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Interview with Claude Howell, #145 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Claude Howell, #145
In this lecture from the Gwen Ward videotape collection, artist Claude Howell (1915 - 1997) discusses his craft and aesthetics with an audience assembled at St. John's Museum of Art in Wilmington.
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Interviewee:  Howell, Claude Interviewer:  Lecture Series Date of Interview:  n.d. Series:  Arts Length  60 minutes


[Please note: the audio quality of the source has degraded over the years, resulting in gaps in the following transcript.]

Tiffany Lee: Good Morning and welcome to St. John's Museum of Art. I'm Tiffany Lee, Curator of education. Our program this morning is a lecture in our North Carolina Series. And it's my great pleasure to introduce Claude today. Claude was born right here in Wilmington. And educated at the School of Art in Rockport, Massachusetts. And the School of Painting, Kure. He also studied in New York, Europe and the Far East. Claude founded the Department of Art at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He has served on the Advisory Council and the North Carolina Arts Council. And as a member of the North Carolina Committee on Art in Public Places. He served on the board at St. John's Museum. He has had exhibitions of his work here at St. John's and at North Carolina Museum of Art as well, and the Contemporary Gallery in Washington DC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Hynze Museum in Atlanta among others. He received numerous honors in the board, including Domar's Award, the North Carolina award in fine arts in 1985. This is a very special morning for us as Claude will be discussing his own work starting a remarkable career. Please welcome Claude Howell.


