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The lost art of Jule Owens

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County artist Julius C. “Jule” Owens didn’t want to be famous. While living in shacks and denying himself the most basic of comforts, he rejected every attempt to commercialize his Lowcountry art.

He produced hundreds of paintings during his life, cut short by drowning near the Georgetown jetties in 1973 at age 54. “Many liked Jule Owens, admired his talent and were moved to help him — but no one could fathom his nature or change him, nor could they understand his unorthodox formula for living,” Ethlyn Missroon wrote in The Georgetown Times. Her story preceded the publication of a book about Owens written by his sister Sue Owens Barrineau in 1987.

The Georgetown County Museum will give Owens his long-deserved art show Jan. 12. Museum volunteers have secured the loan of 14 Jule Owens paintings and plan to have dozens more by the end of the year. They also hope to have Barrineau’s book, “Julius Clyde Owens, South Carolina Low-Country Artist,” reprinted, said Jan McGinty, a museum volunteer.

“He wouldn’t allow his paintings to be entered in an exhibit,” Barrineau wrote. “I truly believe herein lies the reason for his lack of success and recognition while living, as we think of it. But since his death, some people believe he was the greatest artist in the South.”

Julius Clyde Owens was born April 1, 1919, the youngest of nine children for Henry Thomas Owens and his wife, the former Amelia Baxley Meeks, on a farm near the intersection of Black River and Choppee Creek. All the couple’s children were talented, but none like Jule, a strange and different child, according to his sister. “He had been described by many people who knew him as the man with seven talents, but he really had more than seven,” Barrineau said. “He was mechanically minded, good at carpentry, painting, sculpturing, singing, chemistry, creating paint formulas, navigation and woodcarving. He could do anything he wanted to do, and he did it to perfection.” The family’s housekeeper, known as Mom Ellen, told Jule his hands belonged to God.

He worked with his shirt open and barefooted with his pants rolled up halfway to his knees. He wanted people to realize that he had to do what he was doing, just as a minister has to dedicate his life to doing God’s work. “Jule felt a spiritual drive toward his work. He could not escape it. He wanted to leave something of beauty for people to remember how he loved nature and all of God’s beauty,” his biography said.

The Owens family weathered the Great Depression better than most with their garden, chickens and cows. The children spent hours fishing and playing in the creek. Jule took clay from a pit near Rocky Point Landing and fashioned furniture and tiny family figures for a doll house he made for his sister. Just as hard times were ending, along came World War II. Jule served with a number of other Georgetown men on the U.S. Navy tanker Guadalupe. Four-and-a-half years at sea left him with horrible memories. “We knew he had started drinking,” Barrineau said.

Jule came home after the war with a young bride from California. His brother Winslow gave the newlyweds permission to build a cabin on land he owned on Winyah Bay near Georgetown. They went right to work on it, but it proved to be a crude dwelling for a bride. She didn’t know how to cook but tried valiantly. Within months, they knew the marriage was not going to work. She needed Hollywood. Jule couldn’t bear the thought. He put her on a bus for California, the tears flowing freely down both their faces.

Jule decided he could never marry again. “I would have to change my ways of life if I should marry,” he said. “No woman could tolerate me, and it makes me sad when I meet a lovely girl and think of all the warmth and comforts of home and home cooked meals I am missing. Most of all, the thought of being a father to a little son or daughter would mean so much to me. It almost breaks my heart to think of it. My life I would give, but it does not belong to me. I was put here for a purpose as all of us were. Mine is different. People criticize me and think I have lost my wits. Don’t let it bother you. I’m going to make it one day before long.”

Jule lived alone, the solitude necessary for him to paint. “He took shelter in the most simple of shacks; rain might pour through the roof, but in a dry corner, Jule worked obliviously on canvasses that emerged in color and perfection,” Missroon’s newspaper story said. “Unaltered nature, cathedrals of lofty and moss-hung trees were his chosen subjects; birds and animals were the closest companions with whom he had an affinity and with whom he felt most at ease.

