Enid artist tells starry stories with massive public artwork 'Under Her Wing Was the Universe'
An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Starry stories: Enid artist Romy Owens' massive public artwork 'Under Her Wing Was the Universe' achieves liftoff
ENID - In the universe Romy Owens has created, every star has a story.
Under the towering steel canopy of her monumental sculpture "Under Her Wing Was the Universe,” more than a thousand little points of light twinkle every night, honoring people whose loved ones named the stars for them.
"That is a beautiful accomplishment. I think of all the people - 1,152 stars - and every single one of those has some kind of story attached to it. ... People sent me the most beautiful messages. When they would send me a hundred dollars and name a star, they would tell me who this person was, what that person meant to them. It's a beautiful honor, and it's a somber burden to know I have to do something that it fitting for this relationship,” Owens said.
“The stories and stories and stories upon stories that people have shared with me are so beautiful, and that would never have happened for me (otherwise), to bear witness to that. I'm so glad I did it. I'm so glad that it built the community that it did. I'm genuinely happy about that. Do I wish it had gone differently? Absolutely. Do I regret that I did it? No.”
After three and a half years of fundraising, planning, constructing and sometimes contending with naysayers, the Enid artist’s massive hometown art project quietly achieved liftoff this summer.
"I feel very proud of what I have accomplished. ... I've done something that no one else in Oklahoma has done. I've done something that I'm not sure that anyone else in America has done, in terms of crowd-funding a massive quarter-of-a-million-dollar project. I'm super proud of that, and there are parts of it that are so beautiful. And it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't have had this idea," Owens said.
"There were so many people involved in the physical making of this, but if I hadn't had the idea, this would have never happened. So, I'm very, very proud of that."
The functional abstract sculpture covers a walkway that glitters during the day and is equipped with the starry light installation underneath that illuminates every evening. The large-scale public artwork is intended to give the sense of stepping under a large bird’s wing and discovering a universe under it.
"It's pretty cool, right?" said Enid City Council Ward 3 Commissioner Ben Ezzell, a longtime supporter of the project. "It's been really nice to have a place just to go to, especially during the crazy part of this year - so, that's the whole year – just an outdoor place to go to and to sit. Had a nice dinner there one night; went and got takeout tapas. I've taken the kids there to eat ice cream a lot. It's just this lovely new space. There is nothing else in the world like it, and I'm thrilled. I love seeing it get used all the time; I always see people down there just kind of walking through and looking up.”
Dominating two and half acres of city-owned land off Park Avenue between Grand and Independence, the sculptural pavilion measuring about 25 feet tall, 35 feet wide and 130 feet long is the centerpiece of a downtown green space that is both attractive and useful.
"The Wing" was built as a gift to Owens' hometown inspired by her mother, Nancy Martin, who died in December 2016. Owens moved back to Enid a few years ago after building her career as an artist and curator in Oklahoma City.
"Nancy would have loved it. She would have been tickled. Nancy was a big arts supporter in general. She would have loved it no matter who matter who did it, and she would have been just disgustingly proud of Romy. You never would have heard her talk about anything else - and also, she would have been livid with all the people who were cruel and unkind to Romy,” Ezzell said.
"Romy did a very gutsy thing, and she stuck with it. And there were lots of reasons to not stick with it. ... She had to fight every bit of the way - and she did. She deserves a huge amount of credit for taking on such a big, ambitious project ... and she just went after it for a long time with a lot of effort. Anybody who does something that hard and does it with that much persistent, people should applaud that. It's what we want. We want people to be ambitious.”
Although she has been involved in more than a dozen public art projects - including a 90-foot by 36-foot hand-knitted mosaic titled “The Unbearable Absence of Landscapes” created with the help of more than 350 volunteers - "The Wing" was Owens' first in Enid and by far the largest. Prominently placed in the gateway to downtown, the creation of the enormous abstract structure was often scrutinized, especially when wet weather led to construction delays.
Owens acknowledged that the criticism sometimes got personal and has been tough to take.
"The realist in me knows that there will always be people who hate it - and that's OK, because those adults who hate it, their kids are going to like it. … Everybody doesn't have it like everything. We can't all like the same things,” she said. “But I feel very humbled by the support from people. If it were only my friends, I would get it. But it's strangers that this story and idea of a sacred place, a special place, a sanctuary, resonated with them enough that they wanted to support it - that is humbling."
Through Owens’ grassroots fundraising efforts, nearly 900 individuals, businesses and foundations donated to “The Wing,” which also received a $30,000 Public Art Commission of Enid grant and a $5,000 Enid Arts Council grant.
Although she planned to celebrate the project’s completion with a massive party for the supporters and the community, Owens said that those plans have been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's very anticlimactic. I made this big thing; I want people to be able to see it. I want to be able to hug people and celebrate with them and thank them in person and do all of those things and, nope, not yet. We can't do it right now,” she said.
"I know I'm not alone in this; I know there are lots of people who have things that they want to celebrate and they can't because of this pandemic situation. But I refuse to gather a thousand people to celebrate this together until it's safe for us to do it - and we will do it when it's safe.”
She marked the completion of the elaborate artwork with a small summer ribbon cutting and has continued working on the other aspect of the project: continuing to transform an open field of Bermuda grass into a plot of urban prairie.
"The fact that fireflies were on site this summer, that's huge. It's not easy to foster firefly growth ... in the middle of town,” Owens said.
The artist launched a social media photo contest, which continues through Nov. 15, to celebrate the completion of “The Wing.” But she also is moving on to her next project: another large-scale project tentatively titled “Meadow at Dusk” that will probably be built in OKC.
"It's an environmental piece about how we're destroying the environment, essentially. We co-op every parcel of land to such an extent that our ability to access a meadow at dusk is very difficult. So, I'm going to make an interior version of a meadow at dusk that you might find in the future when we don't have it and they've had to recreate it,” she said.
"I don't want to make safe art. I want to make challenging art. I want to make art that's thought-provoking and that will give people a reason to pause and be contemplative."
Visit Enid Communications Coordinator Rob Houston said “The Wing” has the potential to soar as a bold, signature artwork in a town that boasts a growing number of public murals and sculptures.
“Ponca City's got Pioneer Woman, and Oklahoma City now has the Scissortail bridge. You just see that stuff and you know exactly what community that is in. Enid's not had that, so we're very hopeful that this can become that. It's so unique and not going to be copied anywhere," Houston said.
""It's another point of pride for our citizens. It's a gateway to our downtown. … We were very limited in what could go there because it is in the floodplain, and this, to me, was the perfect solution to have a unique piece of art that people will talk about and share with their friends.”
Seeing how people are using the piece - from spotting Halloween photos taken there on social media to finding stacks of rocks left behind from a visiting child – has been exciting because the stories of “The Wing” are spreading, Owens said.
"Contributing to a cultural conversation in this community - not only in Enid, but in this region and in this state - that's very meaningful to me," she said.
"A few months ago, a woman here in Enid sent me a message and said her dad had just died. And she went by herself ... and sat and had time by herself there at night. And she said that it was the most cathartic experience for her. ... and that's beautiful.”
TO KNOW MORE
For more on "Under Her Wing Was the Universe," go to www.facebook.com/underherwingwastheuniverse and www.visitenid.org/visitors/things-to-do/public-art.