Claude Howell: I'm delighted to be back. They haven't asked me to lecture all this year. I was beginning to think something's wrong. Can all of you hear? It doesn't matter whether you see me or not because we're going to be looking primarily going to be looking at designs. I'm not going to talk about big philosophical issues this morning. I'm simply going to try to tell you what it means to me to be an artist. I don't ever remember when I wasn't interested in art. My mother used to give me crayons so I could draw on the on the church bulletin to keep me quiet in church. I guess that was good to begin. When the Chance came to Wilmington, naturally I signed up to be a student of hers. Later on, this was ________________ you couldn't go to school of science. The only art department was the Art Department at the University of North Carolina. A friend of mine was the first graduate, and that wasn't until the late 1930s. So I never went to an art school or college, but I did-- excuse me, I won a scholarship. Which enabled me to draw what I loved to draw, which was the coast of North Carolina, the central lines, and then went to New York to make paintings. Well, this turned into nearly two years there. And I still had enough money left to go off to there to go to college for two weeks, and came home two years later. Well, this was my education, going to museums, seeing the great buildings. Meeting the great artists in New York and in Paris. Then I decided I had to come home, because I couldn't vote in Paris. And I felt strongly that you should be a citizen. So I came back home and I painted two back to North Carolina, because I knew this was where my roots were. I had never been interested in the new movements. I'd always tried to just find my own work. There's one thing about being an artist, we don't just sit down and have an inspiration. It's a lot of hard work. You have to work every day, at least eight hours a day. You have to have some direction. You have to have a point of view. Now there are several ways that you can work. I can make the choice of which way suited me. You can paint what you see. This, in a sense, is topographic painting. You can begin to analyze it just slightly, just study light hitting an object. This is probably the most naturalistic way of painting. This is impressionism. This didn't appeal to me. Being a topographic artist did not appeal to me. I never wanted to reproduce simply what was in front of me. You can paint what you feel like. I remember being particularly emotional in my approach to art. The only thing that I'm emotional about is being intellectual. I discovered, traveling through Europe, that everything that I liked had flat shapes, was an analysis of the objects, or whatever it was that was being painted. The early stained glass windows. Later on, the same thing was true in Egypt. The Egyptians wall painting. The early Greek sculptures, not the Golden Age. Romanesque sculpture, not Gothic, which got to be very flamboyant and very nervous. What you find, what appeals to you, is beginning to have a direction. And then you do everything in your power to work in that direction and forget everything else. Well, you have to start somewhere. We might as well start looking at some signs. I'm not going to talk too much. I hope the paintings will do the talking. When I say ______________________ this was painted when I was 17 years old. It now belongs to St. John's. It is simply going out, sitting down and looking at something, and trying as best you know how, to reproduce it. It's not an analysis. A lot of the artists that I know of here today never get beyond this stage. I felt that this was not creative. This in a sense is copying. It's copying what is already there. You have not made a statement. I was not content to stop here. So I began to work. It took a long time. It took about, oh, I would say 20 years, before I even began to get on the right track. I did this from many, many drawings of low and Atlantic North Carolina. It is not a reproduction of what I saw. I never saw this. I saw all the people, I saw the fish, I saw the buildings. But over a period of several years. So you begin to compose. When you begin to compose, you begin to be concerned with composition, with where a color is, or where a shape is. It was during this time that I began to be interested in volume. At first, I used a lot of light and shadow, as you'll see in this painting. Bit by bit, I had illuminated this shape. And now I used a dull shape and a light shape to give volume. During the war years, oh around 1941, you couldn't go out and sketch any more. I was always interested as a spy. The sheriff said, "Claude, why don't you stay home, you're a big nuscience." I began painting people in their homes, and I began painting still lifes. Now I did that for a number of years. You know, Picasso did the same thing during the Second World War. Picasso went into one of his great areas of still life. The war was over and I was able to get out. I began to discover what I had always focused, which is the coast of North Carolina, and the fishermen, what they do, and the space and light of the coast. This is down in __________ the old town of_________ and a fisherman. You'll notice here, the shapes are beginning to be angular and a little bit more flat, although the man himself is still very three-dimensional. Another one of the coast loading fish. The play of angles. Already I'm beginning to be concerned with an intellectual analysis of what's there. You get more a sense of reality than just a reproduction of what was there. You have to forgive the guilty side. When I went to Paris, naturally, I was exposed to wonderful things I had_______ they were everywhere. I began to try and paint those into paintings. This has, I hope, some of the same glow of the stained glass window. This is what I was working for. But at the same time, when I did paint an entire scene, I still painted eastern North Carolina, this was a washwoman back here. And I saw a wonderful fresco in the church, on the ceiling, the church of _____________ of the Last Supper. And I thought, that's the most beautiful composition. I used that composition, but changed it to a church supper. The one thing that I did, that I always felt confident about, and tried to solve that particular problem. I wanted to see if I could put a perpendicular line through the painting, without having to come to that. You have to have each side work as a unit. Do you see the eye in the space? And this is during early social protest time. There is a chicken wire fence, but there are holes in the fence. They're beginning to get out of it. The have it ________________. These around here were done in Paris. When I came back home, and I was bored again, by the light and eastern North Carolina. These are done next. They're just a laying on a white board. When your business days CP&L plant across the river I went over and made a new drawing, I feel that they should continue to draw everyday as long as they live. I think that an artist has to know and understand what he is painting. So I've already drawn greatly and all these paintings that you see are a composite of really dozens of drawings, sometimes done as many as ten years apart. A still life. I was working toward here, it was during this period that abstract and impression were so prevalent. That did not appeal to me, but I kept feeling I needed thicker paint and more texture. I used a palette knife and would build it on. I _____________________. ______________________ and I went to Chance's apartment and borrowed a lot of. Then I began doing the other. I fell in love with all the shapes and spaces and light and overtones. This was a ______________ and a wonderful little __________. The colors are not naturalistic, but I think they're realistic. Often I paint the sky a high, sickening yellow. The reason for that is from the same concept. I'm trying to capture the feeling of a place in its use of color. By next_______ all these paintings were drawn during the '50s. These paintings lost now _____________. It was commissioned by his sister, Jessie, who named it. So I had, it's called In A Yellow Sun. That's much more poetic than I ever would have that. I was crazy about the way you get this worn-on and shape in nets and ocean waves, and just like everything along the coast. I used it over and over and over. What I was hoping, in painting all of these, is that they would work as a complete abstraction, as well as new subject matter superimposed on them. I never really painted a non-objective painting. I painted the problem. It was much more interesting if you paint the abstraction and added work, but then in addition, subject matter. And really, you're what's to influence where you wanted to be. It depends whether you get the sound. And next examples, so often down there I was swaying in the breeze reminds you of dacing witches. I kind of get that feeling. This is the calm grocery store by Picasso. That is a village where-- I was trying to get all the little divisions that color sound. And a pier. You'll notice there is no more honesty than that. That was the problem I was trying to solve there. You get this top distance to look like it was sky, and in the foreground, get it to look like it's water. And Venetian banana [ph?]