Sunday, August 7, 2011


A Debt to Dinosaurs

The Artistic Evolution, So Far, of Owen Bissex

by Ricka McNaughton

A childhood fascination with prehistoric creatures is not that uncommon, but for Plainfield native Owen Bissex, it may have contributed to some tall successes in later life. Soon out of college, Owen was tapped to help create one of the world's largest, anatomically accurate model dinosaurs. The long-necked brachiosaurus, built for the Indianapolis Children's Museum, measures 70 feet from nose to tail and rears magnificently on its hind legs to a height of 50 feet. Owen's dinosaur dreams began early. Around the age of 5, he held up a picture he had drawn of himself and declared a firm intention to become, in his precise words, "a paleontologist when I grow up." Well, that didn't happen.

Instead, Owen became a superb artist who happened to have in his back pocket a fine grasp of how dinosaurs are made. For years he had studied their enchanting characteristics - their skeletal frames and boney plates, their skin, scales and hide, muscular contours, talons, tusks, and teeth. Early on, Owen taught himself to see, or perhaps already saw, the natural world on a very particular level. Much of his drawing and sculpture today owes something to the architectural mysteries of living things and the biological ties that bind them. "If you think about it," Owen said, "all life today has an unbroken line of origin to the life forms of millions of years ago. We're here because they once lived."

Owen, now 27, is a Twinfield Union School alum whose artistic world widened appreciably as a student there. "One of the best things," said Owen, "was the amount of latitude I had for independent study." With the help of art teacher Jan Danziger, Owen also was able to participate for part of one summer in an early college study program based in Italy. There he found himself powerfully drawn to the masters of the High Renaissance period. That reverence, mixed with Owen's naturally painstaking, unhurried work process, took Owen forward and made him a talent not widely seen in today's jumpy under-thirty art world.

Owen went on to earn a BFA at the Maine College of Art. Soon after, he landed a dream job at Staab Studios in Kansas City, MO, where, as an assistant to the studio owner, Owen helped craft natural history and prehistoric life models for museums, educational institutions and other settings. His work there involved him in projects for such prestigious clients as the Smithsonian Institute and the National Geographic Society.

"For me," said Owen, "a mark of a successful piece is that it seems comfortable in its own skin." In one instance, the skin in question was that of a rather short, age-darkened, somewhat shrouded, and considerably shriveled human more than 3,000-years old. This was another Staab Studios job, and it came from the Egyptian Government. They wanted a precise replica of the mummy of Tutankhamun to enliven an exhibit of artifacts soon to embark on a new world tour. For this exacting project, cutting edge technology was the order of the day. The real mummy first underwent sophisticated medical imaging, computer modeling and a 3D printing process. Using that output, Owen helped complete the very particular finish work that would bring the figure of the Boy King alive in death.

Owen's work today includes handsome pieces of figure sculpture, drawing and studies of many kinds. Some involve realism, others less so. Many of his pieces have whimsical or allegorical components. Owen does some figures he calls, simply, "monster stuff." They include creatures that Darwinism couldn't rationally explain, and art doesn't have to.

This summer, Owen is working out of a studio in the corner of a barn at the home of his parents, Karl Bissex and Mary Trerice. Sometimes he'll just take a walk in the woods in search of fodder for an artistic idea. "There are so many themes in nature that are ubiquitous," he noted. "Whether or not a piece resembles the original source is not always important…Rather than be didactic, I try to be responsive."

Owen once made a stylized sculpture of a massive snapping turtle that you could call an artistic response to an encounter he had with the real thing. He had come upon the live turtle in the middle of a road, and concerned that it might get run over, Owen stopped and held out a stick, knowing the turtle would latch on with it powerful jaws. He then maneuvered the beast to a safer place. Owen dismisses the sculpture as a freshman exercise. But the primeval-looking creature, displayed these days in the Bissex family living room, has some very catchy opposing qualities. Overall, it has a steely-eyed, don't-mess-with-me aura. But by some elegant trick of stance and sculptural tension, it also looks vulnerable. As though it just caught the merest wind of something frightful and wholly beyond reckoning.

Knowing the backstory, you could imagine that the snapper senses a tipping point coming -- maybe even in a metaphorical sense. Nothing in its ancient bag of survival tools, so perfectly adequate for the last several eons, has equipped it to tangle with automobiles, or to weather for too much longer the habitat pressures that come of sharing the planet with modern humans. It may not have been the artist's intention to exploit that subject matter. But sometimes, in the presence of suitably evolved talent, the subject will exploit the artist.

This article was first published in The Montpelier Bridge on Aug. 4, 2011

Photograph of Owen Bissex by Ricka McNaughton
Artwork: Monstosity, Uproot