love in art: Michael Owen

through an ever-increasing presence of public, street and community art, Baltimore is redefining + improving upon its perception + reputation, further reinforcing it as a city built on love + community. One of the key figures in this art movement is Michael Owen, creator of the renowned Baltimore Love Project. Upon viewing his work, it became clear that Michael would be one of the best artists to help us further connect with Baltimore as we prepared to open our second location in the region. Inspired by 'honest eating + growing local,' he created a new mural, Growth, exclusively for our new Harbor Point location. We sat down with Michael in his Highlandtown studio to learn more about his journey + how the love throughout Baltimore inspires and empowers his artwork.

hg:  tell us a little bit about you + your background. How did you get started as an artist?

michael:  my family is creative—my mom had coloring books out on the dinner table to get me to finish my food + my dad wrote music. That stuff was always around me. When it became time for me to decide on a career, it was really between music + art. I had been doing music longer—I started out playing the piano, for which I took lessons for over a dozen years. Then, I got into drums and played for a dozen years, different types of bands with different styles. I ended up getting into art really late in high school. I moved to Baltimore, went to MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) and was focusing on illustration because I thought I was going to be an animator. When I was coming out of high school, I really wanted to animate for Disney. I was looking between Ringling College in Florida (from which Disney was recruiting straight for their animators) or MICA, which offered animation courses, but was more broad. I decided to go to MICA in case I didn’t want to pursue just animation. I stayed in the illustration program, but I with no background in it.

Baltimore itself was really interesting because I had never lived in a city. The city life was starting to reflect in my work + I was interested in trying to explore that more. Canvas was really expensive as a college kid, so a teacher just advised that I just tried to paint on a wall. That was my initial jump into murals.

hg:  you’ve accounted for a great number of Baltimore’s large public murals. Were you always interested in painting on such large canvases? What was your first-ever public installation (legal or otherwise)?

michael:  I knew it was something I wanted to explore more. Working large scale is exciting for me—I can put my body and physicality into my work, instead of it just being my mind, heart or whatever the creative process was inside of a studio. It felt more holistic in that way. Getting outside, working in the community and interacting with people that had no experience with art—it was really exciting. My first piece outside was in the middle of one of the city's rougher neighborhoods. I was hanging off the roof with the sun beating off me and I loved it.

"I loved being in a different environment and trying to communicate what’s inside of me to everyday people."

This seemed like a new audience to talk to. A new way to talk, through murals, that’s what was so exciting to me at first.

hg:  your most notable work would have to be the Baltimore Love Project. What was the catalyst for the creation of this project? Why was the design featuring four hands chosen?

michael:  it was a culmination of a couple different things. Stylistically—I’ve been working with hands a lot of the time to symbolize community and to symbolize action. It was a way to symbolize people in a mural without getting into specifics of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious background, or whatever it might be—it was just people. The concept was personally just a test for me—I loved seeing a concept I could still get behind if I dropped everything else and I wanted to test that out.

I was like, "What if I paint this really big, all over the city—what’s going to happen? Is it going to stand up? Will I still stand behind it? Will the people in different neighborhoods + communities get behind it?" I didn’t know, but it was kind of the starting point. I know the project has changed (at least in my mind) since then—it has grown and become bigger than me, bigger than Baltimore—and that’s exciting.

hg:  did you anticipate the Baltimore Love Project extending across the city, taking up 20 walls? Any plans to bring the design to additional walls soon?

michael:  on paper, yeah. When I’m in my creative zone, the potential is endless. It was a strong concept. No, I did not have any idea that the project would change me the way that is has changed me, or change others the way it has changed them. That people would connect with it in a way that was beyond my understanding of love at the time.

The plan is to stay open to the possibilities. People have been trying to press me in this project into different directions and to pigeonhole it since I started it. They have tried to use their influence or money or whatever to persuade me in a certain direction. But, the best thing I’ve done is to say, “We’re good." This isn’t about me anyway—we are just going to wait to respond and see what direction it is supposed to take naturally, leaving it open to things like what has happened in Orlando, or to other towns that are having an identity crisis because of tragedy or are also not knowing what to stand behind. Staying open to the universal nature of the project, rather than pushing it and saying, “Okay now we’re going to do this in Austin or we are going to do this in Seattle, and now we’re going to do this in whatever city is going to offer me a hundred grand to come out there and do it.” That's not really the direction. That’s a direction it could take, I could put it on coffee mugs; but, it’s more about staying open with it and continuing to learn about love, what that means + to try it out in different places.

