Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A life worth living - reflections on the sudden death of Will Owen

On 2 December, our fellow blogger Will Owen died unexpectedly in his sleep at his Chapel Hill North Carolina home. He was just 63. We had never met in person, but I felt that I knew him.

Will and I first interacted back in June 2007 when he commented on a post I had written on the Howard-Brough Aboriginal intervention in the Northern Territory, I hadn’t seen his blog, Aboriginal Art and Culture: an American eye, although by then it had been established for over two years. I looked, and it became one of my regular reads.

Later I nominated some of his posts for consideration by Club Troppo/On-line Opinion for the best independent Australian blog posts of 2008. There was some doubt as to his eligibility, but I thought that Will’s focus should make him eligible. I was pleased, and so was he, when his Basedow's photographs made the list. Later still, and rightly, the blog was selected for permanent retention as part of the National Library’s Pandora Archive.

While I knew of Will through his work on Aboriginal art, his main professional role was as a librarian. He began work at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Library in 1976 as a student assistant in the collection development department. At the time of his death, he was Associate University Librarian for Technical Services and Systems, a position he had held since 2011. He had also served since July as the Library’s interim Director of Human Resources.

In a tribute, Sarah Michalak, University Librarian and Associate Provost for University Libraries (UNC is a networked multi-campus institution) said that with Will’s passing, the Library and the field hade lost “one of the greats of librarianship and a leader whose accomplishments embody the best of the profession”.

Will believed that libraries should provide the broadest possible access to scholarly information. At a time when many questioned the value of the library catalog, he empowered his team instead to develop it as a sophisticated tool that would facilitate customized searching and would lead researchers directly to primary source material from the library collections.

At the time that Will became one of the Library’s first computer administrators in 1985, there were just a few computers in campus libraries, said David Romani, UNC Library’s lead systems administrator. “It was the two of us doing all of the technology,” he recalled, even to the point of removing ceiling panels and running cable for the first system of networked computers in Davis Library.

As technology became an increasingly prominent part of library work, Will became UNC’s first systems librarian and then head of the systems department. His guiding principle was always that the technology—and the technology department—should be a solid and reliable support that makes it possible for colleagues to focus on their primary mission of carrying out the work of the library.

It is clear from the many tributes that Will not only applied this principle in practice but was also an effective guide and mentor. “People valued his mentoring,” said Michalak, “because of the clear way he expressed himself. You knew that he really cared and that everything came from a grounding of integrity.”

Outside his professional work, Will was a man many of many interests. He already had an abiding interest in contemporary American art before seeing the “Dreamings The Art of Aboriginal Australia.” exhibition at the Asia Society in New York City in 1988.

The paintings, with their arrays of small dots, elaborate patterns in startling colors and puzzling iconography, took the lifelong art lover by surprise. “This is the first we knew it existed. I had no idea Australia’s Aboriginal people made art, much less crazy, beautiful art like this,” he said.

In 1990 Will and his long standing partner Professor Harvey Wagner (they had been together for 34 years at the time of Will’s death) visited Australia almost by accident.

Will had intended to use frequent flier miles for a European Christmas vacation with his partner. But by the time they made reservations at Thanksgiving, every seat was long since booked. Frustrated, they asked what was left. “I can get you on a plane to Sydney,” the agent offered. The surprise destination led the pair directly to a passion for Aboriginal art that has drawn them back again and again to Australia.

It was a day trip to the country west of Alice Springs that brought everything together. Piled into a Land Cruiser with five other passengers, Will listened, captivated, as their guide described Aboriginal culture and the complicated relationship at its heart between the people and the land. “It was so alien, so unlike anything that I’d encountered before,” he said. “I wanted to try to solve the puzzle, to understand these minds that saw the world in such a different way.”

He and Harvey began purchasing art, ultimately building one of the world’s largest private collections of Aboriginal art. This painting is by Kenny Brown, Tiwi Islands, Jilamara (Good Design), 2001. The image derives from ceremonial designs that mourners paint on their bodies.

Insatiably curious, Will began to read up on anthropology, history and art, seeking to understand. Eventually, he came to see his research and writing as a continuation of the efforts of the Aboriginal people themselves to explain their lives and their world.

“For more than 200 years, these people in Australia have been held up as the exemplar of the most primitive people on Earth,” he said. “In fact, their art – which is extremely popular, which the government has appropriated as a symbol of Australia – is the way in which these people have reached out across the racial divide, against bigotry, condescension and hatred to share what is theirs with the rest of us.

“Living in extreme conditions means that you have to share or else you die. Their art is the way they’ve chosen to share their culture with us.”

“Aboriginal people don’t own the land,” he explained. “The land owns them.” Each individual is tied to a particular piece of land – known as one’s country – by virtue of being born there, having family or family history there, or having ancestors buried there.

For Aboriginal people, the country is a living, sentient being. When they are away from it, “they worry for the country and the country worries for them,” he said. The paintings that had so intrigued Will were, in fact, the outpouring of a great deal of worry.

Will began blogging in 2005 as a way of keeping track of all he was learning. The posts covered not just art, but also history and culture. In addition to blogging, Will used various mechanisms to promote Aboriginal art, artists and culture speaking at events and providing expert advice.

He was among the contributors to Beyond Sacred: recent paintings from Australia's remote Aboriginal communities, edited by Colin and Elizabeth Laverty (Hardie Grant Books, 2008). Then in 2009 and 2011, Will and Harvey gave their entire collection to the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. This made the Museum a centre for the study of Australian Aboriginal art in the US and provided a base for a major exhibition in 2012.

Truly, Will’s life was one worth living with multiple contributions across fields My commiserations to Harvey Wagner and Will's many friends.


In Memoriam: Will Owen 
Librarian, long-time art lover finds new passion in Aboriginal art


Anonymous said...

For the reader, though, the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliographies are the Easter eggs of investigation. A good book or article not only informs and sometimes inspires, but it leaves in its trail hints of more pleasures.

Will Owen
October 2, 2005

- some words of his which I quoted back to him in September 2007, in the first of a series of emails we swapped. It was very humbling to find such an enthusiastic foreign scholar willing to freely give the gift of his research to an ignorant Australian, struggling to comprehend the wealth of my (our) nation's heritage.

A fine man and, yes, a life well lived.


Jim Belshaw said...

That's a wonderful comment, kvd, for I think it captures the man. And I totally agree with Will's words from 2005. I will use them, in fact - attributed, of course.