To explore the spare bedrooms that have become Ric Owens' unlikely studio and gallery is both exhausting and invigorating.
Rare is the confined space that documents a man's evolution in real time. Every turn reveals how art is speaking to - shouting at, really - someone who never even doodled before being hit by an 18-wheeler and suffering a concussion that rewired his brain.
On the bench of a repurposed Bowflex machine sit stacks of geometric ink drawings. These inaugural sketches led to subtle watercolors that, in turn, inspired an acrylic, three-dimensional explosion.
The former food-service manager shows me a cafeteria heat lamp he now uses to "cure" paint into leathery "skins" he then affixes to glass or molds into roses.
The self-described Accidental Artist now finds potential canvases in the trash - ceiling tiles, pallets, packing materials. Above a sculpture he calls a "modern Pet Rock" hangs a painting dusted in cyan and magenta, the telltale shades of printer cartridges.
"I never know what's going to come out," Owens answers when I ask if he had a distinct vision for each of the 100-plus pieces in this confounding collection. "I just let it happen."
Ric Owens before Feb. 9, 2011: an executive chef working as residential director of food service at Widener University. "I've been cooking since I was old enough to burn my fingers on the stove."
Ric Owens on Feb. 9, 2011: grateful owner of a Nissan Pathfinder who drove away unscathed - he thought - after being hit by a big rig on the Blue Route.
Owens a week later: dizzy, slurring his speech, with migraines and a strange metallic taste in his mouth. Unable to work, he holed up in the Cape Cod in Andorra he shares with his partner, Harry Richards, and four dogs and a cat.
Doctors diagnosed postconcussive syndrome. They say Owens suffered a brain injury in the crash even though he felt fine at the time. "One of the misconceptions about head trauma," he learned, "is that you need to black out."
Richards, a mental-health social worker, fretted as the love of his life dropped 60 pounds and struggled with short-term memory loss. Then, one morning, Owens woke up, blinked, and uttered a declaration of sorts.
"The world," he said, "looks different."
The junk-food lover suddenly craved mangoes. Easy analytical tasks seemed impossible. To Owens' professional horror, he had no interest in cooking but felt profoundly driven, a first in his 55 years, to make art.
"I see geometry now, I see the planes, the angles," he explains. "I never understood architecture before. Now, I stop and draw it."
Richards stands in awe of the transformation: "Something happened to his brain that changed him forever."
Brave new world
Frightened and curious, Owens found Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist who studies acquired savant syndrome, in which people experience obsession and dexterity at an activity - math, art, music - they'd never attempted prior to illness or injury.
One of these "accidental geniuses" appeared on the Today show this summer playing piano like a virtuoso. Another was featured on NPR. Treffert tells me he's counted as many as 50 people with "this mind-boggling condition," including Owens, who was encouraged to accept and pursue the gift.
To swap stories with others with altered lives, Owens started a Savant Syndrome Support Group on Facebook. To direct his passion and develop technique, he took a course, Painting Intuitively, at Fleischer Art Memorial, where instructor Karen Baumeister was "floored" by the novice's proclivity and productivity.
"He's completely open," she tells me. "He's improving every hour."
Recently laid off, Owens gingerly put up a website (http://www.richardmichaelsart.com/) to explain, and hopefully sell, his artwork.
"This is who I am now, this is what I do," he shrugs before leaving for class, where an eight-foot canvas awaits the man following his "compulsion" to create.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney
at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @myantkinney on Twitter.