I have so many other things that I do with my art, fortunately, like the residency programs or helping put other people’s art out, which allow me the flexibility to not feel like I have to go after the money with something that should be pure.

hg:  you recently just completed a mural project in Orlando, FL, which brought your “love” design to a wall across from the Pulse Nightclub. What motivated you to bring this project to Florida + what is your hope for what this mural provides to the community?

michael:  I was asked to go down there. I wanted to go right away because I saw the potential to put a mural there, but one thing I’ve learned is that I can’t just do it. I need to be asked, especially something with that type of tragedy. When a few people mentioned it, I started looking around for walls while I was in town visiting family.

The Orlando mural is a more specific image. I finished the twenty 'Love' murals in Baltimore and had worked really hard to keep those  consistent for the original intent. It was hard to show people until the project came to fruition. People just didn’t get it; people were saying they’re boring or they're all the same. I had to fight that, because the fact that they're the same across Baltimore is how we are going to connect it. After Baltimore, the projects became more specific or related to missions, events, tragedies or organizations. I have the flexibility to make work that is more specific to them.

For the LGBT community, it talks about them. It talks to the specific tragedy that happened. It has the classic hands in it that are still shaded out; it still has that inviting nature like the other ones do. There are some similarities, but I tried with the 49 orange blossoms to make specific references and talk to a specific community that has been impacted.

hg:  Baltimore has seen its fair share of turmoil + public reform lately—what are your thoughts on where Baltimore is versus where it was + where it is headed? What issues do you feel need to be addressed to see the city grow even further?

michael:  I think the riots in Baltimore have started a process that now the entire country is going through—which is like the bubble popping and people realizing how bad the problem is. But it’s nothing new. Freddie [Gray] was not the first person to die while in custody. This isn’t the first time that people in the country have been oppressed by leadership. I think people are understandingv that these are the issues and thinking, "What am I going to do about it?"

For me, I’ve had some practice. The Baltimore Love Project is specifically about responding to tragedy and learning how to not personally get wrapped up in the hype. How to personally process it + work with the art, to navigate that process so I don’t get consumed and lose track of what I’m doing. Personally, it’s difficult, yet satisfying to remember that the work I’m doing is addressing some of these problems—to just keep going with The Baltimore Love Project, the mission, the residency, helping out underrepresented artists.

With Baltimore, as a city is concerned, I think there are a lot of people doing the right things. This a town dealing with these social issues all the time.

I always pushed The Love Project because I need to be reminded of that. I put that into my business and sections of my day are dedicated to thinking about concepts like this. I think people should be focusing on these concepts—love, community, togetherness, empathy. People are having a hard time listening to each other. You see it on Facebook, especially in the last couple of months, everyone is just talking, but there isn’t a lot of listening. Listening is an element of love or an element of a relationship that should be stressed when we could use some healing. The work I am producing right now is more an introspective of seriousness + internal struggles—being affected by things and internalizing them. Looking at what their beliefs are and what they can do about those things. The riots in Baltimore, the presidential election + other issues are spurring people on to finally act. That’s where a lot of the change comes from.

"If you look inside yourself + find out what you’re passionate about, that’s how you start making the change."

hg:  our hometown of Philadelphia is a city that is known for its tremendous number of public murals (thanks in part to the Mural Arts Program), but Baltimore is quickly becoming home to many equally remarkable murals (yours included). How do you feel this type of public art, especially in the “rougher” neighborhoods, adds to the community + helps improve quality of life in the city?

michael:  I think it depends on the piece itself. Philly has, and will always be, the blueprint for community murals. They wrote the book on it and cities have looked after it to figure out how to develop the integration of community work. Baltimore has a nice mix of graffiti, community art, public art, street art, and there’s different intents behind each one. I think community art has a real power to bring people into the process and show how people can affect and make change in their own neighborhood. That’s really important. I also think street art is important because there’s a lively artist community there. It’s inspiring other artists to stay.

