“Well, I usually start with a line or a color. . . . I just let the painting speak and one line, one color, another, another, another line. I actually kind of, when it becomes really very beautiful, I decide that I have to kind of destroy it a little bit. I have to take a leap of faith. I take a leap of faith. . . . I don’t want it to be too pretty.”
Millie Howell, Abstract Expressionist painter
I’ve never walked into a house quite like that of Millie and Boots Howell in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with its mosaic floors, a living vine spanning the kitchen ceiling, and a sophisticated but informal mix of color and pattern that somehow does not make the paintings and shelves of ceramics (including two plates decorated by Walter Anderson and several other Shearwater pots) seem out of place.
(The interior reminded me of artist Miriam Weems’ old house on Euclid Street in Jackson. Like Howell, Miriam Weems loved color and people, so there was always a comfortable place to sit and visit.) Speaking of Millie Howell’s relationship to color, she received the Best Use of Color award during Mississippi Art Colony a few years ago. At Mississippi Art Colony, she has won the most number of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, of any other Colony member.
Born January 13, 1927, in Meridian, Howell attended workshops at Allison’s Wells from artists including Hugh Williams, Alvin Sella, and Ida Kohlmeyer. She said that the direction she received from them was the encouragement she needed to continue painting, especially in the early stages of her career. She remembers three specific pieces of advice from Ida Kohlmeyer:
- Less is more.
- When there’s one more thing to do to a painting, don’t.
- Don’t be commercial and slick.
“Taking the waters” did not interest Millie Howell when she went to Allison’s Wells, which was a resort with natural springs. She went only to make art. She remembers meeting Eudora Welty and Hosford Fontaine, who owned the resort with her husband, John Fontaine, Jr. Chuckling, Howell recalls being there with Marie Hull:
I painted alongside with Marie at the Allison’s Wells. . . . She was a very good artist. . . . In fact, I think she has a painting of lilies, spider lilies. Actually, I had done a painting of lilies before that. Bess Dawson, who was a wonderful artist, she said, ‘Millie, Marie has copied your lilies!’ It’s so funny!
To read the titles for the above artworks by Millie Howell, click on an image.
In addition to the instructors through the years at Mississippi Art Colony, Howell was inspired by the work of Joan Mitchell. She also clearly recalled the impact of seeing Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and drawings in person at the Art Institute of Chicago in early 1950. She said that after seeing the work of Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg when she and Boots went to New York in the 1950s, “It was just such a wonderful time that I really got hooked on that.”
Above are stained glass windows designed and crafted by Harriet Deweese (1901-?) on the left and by Millie Howell on the right. The windows are in St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church, which was constructed by Boots Howell in 1964. Millie Howell had never created anything in stained glass prior to making this window.
I had read in Art in Mississippi by Patti Carr Black about the “Philadelphia group” of Harriet Deweese, Millie Howell, and Lallah Perry (1926-2008). “All three embraced experimental ideas,” Black writes.* When I asked Howell about the group, she talked of Deweese and Perry as accomplished artists and as friends.
Millie Howell won Best in Show with her painting, From Paris to Arles, in the Meridian Museum of Art’s Bi-State Art Competition in 2012.** When her son-in-law was a pilot for American Airlines, she and Boots had stand-by tickets and flew first class to France at least once. “I was influenced by the South of France,” she said.
She no longer goes to Mississippi Art Colony as both she and Boots have had to give up driving, but she is still painting in her loft studio at her house. She turned 89 today. Happy Birthday, Millie Howell.
*Black, Patti Carr, Art in Mississippi: 1720-1980. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 246-247.
**Myers, Debbie Burt, “Howell’s ‘From Paris to Arles’ captures top bi-state art award,” The Neshoba Democrat on the Web, December 11, 2012, http://neshobademocrat.com/Content/NEWS/News/Article/Howell-s-From-Paris-to-Arles-captures-top-bi-state-art-award/2/297/27735#sthash.jcpmyF6x.dpuf.
All artworks are copyright (c) Millie Howell.