. In 1958 I went to Italy and believe I was overwhelmed by the abstract shapes in the Greek villages, and also along the canals in Venice. A still life of arms. And a brief town with so much like a Cubist painting. And another one, always with the____________. And Mikonos, which is a blue and white town. Nothing at the square end of the spectrum. Just why I don't see a point. When I came back, it was the end of the summer, so what happened really, were gatherers. I went down there every day, and made points of several. Then I decided to try to capture some of the movement of the sails. There's another one. The problem here was to keep those three from separating into three different paintings. This is like an eastern monastery in Yugoslavia, especially when you hold it still painting. It's from the very early brunches in Yugoslavia. Beautiful paintings on the inside. To me, it was just like a jewel and I find it wonderful reds and blues and pinks that seem to be everywhere. And St. Mark's square. And all of those-- this is an oil painting, and all of the spots you see, dashes are probably free falls on the painted drawing. To me, they represented all the people, all the patron, all the little that you'd find in a town. The square is the subject, not the marks. Another of the Rogattle [ph?] series. And then, as always, I'll come back to the beach and the fishermen. These are the fishermen, waiting for the ______________ morning. I'd wait and then I'd be able to do eleven hour paintings of the same in October. At the end, of the board with the clouds just blowing. So often at the beach, the sky is one color than the land. And this slide has faded, unfortunately, but there are two things that I discovered, walking down on the beach. You look down at your feet, you're looking for, looking for shells. Suddenly, you look in the distance, and it goes on forever. I finally get that in this painting. So the bottom half, you're looking straight down. The top half, you're looking away. I did it by bending the perspective. I got my handle at college. And this is a view of Roman times, a little obscure but I know exactly where I was going. Another view of Rome. This in all. The tall buildings with the separate windows is all eastern architecture. More angry men. I think I the reason this appealed to me is that the shapes are so beautiful. If you turn this upside down, the only thing you've lost are the design of composition, color or shapes they're all still there. And another thing, I've always tried to do is design a painting so that if you take one section of it, it really becomes a non-objective painting. But you put it all together, and you get something in addition. This is the space of an old winter day in the marketplace. And this one, they don't do this so much now, but they used to have this enormous round black of lines mixed. This is kind of old to see and this is the Crystal Pier. Now you've got a problem when you yearn for something. You don't want to destroy your picture frame. Your picture frame is flat, and you are to keep it. When you're drawing something you put perspective on this. The difficulty is to keep all distance as close to you as the ______________. It's got to work on two levels. I did it by making the end of the pier a little bit darker. This is a work that is not, was not complete. There was a woman in the audience who really shed blood, sweat, and tears on this. Catherine Handerson. She came everyday to tell me, "It's large. It's the mosaic, mural, which is down in museum over on________." As the Spanish attack on battleship, ___________ the Italian tescoline and it was over a year because we were __________. This is a painting in the studio, Ocrakoke. Do you see how the worn-out shape continues there, you see, almost perfectly in the wall? And ______________. I want to break up _______________ and I put those simple. And strangely enough, they are a definite value and they've disappeared. And Heads began to get smaller because they're not intellectuals. They use their hands more than their heads. In 1965, I was paralyzed for over a year with painful to write my name. I had to learn to hold a paintbrush. And in doing so, I tried to learn how to paint a sharp, hard edge, straight line and I became so enamored of it, that I painted this small picture, which is the first one that I painted and from then on, I stuck to this way. It completely changed my art direction. There's no more attempt at texture or ______________. You'll notice something else. Black begins to disappear in these paintings. This is Howard's fish market, which is on the wall there. And a window in big cottage, and I always would say, the boat just went by. Also, this is when in Chapel Hill, and he put it over a table, and always had a pot of geraniums in front of the window. I probably have. You see the differences in the blues, the glass is in the window. Mermaid Theater. Color is used more and more psychologically this is Ocrakoke. Ocrakoke with flashing and Ocrakoke had been hardly still, but occasionally you would get these wonderful ocean breezes. Now I would get to trees. And this part of the Crystal Pier. And ______________. And the sunbathers lying on the beach. This is primarily hot colors. When you see a beach like this, you aren't aware of any beaches, or rectangles, or squares. Near the new town are both______________. And this is big _________ before went under it, used to be such a mess and I used it. Here I was introducing Lecel [ph?] not because of what it says, but in so many of the paintings, the French impressionists and so forth, they couldn't work, it always seemed to work. But every now and again, I'd think that wasn't in America. It was distracting. So I got to included but used it as design. This is John Lovage, and here, I was at the reflected light with color. Underneath the Crystal Pier in the late summer, all the country people going on a picnic. And they used to rent bathing suits. The woman in green in the distance, is my mother, and she did not like this at all. I'm trying to show a little bit of breeze in the ______________. The naturalism back in church, putting on ______________. This is the _______________, straight lines and the vision of a shape. I'll take a shape, draw a line across, by that shape, by that shape. Finally, you have the subject. This is the view from my window. I always been interested in windows, because you can see them, my window at Ocrakoke, beaches from my mom's seeing all the shells. The reason I did that was because of the yellow lemon. I needed that yellow. And this is-- you'll not guess what it is. It's a door to the upstairs, and a store. I actually followed the cook and copied them through this. And highways __________, they're everywhere, so why not paint it. This is a rectangle. If I had gone straight home, and you'd have a lot of squares some, everywhere. Everything in there is a square. The them in the back, press of squares. Could we turn that, I think this is the best painting? Could've back them.