“People who know him have pondered what could have happened in his life to twist him into one who trusted few, loved not many and accepted almost no one. He was a lonely man but rejected overtures. Some who won grudging acceptance took advantage of him, but for most part people tried to help Jule whether he wished or not.”

Some said Jule was lonely, unhappy and eccentric, but he possessed a certain charisma. “I couldn’t help but see and feel his life lacked something,” Barrineau said. “There were times my heart ached for him, yet he never once complained about the weather, regardless of how bad it was. His cabins were not weatherproofed. He lived in adverse conditions, but all weather for him held a particular kind of beauty.”

He went to Pawleys Island for solitude in the late 1940s and rented a cabin near the Rusty Ann Lodge run by Bunny and Lyes LaBruce. They became friends, and Jule began painting. He did one of the lodge and another of the Prince George Hotel. He made enough money to buy a sailboat and spent many hours on the ocean at Pawleys Island with new friends. His sister said there were lots of girls, always, waiting to go sailing. “He was still quite handsome and an able-bodied man with a very keen mind,” she said. “He could still do anything he made his mind up to do, and he could handle the sailboat well.”

Jule sold quite a few marine paintings but asked only a pittance for them. His love for Pawleys Island grew. He found some creekside land for a reasonable price and planned to build a new cabin. “It had a beautiful view of the marsh and creek, with the ocean just a short distance away,” Barrineau said. “It was a nice high lot with oak trees, with moss hanging on them. I thought this was the ideal place for him, that once he bought this lot and built this cabin he would settle down for life.”

Jule decided to pay for the lot by making a trip with the U.S. Merchant Marine to South America: Argentina, Brazil and Chile. He sailed back through New York and spent time in Greenwich Village painting. He visited his brother Winslow in Pennsylvania. On a trip to art galleries in Philadelphia, Jule was offered a job as a commercial artist at a fabulous salary. He turned it down. Winslow thought he had lost his mind. The manager of the Newman Art Gallery in Philadelphia wanted Jule to paint marine scenes. Winslow could see this was an opportunity for his brother’s work to become popular worldwide. Jule said he wasn’t ready for that.

He came back to Pawleys Island and bought the lot on the creek. He started building his cabin, designed with a steep roof like he had seen in Holland and a huge fireplace. Once the cabin was livable, Jule began painting the sea in its moments of anger and roughness in blue, green, gray and even tints of tan and brown. He painted radiant sunsets and breathtaking sunrises in all their splendor, some with mist.

Eventually, Jule had to answer the call to travel again. He planned to earn enough money to live on for quite a while. He locked his cabin and headed for Boston where he found his way to a little art colony known as Rocky Neck on Cape Ann in East Gloucester, Mass. There he painted seascapes and clipper ships and met a girl, Phyllis Hardwick, who understood his need for solitude and shared his thoughts on art.

After a few months in Boston, Jule decided to come back to Pawleys Island to open his cabin. He seemed more settled and sure of what he intended to do. His mother thought he looked sickly and insisted on coming along to nurse him back to health. With some persuasion the two of them rented the old Doar cottage by the ocean. It was set in a grove of myrtle trees and had a long boardwalk to the ocean. It was a place of peace and contentment. It was not long before Phyllis Hardwick joined them. Jule’s mother liked her very much and wanted them to marry, but they both knew better.

Jule gave in to his wanderlust and sold his little cabin near Pawleys Island for a song. He had decided to go to India, the last country he wanted to see. His sister remembered Mom Ellen telling her not to worry about her brother. “His work will belong to God and you will see, child, you will see,” she said.

Jule returned from India with a new determination. He found the Old Gunn Church at Plantersville a fascinating subject and painted it 67 times. His last commission of the church was for Helen Sasser Marlowe of Conway if she would help set up a restoration fund. He never finished it. Owens fell off a boat and drowned at the Georgetown jetties in 1973. He is buried near his parents at Rose Hill Baptist Church, where he had painted a baptismal mural at the request of his mother.

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