In March 1915, Claude Howell was born in the Carolina Apartments on the corner of Fifth and Market streets. An iconic North Carolina artist, Howell travelled all over the world, from New York to Paris and beyond, but he never ceased to marvel at the light gleaming off the Cape Fear River, or the people that lived and worked near its waters.
This weekend the Cameron Art Museum is celebrating the life and legacy of Howell by showcasing his work in a new light, through theatrical performances, music and dance. ClaudeLIVE! will take place from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday, March 21, just four days shy of what would have been Howell’s 100th birthday.
“So many of us knew and loved Claude that we take it for granted that others did, too,” Jayme Bednarczyk, associate director of philanthropy at Cameron Art Museum, says. “The truth is: Not everyone had the opportunity to meet him. By bringing his work to life, we hope to capture the essence of who he really was and introduce him to a new generation.”
The centennial celebration will feature a retrospective of Howell’s paintings, incorporating live and interactive performances. A few of the must-sees include an interpretation of Howell’s painting of the infamous Whittler’s Bench in Southport, as written by Clyde Edgerton; Phil Abbott’s deconstruction of Howell’s work using interactive touchscreens; and an interpretation of Howell’s “Baptism” (1946) through choreography.
In the museum courtyard tent, director and producer Ray Kennedy will showcase “Chez Claude,” cabaret-style performances and music from various periods of Claude’s life. Performers Tam Browning, Michelle Braxton, Jason Aycock, and others will channel Josephine Baker and Bessie Smith by bringing back music from the big-band sounds to jazz, 1970s disco to can-can dancing on the stage. French food, wine and champagne will be served for top-tiered ticket holders.
For visitors to the museum who are unable to attend ClaudeLIVE!, tapings of each performance will be installed as part of an ongoing exhibition through July. “Claude had his hand in so many creative things,” Brednzyk tells. “He was a devoted painter, but perhaps even more so, he was committed to the arts in Wilmington.”
In 1953 Howell helped establish the Wilmington Art Association, organized the very first Azalea Festival Sidewalk Art Show on Cottage Lane and helped found and chaired the art department at what is now the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
“This event is not just a celebration of his life and legacy,” Bednarczyk explains. “It’s a celebration of the art scene in Wilmington as we know it today.”
If you ask Joe Rowand, a North Carolina art dealer and appraiser, as well as personal friend of Howell’s, he’d tell you this: Claude Howell is the most important painter from North Carolina. Ever.
Between the ages of 21 and 38, Howell produced more than 2,100 works, the vast majority of which he completed in his fourth-floor apartment in downtown Wilmington. He didn’t need much convincing to stay on the coast. When he was a teenager, his mother promised to support him as a painter so long as he handed over his paychecks and continued to pursue his passion.
A widower, Howell’s mother sold bricks for a manufacturing company, hauling a heavy canvas sack to construction sites around town. At home, she took care of all domestic affairs so Howell could focus on his work.
“Claude’s mother believed in him, and because of her, he was able to stick with it,” Rowand details. “He knew he had to paint, and he was smart enough to take chances.”
After Howell left school, he began taking lessons from another distinguished Wilmington artist, Elisabeth Chant. She recognized his young talent and encouraged him to pursue fellowships and travel.
In addition to frequent trips to New York and up and down the East Coast through his job as a stenographer with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, when Howell was 34, he travelled to Paris with fellow artist Robert Gwathmey. “What was so interesting about Claude is that when he was in Paris, he didn’t want to go and paint Parisian scenes,” Rowand informs. “They did not seem real to him. Instead, Claude took all of his sketches from Wilmington, and that’s what he painted in Paris.”
Howell’s paintings from Paris would later emerge as some of his most iconic: flat, vibrant scenes of fisherman casting their nets. “Claude said that living in Wilmington was like living in Venice,” Rowand says. “The light reflecting off of the Cape Fear was like the light of the Canalasso.”
It wasn’t just the water that attracted Howell to Wilmington. He loved the people.“Claude wasn’t just a painter; he was a historian,” Bednarczyk reports. “He painted what he saw and what he knew.”
Howell’s work captured local life from the mid-to-late 1900s. A man stooped on his porch (“Dock Street Porch #2, 1973), a fisherman hauling in empty nets (“Loading Nets,” 1986), a young African American boy enjoying a slice of watermelon on a humid summer day (“Boy with Watermelon,” 1949)—Howell allowed the observer an unrestrained view of life in the rural South.
“Claude was never making a judgment,” Bednarcyzk clariefies. “He painted what he saw. His work became a commentary of this boxed in—or oppressed—culture that was so symbolic of that period.”
When Claude Howell passed away in 1997, the Cameron Art Museum learned he left his estate, in the amount of $800,000, to establish an endowment supporting young contemporary artists in the area. Proceeds from the ClaudeLIVE! event will continue to support the museum, which serves more than 55,000 people each year through art and education.
“Claude truly was one of the most important pioneers in art,” Rowand says. “It’s wonderful he stayed in Wilmington, his home town, when he could have gone to New York, where so many other artists were living at the time. He was true to his roots, and because of that, his legacy is ironclad. He will always be one of the famous icons in North Carolina painting.”
For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, folks can go to www.cameronartmuseum.org.
Mutimedia celebration of theatrical performances, music, dance, and paintings
Saturday, March 21, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Cameron Art Museum
3201 S 17th St. •(910) 395-5999
Exhibition: March 22 – July 26