(background dialog)

Claude Howell: I would do this ordinary one but I think this is the best painting I got. There are a few paintings that you look at and you say, "I wouldn't change anything." Most of the time when you come back to them, you say, "I wonder why I did that." This is one that I think is right. As far as I'm concerned, I don't think I could do anything better. It drove me crazy, the lattice. The lattice is pure alcove, when you see the original. And I alcove a lot of times in the painting. You also get the same color motion in the stripes on the tiles. These are large, I've done two very large crypt pieces. This is John Marshall's pier, just people on Sundays. It took me all of summer to get all the people to put together. There are three separate kinds. You can make the panel in the water and put it on the left. You can put the panel on the left in the middle of the right. And I did it by having that rectangular_______ nothing you see is rectangle. So it would fit and anybody ____________. Well, you also have an added problem to that. Your problem has got to work in any possible combination. That one painting took me about six months. And this is the other one, which is also is a three-part___. These are all the women on Sundays, sitting on the, gossiping outside church. I know who they are though I never told anybody. Now I'm terribly interested in the porches, and this alcove is terribly simplized. Here is a, is a rectangle ____________. In the summers, when I'd go to Ocrakoke, I always took warm-color and I would paint over 30 or 40 watercolors. These are highly different from the others, but it was relaxation. It was fun. I've added three.______________________. Just sand and the sky. Another of porches people had gotten listening. And then they come to some well, I know. There's a change here in the approach. The shadows are done as abstract shapes. They can take the back of the dock and it's just at those shapes. It becomes all a non objective session. The lighthouse at Cape Lookout. And this painting from _______________ I'm doing a print of this now. This was painted in the old. This is one of those hot, satisfying days. And every about this painting is lethargic. This is done at Calabash, the man standing out on the hill, doing nothing. And big mending nets at Ocarakoke. Loading nets at Ocrakoke. I try to be truthful to the feeling of this part of the world, but I also tried to good color and good composition and good drawing. I know how to draw. I can draw a picture exactly like you see. I've never been interested in that. I'm interested in using the arts and figure, but in large and certain areas, diminishing others so that the figure says what I want it to say. A thunderstorm. These are all oil, by the way. Notice __________________ painted an acrylic in my life. And a very high piece. Strangely enough, a lot of these paintings are based on what I think of as the great tradition in art. Any one of them gave the last tour and she made so many of the younger artists feel what they could dismiss everything and start fresh. That they had the answer and she says, "They don't seem to realize that we have left the greatest artist of the past world." The people who had something to say, and they all had built on what went before them. And who do these young people think they are, that they can start from nothing and get to be as good? You start at the top. You start at the result of history, and you had your own little bit. This is why I am trying to, I'm trying to destroy the past. I tried to ignore it. I tried to use it. This is ______________. I recognize you use colors that seems to be completely different. And I've put up this yesterday and I thought those colors sure don't look like me at all. I do think it's an interesting combination of a plain solid yellow and greens. And the holy family. I'll start here. This one, by the way, I read by ___________ before I painted this picture. It is biblically correct. Joseph is not in the________. He's looking away and he's not connected with the Virgin mother. I was crazy about the way the thunderstorm would sweep across the banks just like ___________. I gave it this whole feeling with all___________ maybe even 50 maybe 20. There is not a sign of man in any of it. This is one of the few places where nature has won. I was so intrigued with that, that I thought, I will just paint nothing. It's very hard to paint nothing. And I think I did. Didn't I? Alright, that is the result of 60 years. I've had a lot more but that's the color, the main prints, the main ideas that I tried to pursue. Of course, you never get to where you want to go. This is the fascination of painting. It's the hardest thing that I ever had to do, and secondly, the most fascinating. I'm hoping that a lot of people who paint will begin to realize that there's a lot more to art than simply sitting down and painting what you're looking at. You begin to change. You begin to investigate space and light and color, and color relationships. They can be so intricate, they can be so solid, and they can also be so meaningful. I don't know how good these paintings are. They have satisfied me, some of them have, a lot of them I would like to change. What I'm always interested in is not this body of work, but the painting which is at present just a plain white canvas. This is what you're going to do next. And this is the excitement. You can't go back, you can't stay the same. You've got to move on experimenting. There's something else that an artist would never do. If you are a businessman, you wear ties. An artist can never wear a tie, not until he's finally ready. And so I guess I'm stuck with it. I hope this is helpful a little bit to understand what I have been trying to do. Thank you.


