve achieved with the Southwest School as being amazing and ambitious. Yet I’ve never seen you when you don’t appear to be calm and completely in control. Is there anything that makes you freak out?

Though I try to practice Buddhist principles, I actually freak out with regularity. Everyone does. I’m a bit of a stoic due to my Scandinavian immigrant heritage, and I have no use for panic or chaos. It’s not that strife doesn’t register with me, but that my normal response is circumspection and pragmatism.

If you could own any piece of art, what would it be?

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “Little Sparta” is an environment I would like to experience on a daily basis.

What do you do to relax?

I regularly go to yoga and Nia classes, and I love to take walks. Because my office is so close to the River Walk, I often take a walk break. My husband and I watch a lot of movies, too, and I always have a book or two going. At the moment, they are Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger and Nan Cuba’s Body and Bread.

Tell me something about yourself that would surprise your friends.

What? I’m an open book to my friends. They might not know a few things, like I hate licorice, my grandchildren call me Nana, or that I had a crush on Tim Gjellstad, the preacher’s son, in 7th grade.

If you could hire any one person to come to the Southwest School of Art to teach, who would it be?

Maya Lin, hands down. Her work fuses meaning and beauty while inviting physical interaction and reflection.

Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met?

So many people come to mind, but perhaps it was Russell Means, who was a leader of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. Then again, just last week I met artist Julie Speed and could have talked to her for hours. If you have your receptors out, almost everyone is the most interesting.

Can you describe your own artwork? I find your paintings symbolic and mysterious. Is that accurate?

Your description nails it, I think. I try to avoid intellectualizing when I am in the studio, so I hope they are sensuous, as well.

Just between you and me, don’t you think fiddle and mandolin music sounds like nails on a chalkboard?

Well, as you know, my husband Ben plays those instruments and is a fan of traditional music, so to be safe I’ll say that it depends on who is playing them!


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