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.”
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.