Although Durham artist Jordan Grace Owens depicts a wide range of characters in her quirky illustrations, people often think the model is the artist herself.
“People always ask if the images are supposed to be me, but it’s my personal style that gets injected into every piece, not actually me,” says Owens, 26, who is often dressed in vintage or vintage-inspired clothing, just as her figures usually are.
Owens, who grew up in Winston-Salem, was encouraged to experiment with art and express herself at an early age and sometimes in unconventional ways.
“My mom always let me paint on my bedroom walls. My old room is now her sewing and workroom. Repainting it definitely took a lot of priming,” she said with a laugh. “My mom was in art school at the time at Salem College, and sometimes she’d bring me into her classes and I’d get to do all the exercises she was doing.”
Owens also was taught to sew at an early age and made outfits for her American Girl dolls on the sewing machine her grandmother had given her.
“I’ve always been making things,” said Owens, who spent her junior and senior years of high school in the Visual Arts program at UNC School of the Arts.
That background in traditional fine arts, along with a teenage fascination with artist Margaret Kilgallen, two years studying graphic design at Guilford Technical Community College and a job with a small graphic design firm gave Owens the tools to create her own distinct style and run a business. Her images – whimsical illustrations emphasizing typography and simple lines – appear on prints, cards, posters and ornaments, but the runaway top sellers are her hipster-posing paper dolls, especially the custom-made versions, which are now back-ordered for up to four months.
The dolls, painted on card stock, cut and connected with metal brads, emerged from her first solo show, in 2009 at a Greensboro cafe, where she hung a series of paintings and illustrations, many from vintage photos.
“I’m really attracted to vintage photos because the images become really high-contrast over time. I paint in solid backgrounds and flat colors. For the show, I thought to cut some figures out and gave them moving parts and suspended them. I was inspired by my interest in design and art objects and things that interacted with the environment.”
She sold about half the work, an impressive amount for a first show. The next year, a friend asked if she would create paper dolls in the likeness of her and her boyfriend, a feature Owens had toyed with offering. Once she posted that option on her online shopping site at Etsy, orders arrived, with occasional floods after media coverage on blogs and in magazines.
Explaining the cutouts’ appeal, Owens said, “I think people are responding to the artwork and seeing their likenesses captured in a quirky style and being made into an object. You can hold them, pose them, or put them in a shadow box.”
By the time Owens and her boyfriend, Matt Northrup, a musician, moved to Durham last spring, she was making up to six 6-inch personalized paper dolls a day, with orders going across the country and overseas.
In the past year, Owens also has created paper dolls for the cover of the upcoming young adult book “One Man Guy” by Michael Barakiva and for the title sequence of the ABC-TV sitcom “Suburgatory.”
“I’m very thoughtful about who I make them for because I’m afraid of having them devalued. I wrestle a lot with that,” she said.
As much as Owens wants to protect her creations, she also worries they will define her.
“I don’t want my entire career to be the paper-doll maker. But if I complain about making paper dolls, I feel a jerk because it’s so incredible that this is what I do for a living. But it’s like my day job now is making the paper dolls, and then I have my other art.”
Recently, she’s made larger wooden cutouts and designed fabric using Durham-based Spoonflower.
“Fabric seems a cool way to incorporate my drawings. I want to keep drawing and producing things, but I also want to move into the realm of doing illustration work and commission work. I’d love to do more book covers and magazine work.”
Owens enjoys participating in select indie craft shows, such as the Rock & Shop Market in Durham.
“I enjoy meeting people, and it’s a good place to sell screen prints and try out new work.”
Many of Owens’ creations are for sale at Gather, a Cary shop owned by Rock & Shop creator Michelle Smith.
“We sell a wide variety, and customers are definitely struck by it,” Smith said. “I really like the quirky, feminine and sort of folk-art feel of Jordan’s work, and it’s very high-quality. She’s really embraced all her work with her unique, distinct style.”
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