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Townsend Howe: Workingman's Art


My interview with artist Townsend Howe was one of my most treasured experiences. Two reasons: First, because he had a fascinating life of struggle to establish himself as an artist; and second, because he was in very poor health when I spoke with him. Indeed, he died about six weeks after our meeting. He was suffering from a severe lung disease, and had very little energy. He knew his time was short, and he gave me the tremendous gift of his time. I will never forget this very talented, very humble man. This passage recounts his beginnings as a painter.  


His affection for painting was sparked by an eighth-grade teacher. "She was enthralled with something I did," he says, and quickly takes himself down a peg: "I was never a real student; this came naturally, so I didn't have to read a book or something." 


He continued to paint and study through high school, and won multiple prizes in art competitions. He got his first artistic paycheck -- $75 -- when a national magazine published one of his paintings. 


After high school, Howe was given a scholarship to study at the Art Students' League, a well-known art school in New York City. But the experience discouraged him; by one account, he said he discovered "what I didn't know" and "how good the other guy was." 


He left school and joined the Navy. He kept on painting, but seemingly abandoned the idea of a career in art. He spent four years in the service, mainly on the U.S.S. Missouri. The battleship journeyed around the world; during the Korean War, it bombarded targets on the mainland. "Good place to be, if you had to be in that war," he quips. "Nobody shot back." 


Howe spent his working hours in the bowels of the ship, in a place known as "Shaft Alley." If the engine room is one of the least glamorous places on a ship, Shaft Alley is a step down. It's behind the engine room, where the huge driveshaft runs from the engine to the propeller. It must have been a noisy, hot, dirty, unpleasant place, but Howe isn't interested in recounting its rigors. He says only, "It got pretty boring after a while, so I painted lots of pictures down there." Indeed, throughout his time on the Missouri, Howe created watercolors and drawings of shipboard life.  
After leaving the military, Howe returned to Rahway [New Jersey, his hometown]. His first solo exhibit was a showing of his Navy art at the Rahway Library.  

Read the rest of his story in my book, including his years as a commercial illustrator and an instructor at a mail-order art school, and the breakthrough that launched his artistic career when he was 56 years old. 

Contact me by e-mail at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com