Martin Owino, one of the 98 artists opening their workplaces to the public during Portland Open Studios, lets you travel to Africa by way of southeast Portland on Oct. 11, 12 and 18, 19.
"Pure Africa" is in the jumping hands and prancing feet of the women who revel in good times even as the times are changing. Owino's original batik paintings capture the colorful spirit of his native Kenya in a body of work that is gently iconic. Using traditional techniques learned from his centenarian grandmother, he distills the nurturing reach of the baobab tree, the arched neck of the giraffe, or the rhythmic spots of the cheetah down to a crisp black stencil line that pops against the vibrant colors of plant dyes.
To make a batik painting Owino sketches or prints an image on raw cotton fabric. To color the piece, he applies several alternating layers of paraffin wax and natural plant dyes, using a resist technique. When he has finished coloring the batik, he irons it and adds finishing touches with a black marker.
Owino tells tales of his homeland with a lighthearted swing that almost conceals the gut-wrenching reality of his village decimated by AIDS.
"I tell you, I need a school!" he exclaims, reflecting on the orphans who turn slowly into street kids. Much of his extra money goes to the care of these young people. He brings them clothes and shoes when he returns. He tends their paperwork and makes sure they are going to school. Traveling light, and avoiding a display of his relative wealth, he sees his culture with new eyes. The life is simple and good in so many ways: no computers, no phones, no cars. People grow their own food and have much time to socialize.
Owino used to sell his work and that of others at various markets in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. A highlight of his adventures was shaking the hand of Mobutu Sese Seko, then president of Zaire and described by Owino as a "freedom fighter."
Devoted to batik as his specialty, Owino's work is featured in the US embassy and USAID in Kenya. He had worked on exhibit in America before he had even visited, and moved in 2001 to Eugene. Two and a half years ago he moved to Portland where he lives with his wife Jenifer and little girl, Benta. He says that although moving to a new culture has had its surprises, business has been very good. People are people anywhere in the world; he likes being "out there," at the art markets, where he can tell stories.
All the Portland Open Studios artists will tell you stories. They welcome you into their studios where you can watch them at work. For this up-close and personal view of where, how and why art is made you need a Tour Guide. The $15 Tour Guide is good for a whole family for all 4 days. It contains 2 adult tickets (children under 18 are free), maps to the studios, and is a 2009 calendar with gorgeous pictures of each artist's work. They are available at New Seasons, Art Media, and other stores listed on www.portlandopenstudios.com
New this year — Most studios will be open both weekends including Owino's. All westside artists are open on Oct. 11 and 13. All eastside artists are open on Oct. 18 and 19. Check the handy symbol on the map to see which artists are open both weekends.
Don't want to drive? Take one of the pre-scheduled EcoShuttle tours in a carbon-neutral tour van powered with biodiesel. Enjoy the studios and the ride along with other art lovers. Visit www.ecoshuttle.net for schedules, prices and reservations.