Art, Tradition & Memory

Jack Owen probably wouldn’t have called himself an artist. He was a mountain man with a fifth grade education who loved the outdoors, gardening, and animals. He was also a creative genius with stonework. His unique craft—arranging massive boulders into artistic installations—found him working alongside elite landscape architects at some of North Carolina’s grandest mountain homes and resorts.

The interplay of traditional craftsmanship with contemporary art and architecture has a fascinating history in North Carolina—Black Mountain College is a prime example—and Jack has his own place in that story. And now, in a serendipitous sequence of events, Jack’s legacy and some 100 tons of Western North Carolina have found an unlikely home in the sleek new building at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

The intersection of art and nature is a hallmark element of the new building. No where is this to be more evident than in the narrow glass-clad South Court—which slices into the building, bringing the surrounding landscape into the middle of the classical gallery. And unlike the new building’s four other courtyards, which feature paved surfaces and sculpture, the South Court is intended to be a natural, contemplative space. And large native rocks are the central element of that vision.

Jesse Turner, a landscape designer with Lappas + Havener, knew that the Museum was looking for large-scale boulders. He immediately thought of the Owen family, close family friends from his childhood in western North Carolina. Jesse called his father, John Turner, director of the Southern Highlands Reserve. John worked with Jack for more than 30 years at the Reserve, where Jack was responsible for all the rock work throughout the 120-acre private native plant garden and research center. John contacted Jack’s son Travis, who followed in his father’s footsteps and runs the family quarry and rock business, located 50 miles southeast of Asheville, N.C.

Travis agreed to donate 14 boulders from Canton, N.C. in memory of his father to the Museum. He selected each of the rocks, and in June came to the Museum to direct their placement in the narrow strip of dirt, in a careful, thoughtful arrangement—just as his father would have done.

Transporting and placing the granite rocks, some as heavy as 15 tons, is no easy task, and required the goodwill and help of many. Travis enlisted the help of two cousins, who drove all the way from Florida to lend their 18-wheelers. Once the boulders arrived at the Museum, placing them inside the glass courtyards required the expert use of a crane donated by Earl Johnson of Southern Industrial Constructors.

John Turner couldn’t think of a more fitting tribute for his good friend and colleague. “Jack had a unique ability to see rocks in their natural environment and picture them in a placed setting, in a way that made a statement.”


The late Jack Owen

In April 2010, when you gaze across the new building’s South Court, you’ll see more than a bunch of moss-covered boulders—you’ll see an installation that celebrates the people of our state who create art out of their everyday work.


  1. Rick Pardue
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Great story – thanks for sharing the details.

  2. Karlie
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    How cool! Canton is right down the road from where I grew up. Great story.

  3. Alesia
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks! It was a fascinating piece to write. It started out as a brief two paragraph update, and in talking to John and his son Jesse, I realized that there really was an amazing back story here that deserved to be shared.

  4. Betty Balentine
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Jack Owen was the Michaelangelo of contemporary boulder work. He was a true genius. His work is a wonderful reminder of the unrecognized talents of North Carolina’s native craftsmen. I am thrilled his story is being showcased at the North Carolina Art Museum.

  5. Rick Lewandowski
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Great story! It’s so important to share the legacy of special people like Jack. What a fine tribute to a skilled craftsman.

  6. Renley
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Wonderful story. Thank you.

  7. Megan Johnson
    Posted April 21, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Jack Owen was my grandfather and I am so glad they are sharing his story. He was a great grandfather and he is dearly miss.

  8. Dakota Johnson
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Jack Owen was my grandfather as well. Im glad that this is now being shared. He was a great grandfather to me. i one hoped to be like he one day but i just happy that this is shared and i know he would be so happy that his story is now being shared. Thank You

  9. Martha Owen Whitmire
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Jack Owen is my brother. He and his twin brother Joe are 3 years younger than me. Jack was a special brother and a special friend of and to many. Friends were always welcome at his home. He welcomed friends with a smile and food.

    Jack is so missed. I plan to meet him again where there will be no cancer, no sickness, no pain…
    HEAVEN…Yes, I long for that reunion……..

  10. Teresa Baker
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Jack Owen was my cousin. His rock work was amazing, but I remember most his jovial personality and wit. He quickly charmed new acquaintances, so it was as if he never met a stranger. He was charming and never too busy to stop his work to speak and inquire about a friend’s life. I admire his rock work, but more his legacy of friends and family who loved him and the impact he had on each of their lives. It was a joy to know him.

  11. Posted April 8, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    The monumental task of moving massive boulders is quite challenging and Jack Owen truly was a master landscape designer. His selections of boulders and effective visual placement reflected his own artistic genius combined with mountain savvy on moving these huge rocks. His work at the Southern Highlands Reserve is so impressive. I am proud of this mountaineer and so pleased that his skills have been honored. I’ll be in Raleigh this week to deliver Polytrichum and Entodon mosses for the new Nature Research Center. I’ll make sure to check out the Jack Owen Memorial Boulders while I’m there!

  12. Mimi Ambler Sagar
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I visited the Reserve this week and I know I came away a changed person, similar as going to Stonehenge. There is power in the beautiful arrangement of the boulders. They become part of you and you part of them. This home for our native plants will last forever. With thanks and appreciation to all who have built such a monument on Mount Toxaway
    Mimi Sagar

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