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Studio Visit with New Orleanian Artist Ruth Owens: Race, Family, and Black Womanhood Laid Bare in her Paintings

In early April, during a Zoom studio visit with New Orleans-based artist Ruth Owens (she/her), Owens is fresh-faced while speaking to me from her sunny studio, and proudly shares that her autobiographical paintings and video works, stem from “preserving and contributing to the Black archive.” Owens, born in Germany to a Black American father in the military and a white German mother, weaves her biracial identity and personal family history across her figurative oil paintings, acrylic works on paper, and video art. Growing up between Europe and the U.S. in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she describes Germany as “cold, sterile, gray, and uninviting”, and Georgia, her father’s home state, as “warm and inviting.” But she feels, “most at home here in the American South”, because of its “great connection to African American culture”, and being much “closer to African rituals.”

Owens’ canvases and video art are sourced from stills from her family’s Super 8 camera archival footage from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Memories, nostalgia, varying gorgeous landscapes from her eclectic childhood in Georgia and Germany, and her Black womanhood, narrate the tapestry of her life, seen and felt in her intimate and soothing pastel-hued paintings, and deeply revelatory video art.

Owens, a former cosmetic surgeon in NOLA for twenty-five years, credits her medical career for molding her to be “very attentive to visuals” and “very disciplined in my life” in her studio practice. The rising artist earned an MFA from the University of New Orleans in 2018, is a member of the artist collectives A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn and “The Front” in New Orleans, and select solo exhibits include two exhibitions at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, with a third solo show slated for next year. A few past residencies include the Vermont Studio Center, The Joan Mitchell Center, and upcoming residencies at MASS MoCA this July and ISCP for several months in 2023. Owens lays bare her realities about her mixed-race identity, the family dynamics that shaped her, her Black Americanness, her German roots, and her nomadic early years. Her multiple histories all collide in the most stunning and complex of ways, across her expressive oil paintings and touching video works.