Saturday, August 7, 2010


When men meet for the first time there is a tendency to search for common ground; some action or event that will allow conversation to flow easily. Men do not generally converse comfortably with each other until some feathers have been fluffed or some provocative stance has been demonstrated.

Larry and I had already found that ground. We launch into a more than superficial discussion on surfing. There is an immediate and comfortable familiarity that surfers demonstrate when they share their experiences. It’s as though surfing allows one to know that the other understands: about everything. I know of no other recreational activity that does that.

Larry has a strong hand shake and an equally strong presence. There is a polished ruggedness that might, at first, be misleading. For when he speaks, Larry demonstrates a more calm, relaxed and softer persona that puts me at ease. He is thoughtful about the questions and responds with an openness that is refreshing and informative. Occasionally he hesitates. He reveals later that he is challenged by the questions. I can also reveal that I am equally challenged by the answers.

He confesses that he is somewhat nervous about revealing himself and expressed some initial concern about the questioning. ‘It’s not something I’ve done before’, which I find strange an alluring from a man who paints. After all, isn’t painting about self-expression?
Larry talks about his paintings. They are mostly portraits, self-portraits, family portraits, a landscape he is unhappy with, a politically satirical piece, all stacked roughly against the wall as one might store garden tools. ‘This is my mother, and my son. That’s Felicity (his partner). That’s me. I do a lot of self-portraits’.

Larry’s portraits do need some defining. One would be hard pressed to see any family resemblance. But that’s not his point. ‘I paint emotions’ he confers. ‘Dark emotions mostly’. Fear and disappointment are cited. ‘It’s my release’. He’s not sure where the images come from. He describes his technique: spontaneous and rapid, working the colours as if he is waiting and watching for something to appear. When a barely recognizable image or form does reveal itself he quickly identifies it with a few strong strokes of the brush. I have seen other contemporary artists work this way but it’s usually after many years of practice. It is as if Larry, at fifty nine has rediscovered the primitive and unrestricted style of a child. As an adult he uses it to express and reveal a part of him that he may very well feel uncomfortable about expressing in any other way.

‘I think I know too much’ I hear him say. He’s looking elsewhere and I feel like an observer, watching him have a conversation with himself; possibly asking more than stating. ‘The more I paint the better I get but it seems to take me away from that’, and he points towards his completed works. I‘ve witnessed this before. The phenomenon is hard to avoid in forty years of teaching. Learning something new and being a bit nervous about the effect that new knowledge or skill will have on the way one does things can be scary. ‘Where to from here?’ I provocated, wanting him to see that it’s OK to be irresolute about the future. He talks with himself for a moment. ‘All I know is I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life’ he says with a degree of confidence and determination. He looks away and once again speaks more to himself than me. ‘It defines who I am’ and he reflects on the past when that may not have been within his own comprehension. And there lies the essence of what we do and why we do it.

Larry’s art is as much a part of him as his skin. It moves with him, it sags when he sags, he scratches when it itches, he worries a bit when it’s not quite right. ‘It’s not perfect’ he admits ‘but it’s me’. Just as it is necessary to talk with Larry to know him, it is useful to talk with him about his work. There is always a part of the story you may miss if you don’t, like not reading the caption on a cartoon.

As I leave number 87 I feel like a salesman who has been sold his own goods. I came here to find out about Larry and I find I know just a little more of myself. I know I’ll be back. I want to see what Larry does with his newly acquired skills. I want to see the completed canvas of Larry Owens.

Thanks Larry.


  1. Well done Larry....looks and reads fabulous.

  2. love the this guy in darwin?? what a treasure. His works are like Nolan/Cullen like...dark and messy paint.LOVE IT. Thankyou!