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Arts & Culture

Connecticut Artist Uses Salt, Chocolate to Create Detailed Portraits

Brian Owens's depiction of actor Morgan Freeman garnered national media attention.

During the day, 24-year-old Brian Owens is a design engineer at a local Connecticut contracting firm. After hours, he creates art.

Owens does detailed pencil drawings of people and animals, based in realism but with a hint of abstraction. He also likes to work with unusual mediums, including salt. His depiction of actor Morgan Freeman called “Salty Morgan” has garnered national media attention.

Brian Owens spoke recently with WNPR’s Diane Orson. She asked how he works with salt, chocolate, and other non-traditional mediums.

Brian Owens: It's not very different to how you’d use a traditional medium like pencil, or charcoal, or paint. Most of my work is portraiture. My goal is to achieve a likeness to the character or my subject. When you use graphite, you make markings on a piece paper. When I use salt, I’m just trying to organize it on a table, so the character that I’m trying to portray comes through.

Credit Brian Owens
Brian Owens works on his salt depiction of actor Morgan Freeman.

Diane Orson: In the case of salt, how technically do you work with salt?

My initial thought was okay, I need a dark background to work with, right? Because salt is very bright. And in one of my store-away closets, I found this probably four-by-four-foot table, and it's got sort of a smooth leathery feel to it. It does have some subtle pores in it, and I think that has been perfect for me, because the salt can sit and nest in these pores.

It's to the point where I actually move the table across a room without the salt losing shape, but besides that, I don’t have any kind of resin or spray that keeps it intact. It’s a very live medium.

You’re telling me that the salt is not glued on or anything like that?

No, there’s no glue. There’s nothing that actually binds the salt to one another. If you were to walk by me and bump into the table it would get scattered, its very fragile.

And have you outlined a sketch before you use the salt?

I do not. I have a blank tabletop, and I start right away with the salt. It's probably not until six or seven hours into it where I’m happy with how the salt’s arranged, and then I come in and start adding more salt, and pulling out the values.

There’s such detail in your work.

Yeah, the initial process is just to lay a very light salt base down, and push it around. I use an index card to get the outer edges, or a playing card. And then I come in with a very small brush that I use to push the details around.

You're a mechanical engineer. What role does art play in your life?

Oh, art is everything. I don’t think a lot of people have that one thing, or they try to search for that one thing that they just lose themselves 100 percent and just achieve the certain flow, the overall concentration. It's just what I need.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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