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From Sun Magazine: The Baltimore Love Project had a hitch

Art

Michael Owen has spent a lot of time around love — even as he began to lose his faith in it.

As the artist behind the Baltimore Love Project, Owen has painted the image of hands forming the word "love" on 11 walls scattered throughout the city. In June 2010, when he and his wife, Shelley, separated (their formal divorce is pending), he almost quit the project. How could he keep painting this word when he barely believed in it?

Instead, Owen, 29, threw himself at his work, finishing more murals than ever. He and his business partner, Scott Burkholder, hope to complete the last nine of 20 this year. He also has a new exhibit, "Explore," inspired by his 5-year-old son, Harper, and plans to follow it with a series of street art pieces.

You were going out and painting the word "love" on the side of buildings as you and your wife were splitting up. How did you manage that?

Not very well, at first.

But you didn't stop.

There are a lot of times when I thought about stopping everything. But this project itself was one of the main things that kept me going as an individual. There was my son. That was the biggest thing. I just felt like this project needed to be done. It could have just stayed in a sketchbook, and been something I opened up and showed to people. The initial vision to see it large across the city and to really connect the city in this way, needed to be done.

The idea of what love is for me has changed throughout this project, especially because of my divorce. It's changed in a growing-up kind of way. I see that as a positive.

Were there times when you thought, 'What do I know about love?'

Yeah. There were times I didn't believe in it at all, or think that it was for me. There were times I thought I was a fraud for painting this word while going through a divorce. There were times that I lost friends and funders because I was painting this word 'love' that knew my wife — people that backed out of the project because I was associated with it.

It was right before the ball started moving that it was darkest. Anyone can paint these things. Scott could have found somebody else to take over. But the biggest, most difficult thing to do was push the project forward.

Are you glad you stuck with it?

I'm glad I stuck with it. Not because I want to paint this image anymore, because I don't. As a person, I don't want to stop something until it's done done. This project would have felt like a failure even if I had 11 murals done, because I know that it could have kept going. Bringing myself to that point where I'm looking at the two paths, and knowing that I chose the right road gives me fulfillment. Knowing that I continued the project.

What would you say if other cities wanted to commission you to do "love" murals?

That's going to be a great conversation to have — get a few people around the table after the 20 murals are done and say, 'What's next?' This is not a word that's exclusive to the city. It's not an image that's exclusive to the city. There have been people, even in Highlandtown, with the Hispanic population, who have wondered if we can translate the word into different languages. Those are great ideas — things I'd be open to. My focus is getting the Baltimore Love Project done, and if it becomes the Philadelphia Love Project, I'm open to that.

Because love transcends.

Love transcends. Everyone has an idea what the word means. Everyone has some sort of experience … akin to the word — positive or negative, yesterday or years ago, something they want in the future. For most people, it's a very positive thing. People want to think about love. They want to have it. This project has possibilities because of that. Most people want it in their life. It's a very powerful thing. Kind of a hopeful thing too.

After everything that's happened, are you willing to give love another try?

Absolutely. I'm in a relationship now. I'm giving it another try. I don't see my last relationship as devoid of love. It didn't turn me off. It's something that I want and am looking for, and am open to.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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