“You can’t grow up in Detroit and not have cars in your blood,” says James Owens about the building of his inspiration on his road to becoming the legend he is today. Owens is one of the most notorious and nostalgic Americana artists in the hot rod scene. His art is a high gloss, dirty cocktail of all the best mixers. 1 part beautifully designed automobiles, a heavy shot of beautiful women, and 2 parts nostalgia; briskly shaken with one damn good time that’s sure to make your head spin with memories of “the good ol’ days.”
“Like most artists, I did it from the time I was a child,” says Owens, who always had an interest in all the scenes of days gone by. “Even as a young boy, I had an affinity for old things...as an eight year-old boy, I wanted to watch James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies.” These young obsessions, as well as growing up in the heart of the automobile industry, became the framework and inspiration for years of artistic escapades.
James currently resides in Phoenix, but as he grew up and all his friends were rebelling and listening to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin in Detroit: Rock City, James knew he was in a different retro realm. Owens inherited a love of old “hillbilly” country from his upbringing. Ernest Tubb was one of the first records he found in his dad’s stash when he first discovered a turntable, “All my friends were Def-Leopardin’ out and I was like, oh no, you’ve gotta check out Hank Williams, Sr.! He’s badass.” Music has continued to inspire James and he always floods his studio with music while he works; spinning everything from Artie Shaw to the rockabilly cats.
When he graduated in the 80’s, the auto factories in Detroit weren’t hiring, and Owens was forced to find other options. He settled on art school, but it wasn’t easy or cheap, so James was sure to have a back-up plan. If he didn’t get into art school, he planned to join the military, but his true passion prevailed. He graduated with a Bachelor’s in Illustration from The Center for Creative Studies after doing everything to fund his education, including working for his family’s slipcover business in his spare time.
After art school, Owens nailed a job in a big-time studio that served major advertisers like W.B. Doner and J. Walter Thompson, who handled all major advertising for GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Through years of this experience, James was allowed to really hone his skills, as well as make a good living, but it eventually came to a halt. “It’s a soul-sucking business,” says Owens of his decision to change lanes, ”I got really burnt out and I quit the advertising game altogether.” He also didn’t paint or draw for a long time after.
This led to what James calls “a journey.” He became an actor working in radio and television commercials, independent films, and tv shows. This journey led him to Los Angeles, where, after 2 years of not wanting anything to do with being an artist, James fell in love with painting again. In L.A., he became familiar with artists like Tom Fritz and Keith Weesner. “They are completely different artists, but at the time, I felt like those guys were at the top of their particular games.” Owens saw what they were doing and decided that was what he wanted to do too, but it took some time before life handed him lemons and he made lemonade.
Opportunity comes in many forms. In 2007, Owens was working as a graphic designer for an entertainment company in L.A., who ran short of funds and laid everyone off. He took his year’s worth of unemployment and started cranking out art of all the things that interested him. This is when his pleasure of painting cars and pinups really flourished. “Who isn’t inspired by beautiful women? How’s the saying go? It’s good work if you can get it?” questions Owens in regards to his trend of airbrushed pinup girls.
Owens-Roscoe Said Goodbye (oil on canvas)
But that’s not his only inspiration. Man cannot live on beautiful women alone. When creating art, James is inspired by an array of components from nostalgic culture; old movies, TV shows, vintage pulp, hot rods, and more. However, illustrators like Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker, are who he notes as his heroes and influence. They inspired Owens’s artistic technique in the Americana genre using primarily oil-paint in wet into wet techniques. He always enjoyed how their illustrations look photorealistic from a distance, but up close, their impressionist tendencies can be seen through their exposed brush-strokes. “To me it’s a greater challenge to leave the artist’s hands showing,” he says, “I want to see those brush strokes.” James stays true to this technique in most of his pieces using oil paints, which he describes as the “most forgiving medium in the world,” however, it’s not his only exploration.
I Dream of Jeannie (Mixed Media)
James is known well for his mixed media pieces in which he combines multiple elements into a piece. For example, in many of his works, he will wrap a canvas in vintage newspaper and begin the layers of his favorite things. He may airbrush a foundation of pinup girls, then paint cars in oil paint around them to transport the viewer to an atmosphere of cigarette smoke, exhaust, and sin in the back alleys of a classy club in the city. This technique can be seen in many of his works, including “Nuf Ced” and “Liquid Manhunt.”
Nuf Ced (Mixed Media)
Liquid Manhunt (Mixed Media)