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Arts: Exhibit of Lowcountry's "lost artist" ready to open

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Amelia Blake of Georgetown remembers watching her Uncle Jule Owens painting a picture in the yard at his mother’s house in the rural Choppee community many years ago.

Bird droppings landed on the canvas, and the children all giggled. “We thought he’d have to start over,” Blake said. “He just painted right over it. He never got upset about anything like that.”

Owens lived in shacks without basic comforts in order to be closer to nature. “No one could fathom his nature or change him, nor could they understand his unorthodox formula for living,” reporter Ethlyn Missroon wrote about him.

Owens rejected every attempt of others to bring him commercial success. He refused to allow his paintings to be entered in any exhibit, according to his sister Sue Owens Barrineau, who wrote a book about him in 1987.

Owens will get his long delayed art show Jan. 12 at the Georgetown County Museum with a reception from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Volunteer Jan McGinty has borrowed about 30 of his paintings for display.

Debbie Owens Watkins, another niece of Owens, said she is planning to be at the museum’s reception and appreciates the acknowledgement of her uncle’s work. “He was a quiet man and lived his life on his own terms,” she said. “While some people did not approve or understand his way of life, and that includes many family members, I did understand. He was a free spirit, and had a very deep love and understanding of God and nature. A lot of artists I know are very temperamental, and can be difficult, but Uncle Jule had an inner peace that I have not found in anyone else I have known in my entire life, and it was always something that you felt when you were around him. To me, he was magical, and I loved him dearly.”

Julius Clyde Owens was born April 1, 1919, the youngest of nine children for Henry Thomas Owens and his wife, Amelia. Blake, named for her grandmother, was born in 1938 and remembers her Uncle Jule fondly. “He was mild-mannered, calm,” she said. “I don’t think I ever saw him angry. He was a good old boy. Everybody liked him.”

Owens was a man with many talents, Barrineau said in her book. “He was mechanically minded, good at carpentry, painting, sculpture, singing, chemistry, navigation and woodcarving,” she said. Blake remembers seeing him inside the family’s outdoor well. “They’d put the milk jugs in there, keep it just as cold,” she said. “Uncle Jule was down in the well and I asked him what he was doing. ‘Bricking it up,’ he said. He knew how to do everything.”

Owens built a cabin on the Pawleys creek with a high roof like the ones he had seen in Holland. Blake remembers being surprised to see that his cabin had a dirt floor. He would dry it in, Blake said, but in summer he wouldn’t bother with doors or windows. “Things like that didn’t bother him,” she said. “He always liked to live close to the water, the woodsier the better. Living in a little shanty and painting, he was happy as a lark.”

Blake was working at Fogel’s Department Store in Georgetown in 1958 when her uncle came in with a big framed painting he wanted to sell her for $12. “Framed and everything, it was beautiful,” she said. “Mr. Fogel said you sure got a good buy. I felt like Uncle Jule wanted a drink and he needed a bottle. That’s just what it cost: $12.”

Blake regrets letting her brother have that big framed painting for his new house. Jule gave her another one, though it wasn’t finished or signed. She has it hanging in her dining room and has agreed to loan it to the museum for the art show that runs through January 28.

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