Tiffany Lee: Are there any questions or comments?

Q1: [inaudible]

Claude Howell: Pollution drives me crazy. And I pick up with pollution because it ruins the color of, you can't see them anymore. So I don't know what's going to happen in future generations. Maybe we will live in a colorless world and have colorless paint. It's not just here by the way. It's all over the place too.

Q2: [inaudible]

Claude Howell: No. I decided you can use two bland colors, and you can get them to work is put a black line between them. And I decided it was cheating. So I eliminated black lines and black shapes. The lines went first. Then the shapes went. Now, as I look at these, they look a little washed out to me, so I may have to go back and enhanced the color. But that's why I did it, because it seemed very exciting looking at paintings. Forget the hand lines. If you take away the black lines, they don't work.

Q3: You mentioned cubism just once, and it seemed to me that there was a cubistic kind of approach in those paintings that were kind of in the center of a whole plantation. How much did cubism influence you?

Claude Howell: Oh, tremendously.

Q3: And what part of it did you relate to?

Claude Howell: Cubism is intellectual and extremely realist, because the cubists were trying to paint the reality of an object, rather than the way it looked. They were trying to paint a book from this side to that side, from top to bottom, and sometimes they would take colors out of everything and you couldn't tell what it was. But they were trying to get the actuality of realism of the object. That influenced me. That influenced me terribly. And you must realize that I'm so old, that when I stopped it cubism has a lot of ____________. Times have changed.

Q4: Would you tell me again about the influence of the paralysis in 1965, how that changed your art work?

Claude Howell: Well, before, I used to go kind of this way. I couldn't do that. And besides, I just wanted to see if I could draw a straight line, without a rule. So I would sit there and I would paint ______________. Well, then I looked at it, and decided I liked it. So that's why I changed.

Q5: Just a comment.

Claude Howell: She's the one way over there.

Q5: [inaudible] While we were working, the archaeologist asked us to go to some reservation.

Claude Howell: [inaudible]

Q5: And then I thinking we were tourists and I picked up a little [inaudible] and decided that would be a wonderful insight into the sea. ______________ I've learnt two critical things, _________________________________.

Claude Howell: You know art is like anything else, you've got to know what you. You've got to know your materials, you got to study. You've got to have knowledge, and it don't come easy. You don't just sit down and just dash out. It takes a long time. There are people- Picasso's one- painting some things, in a hurry. Some of them look like it. Some of them come off, but it's very accidental when you paint so rapidly like that, that something works.

Q6: You were here a few years ago. You were in Europe, on that trip. Do you get influenced on art?

Claude Howell: No.

Q6: You didn't?

Claude Howell: [inaudible]


Tiffany Lee: Thank you very much.


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