Growing up with a mother who was an artist, David Howell (born 1952), a painter in Philadelphia, Mississippi, recalls sleeping beside a Rousseau-inspired mural in the childhood room he shared with his brother, Mark: “We had bunk beds, and I was bottom bunk and the lion in that painting was right by my head. Always. And the eyes were always. . . you know they were real strong. I loved that, that painting, and I loved that wall.”
He remembers always creating and seeing the abstract paintings that his mother, Millie Howell, and her friends were producing. “So we had a good dose of, you know, what could be possible, not just . . . [put] in a box. . . you can be whatever you want to be.”
Except from learning from his mother, who encouraged her children to draw outside the lines, he didn’t have any formal art training until he went to the Memphis Art Academy. Howell says that one year of art school “drove the creation right out of me.”
Several years later, to pursue a dream of being a comedy writer, he enrolled at Ole Miss and studied English. “I was there for two years, and I took creative writing. Ellen Douglas was my teacher.”
In 1982, he moved to New York City. His brother’s friend, the saxophonist George Cartwright, knew that David Howell was looking for work as a painter and told him, “Okay, I got my boss. He’s going to call you up, and he’s going to ask you if you know how to glaze walls, and you tell him yes.” Despite not knowing what glazing walls meant, he got the job and tells this story about the first day of his career as a faux-finish painter:
So the address was right across the street from Central Park and the Guggenheim Museum. Top floor suite. It was Mort Zuckerman’s apartment. Mort Zuckerman used to [own] U.S. News and World Report at the time. And also at the time he was dating Gloria Steinem so there’s pictures of him and Gloria Steinem all over the apartment.
So I walked in. There’s like 20 people, and the place was a madhouse. Everybody’s doing everything. There’s all these craftsmen doing different things. And, so, I walk in. George is there, and Mark, the boss, and he was having a heated discussion with one of the decorators. But anyway, they kept talking about this word, faux bois. ‘Faux bois, faux bois, faux bois.’ I kept thinking, ‘What the hell is faux bois?’
And I asked George, ‘What’s this word, faux bois? What the hell is that?’
[George] says, ‘Well that’s fake wood.’
[I] said ‘Yeah, so what is that?’
‘So we’re going to paint this wood to look like another kind of wood.’
I said, ‘Wait a minute. It’s already wood.’
‘So we’re going to paint it to make it look like another kind of wood.’
He said ‘Yeah.’
I thought, ‘Man, only in New York City would people pay other people to paint wood to look like another kind of wood.’
And we had these guys from England would come over. And at the time, London had the only school of faux finishes. And they would show us different techniques. And after a while, I’m painting wood to look like another kind of wood. And it was, you know, the best learning experience I ever had. The best crew I’ve ever worked with. . . . everybody was either a writer, a musician or something else, you know.
Howell loved working as a faux finisher, but was ready to return to Mississippi after about five and a half years in New York. In his home state, in addition to faux finishing and painting exteriors and interiors of homes, he was commissioned about a year an a half ago to create a mural for Dick Molpus’ cabin. The result was five panels, each four feet by eight feet, of the history of the four-corners area of Neshoba, Leake, Attala, and Madison counties.
Before the mural commission, though, Millie Howell went behind her son’s back and entered one of his paintings in the Meridian Museum of Art’s Bi–State Art Juried Competition, one of the oldest juried art competitions in the region. It was selected, and she surprised him on his birthday, some years ago on January 11, with the acceptance card. His painting won an award that year, and his work continued to be shown in future competitions. He also shows at the Neshoba County Fair, where he laughs about the chicken wire separates the viewer from the artwork, and at Horne Gallery in Meridian.
He prefers layering colors, textures, and even objects onto canvas. He explains,
I use spray paints. I like the immediacy of a spray paint. I like spraying on top of another color. Combing through it. Wiping it away. Doing another color. Just putting the objects on top of objects. Blocking things out. And I’ve gotten pretty good at controlling the spray from. . . close, far away, whatever. I’ll stand over the canvas and paint that way.
In addition to paintings with humorous titles, like Who Ordered The Chicken, David Howell also paints his cats. “I thought they should deserve just as much attention as a portrait,” he says.
More of David Howell’s work can be seen and ordered as Giclée prints on the website Society6.com/davidhowell.