Contributed by Travis Souther
Born in Wilmington on March 17, 1915, Claude Flynn Howell was a natural artist from a young age. Reportedly, some of his childhood illustrations of the balcony and proscenium arch in Thalian Hall were used during the restoration of that antebellum building. During his summer breaks, he took trips to Rockport, Maine, and Woodstock, New York, where he studied with prominent painters and artists of the time. He graduated from high school in 1931 and longed to attend art school but was unable to pursue a classical art education due to the Great Depression. Instead, Howell worked for the Wilmington-based Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Despite not being able to attend art school, his job with the ACL was not terribly difficult and allowed him to continue to pursue his passion.
In 1937, one of his paintings was accepted in the North Carolina Association of Professional Artists’ first juried exhibition. One of his paintings titled Winter Landscapes was accepted in the third North Carolina Artists' Annual competition, winning the artist the Purchase Award from International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) along with $200.00. His early successes enabled him to have a place as an exhibitor in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Just a year later, Howell became the first North Carolinian to have his work displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A prolific painter, Howell’s works were characterized by flat, brilliant colors that centered on fisherman, fishing boats, and seascapes. His works also had sharply-defined shapes and edges.
Howell’s influence was not only given to destinations far away but was most especially felt here in his hometown. From 1960 to 1981, he taught at Wilmington College (now UNC-Wilmington). The classes that he taught were the inspiration for the creation of an Art Department, for which he was later the director. A 1995 exhibition of his work at the St. John’s Museum of Art, now known as the Cameron Museum of Art, was the last exhibition of his work before his death. At about the same time, an hour-long documentary about the artist and the places that he depicted was shown on UNC-TV. For his contributions to the world of art, he was colloquially known as the “Dean of North Carolina Painters.” Though he never had a college education, Howell did receive honorary doctorates from both UNC-Wilmington and Wake Forest University.
The 1981 image seen above shows the then 66-year-old artist in his home at Carolina Apartments on 5th Avenue. Behind him are several pieces of his art showing scenes from around Wilmington including the State Port, the New Hanover County Courthouse, and St. James Episcopal Church.
Although Howell traveled around the world visiting some two dozen countries by his reckoning, Wilmington remained his home for his entire life. He remained a significant figure in the local art scene until his death in 1997. Copies of Howell’s journals can be accessed through the Local History Room at the downtown branch of the New Hanover County Public Library. A washboard that came from Howell’s home is part of the collections at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science.