When I was at MICA, everyone who graduated would either go home or go up to New York. It seemed like I was the only dude that stayed here, doing murals for about ten years. Then this change happened, when street art became more trendy and people were like, “We can do this too. There’s so much opportunity here.” People saw the opportunity and the walls in Baltimore and decided to stay here.

I think that neighborhoods are starting the see the value of art and how it can change the neighborhood. The neighborhoods around here are similar to Philly—very different from section to section, block to block. The way that you bring the art into that and affect change is as diverse as the neighborhoods.

hg:  are there any challenges in installing murals in these “rougher” areas? Are the communities in these parts of the city receptive to what you are trying to do with your artwork?

michael:  personally, I am more comfortable in the rougher parts of the city. There are different challenges, but I’d rather talk a dude down that’s like threatened by me as a person in his neighborhood that he doesn’t know, rather than talk to 50 committees about their opinions on the shade of pink I am using. Some of the scarier moments have definitely come when I’m in the rougher neighborhoods, especially the ones I don’t know.

I just can’t handle the corporate stuff all the time. I need to talk to regular people. Getting into these places that are untouched by art helps me do that. Most of those places tend to be the rougher areas, but there are still people that have the opinions that have to live with the art. I appreciate those conversations more. It helps me connect back to the intent of what I’m doing.

hg:  you’re the featured artist in our new hgHarborPoint location! What inspired the pieces featured along our walls?

michael:  a lot of my work the last couple years has been taking natural elements that are outside—trees flowers, landscapes, cloudscapes, oceans—and abstracting them into these energies + feelings. They are so complex. The ocean can be so many different feelings. Just thinking of the core energy and putting it out abstractly. That’s what I have been trying to do, at least in my mind.

When I saw the proposal for honeygrow and learned more about what you guys are doing, I thought that these natural environments would be the perfect tie-in. Where are you getting everything that’s on the menu? From the earth, from nature. The imagery that I see on the touchscreens is really pretty, beautiful + natural. I wanted to reflect on these things, and I was really focused on the word “grow." I reference Warhol a bit in the pieces because he has always been a huge influence to me. I thought that he would offer me some graphic sensibility about how to take the work. A lot of my stuff lately has been very soft, layered + dense. I thought this needed a fresher feeling to stand out among everything else that is happening in the space.

hg:  which of your installations are you most fond of? Is there any place where you’d love to display your work that you haven’t yet?

michael:   I think it changes based on where I am at day-to-day. There is one piece, however, that I have really been connecting with recently titled “One Day at a Time” located at 26th and Maryland—it has the gray figure that is stretched out with branches coming out of it. It’s one of my best pieces I think, technically. I also think I executed what I was trying to say; I spoke to the people that were there, as well as a wider audience. Even beyond that, it speaks to me personally, and helps remind myself of these things I need to have in my life and the path I am on. It changes all the time, but the last couple of years it’s probably one my favorites here in Baltimore.

I think there’s a nice balance in it. These concepts that I'm trying to talk about are complex.

"Love is not just wedding photos in front of a mural. It’s not just any one thing."

This struggle that I was trying to talk about in this specific piece—it’s like these guys are trying to create a new life. It’s from a deep place that life moves on. I was trying to talk about this process of new life + growth. You know where it comes from in the roots.

hg:  it’s safe to say your work inspires others—whose work inspires you?

michael:  for the honeygrow project, I have been looking at Warhol + Motherwell collages. I’ve been really focusing on the painters from New York throughout the last 30-40 years, especially abstract expressionists. The street art that came out of there; the pop art that came out of there—it was the mecca of the art world for a while. The current art movement right now is street art—it's undisputable, it’s in textbooks. People could say Miami is the center of the art world now. They have the most concentrated amount of street art, and if that’s the art movement right now, then Miami is the center of it.

learn more about Michael, follow his journey + view his latest work by following him on Facebook, Instagram + Twitter, or by visiting his website! Check out his latest mural, Growth, exclusively at #hgHarborPoint (which is now open)!

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