Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Kansas Murals" book available from the University Press of Kansas

The University Press of Kansas has a new website where it's easy to purchase copies of "Kansas Murals: A Traveler's Guide," the 2006 book I collaborated on with Lora Jost.

"As much a book on Kansas land and history as about its mural art, this is a portrait of a place and its people. From beloved clichs to unexpected innovations, Jost and Loewenstein's selections take us from a wild-eyed John Brown to the ornate box turtle capital of the world, from silos to post offices, covered wagons to rocket ships, graffiti to architectural heaven. Read this even if Kansas is not on your itinerary.” 
—Lucy R. Lippard, author of Lure of the Local

“Makes me want to jump in the car right now and go look at those marvelous murals!”
—Marci Penner, author of The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers

“An essential book for every traveler in the Kansas art-scape.”
—Charles C. Eldredge, author of Tales from the Easel

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Wings of Desire - The Art of William H. Howe

(This essay was originally published in on February 24, 2006. Since links to many of my old blog essays are broken, I am republishing them here.)

In 1941 as the U.S. entered into World War II, 13-year-old William Howe was busily filling sketchbooks with remarkable renderings of butterflies, as a student at the West Coast Institute of Arts and Crafts in Berkley, California. Later that year, William's father Edwin hastily moved the family away from the coast, in order to protect them from potential bombing by the Japanese. After a brief stay in Lawrence, the family settled in Ottawa, Kansas, which - as fate would have it - was directly in the path of the annual monarch migration. 

One of Howe's teenage journals.

William's infatuation with butterflies began at an early age. As he told it, the defining event of his childhood occurred when his father, who was an entomologist working for the USDA, brought home a cage full of caterpillars and left them on the dining room table. Over the following days, William watched spellbound as the striped caterpillars metamorphosed, first forming chrysalides and then emerging as elegant black swallowtails. From this experience grew a lifetime passion for the gossamer-winged insects. Howe said, "My fascination with butterflies has been welded into a lifelong avocation that has commanded both my spirit and my labors. But it isn't a scientific interest. The scientific problems I leave up to the experts. Sitting under a microscope in an office doesn't appeal to me. It is the emotional experience of catching a butterfly and the reward of being able to use my paints to capture it on paper or canvas. I do this for one reason - it's fun. And most jobs are not fun, I have found." 

In 2006 at age 77, Howe was still painting everyday in his small apartment in Ottawa. All of his paintings were made from observing actual butterflies (he never painted from photos), many of which he collected on his eighty-three trips to Mexico. Today, he is considered one of the country's most admired butterfly artists. His paintings are in the collections of museums around the world including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. His authoritative book "Butterflies of North America" (out of print), illustrated with 2,033 watercolors, is hailed by many entomologists as the greatest volume ever published on butterflies of this continent.

Howe at work on "Butterflies of North America."

I first saw William Howe's paintings in 1991 at the old Plum Tree restaurant on Iowa Street. They may have clashed a little with the Chinese decor, but Howe always favored restaurants, offices, and other retail businesses that he frequented to show his work. The advantages of these venues over galleries were that they had a captive and frequently changing audience, and usually no commission on sales. 

I continued to spot Howe's curious and original paintings over the years, like "Butterflies Greeting Columbus" below, and always wondered what the artist who created them was like. Then in 2004, we met. It was in Ottawa, at the house that he'd lived in since 1941, where I interviewed him about his mural depicting monarchs migrating through Chase County that he was restoring in the old Ottawa Middle School cafeteria. That first meeting led to others where, over slices of blackberry pie and coffee at his favorite restaurant, we discussed organizing a show of his paintings in Lawrence.

That exhibition, Wings of Desire - The Art of William H. Howe, opened in March of 2006 at the Olive Gallery. At the opening, Howe gave a short talk about his work and signed copies of his first book "Our Butterflies and Moths" published in 1964. The twenty plus paintings in the show represented the wide range of approaches Howe had taken to his life-long subject. 

Part of the Olive Gallery installation.
There were trompe l'oeil portraits of butterflies hovering slightly above the canvas. There were carefully composed families of butterflies, rendered like Audubon, in their natural settings. There were the paintings, Howe often called 'surreals' or 'abstracts,' where his mutable subjects become vehicles for storytelling and abstract design. And exhibited for the first time, were Howe's figurative and narrative paintings which explored his personal life and political concerns.

All of these paintings reflected William Howe's devotion to craft and reverence for nature. But his paintings are about much more than studied technique and patient observation - they are deeply felt personal statements, that illuminate the fragile and quiet life of both butterflies and the man who rendered them with such affection.

William H. Howe died on August 18, 2009 in Ottawa, KS. He was 81. For more on Howe's work, go to his website here, and this 2004 article in the Pitch by Gina Kaufmann.