Childhood enthusiasms sometimes translate into adult fascinations. For Rutherford County artist Tiffany Ownbey, papier-mâché was such a through line. “I fell in love with the stuff when I started making piggy banks and Christmas ornaments with it when I was very young,” Ownbey says. Later, studying at Western Carolina University and Penland School of Craft, among other schools, ceramics and printmaking occupied much of her attention, but “papier-mâché was always waiting for me.”
Ownbey has used the medium to produce an imaginative collection of figurative sculptures and collages to which she adds any number of found objects — tiny wheels, costume jewelry; even, in one sculptural piece, pieces of toy trucks. “I love thrift and antique stores, yard sales, eBay,” she says. “I’ve often had kind and generous people gift me interesting goodies from their grandparents that they don’t know what to do with, and don’t want to throw away.”
Another favorite source is The World’s Longest Yard Sale, a 700-mile-long collective of hundreds of dealers stretching from Arkansas to Ohio, a favorite source for Ownbey’s art supplies.
More striking still is Ownbey’s use of sewing-pattern paper for both her sculptural pieces and for the distinctive collaged artwork that seemed a natural progression from the three-dimensional creations. “I like the color and textures of the sewing patterns,” she explains. “The sculptures are made entirely of sewing patterns with papers on top, while the collages are opposite. They’re drawn on sewing patterns with the papers underneath them. I like to think it’s totally my creation. At least I hope it is. I haven’t seen it anywhere else.”
Ownbey starts her collaged work with an initial sketch, sometimes many sketches, before she’s ready to begin creating. Ideas can come from anywhere, including from the sewing pattern itself, and take shape using ink, acrylics, oil paint, and more eclectic components — pages from old books, food labels, stamps, and anything else that catches her eye. “Most of the materials I use already have a history of their own when I find them,” she says. “These pieces of the past request viewers to take a more in-depth look at the combined elements.”
Human figures and animals often appear together in her work, an expression of Ownbey’s interest in the interactions between the manmade and natural worlds. They’re not mutually exclusive, Ownbey wants to say, and can point to her own deep roots in Rutherford County, where she lives surrounded by woods in a log cabin built 80 years ago by her grandparents. “My family history can be traced back to the 1700s in the county, and I was born and raised here,” she says. “The little family cabin with my little studio behind it, and nature all around, is totally conducive to my creativity.”
Tiffany Ownbey, Rutherfordton. Ownbey’s work is exhibited at The Gallery at Flat Rock (2702-A Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock, galleryflatrock.com), at Flow Gallery (14 South Main St., Marshall, flowmarshall.com), and at venues across the country. She accepts commissions and her work is also available via her website, tiffanyownbey.com.