Across the Gulf

John H. Powell

Son photographs father by wild mint, summer of 1984

IF HE WERE STILL ALIVE, today would have been my father’s 89th birthday. Among other things, he and my mother were prolific painters (it was how they spent most evenings together for years, with the Red Sox game on in the background). My mother went to art school, but my father was not formally trained, yet he began drawing and painting as a young man and pursued it with great passion in his later years.

But I’ll admit, I have not always admired my father’s paintings. They are technically proficient, but at times his emotional restraint is almost palpable. I wanted to see more of his emotional side growing up, and had he allowed his feelings to show in his paintings, it would have made and left a deeper impression of him then, and now.

Yet my own experience of painting has recently brought to light a previously hidden connection between my father and me. Our styles differ and, as often happens, our paths diverged as adults, but our paintings spring from the same source.

I always sensed the artist lurking within my dad, whether it was in the meticulous way he practiced his craft of furniture restoration, or the beautiful lighting and composition of our family photographs. But it was in his choice of subject matter that his personality shows through in his painting, rather than his brush strokes.

Untitled, John Howland Powell, watercolor, 20x14 (1971)

Untitled, John Howland Powell, watercolor, 20×14 (1971)

Still, his subjects do say something about the man. He often painted the Maine coast, for example, and he particularly liked seagulls and lighthouses. (His best, I think, is of North Light on Block Island, Rhode Island, presented to me at our last Christmas together in 1984.)

He liked old buildings and moody skies. Two paintings come to mind: a watercolor of an abandoned-looking house and shed on a rural road covered in puddles beneath gray clouds, and a pastel drawn before I was born, of a barn surrounded by blue snow, black trees, and a cloudy, slate sky. Both hang on my walls.

Most of his subjects, though, came from nature, and therein lies our connection: so do most of mine.

It should come as no surprise. After all, we both grew up in the same rural farmhouse in central Massachusetts, roamed the same fields and forests as boys. Yet perhaps because my father’s paintings are more literal, and mine abstract, I have failed to appreciate this similarity until now, when it hits me with the force of revelation.

Both of our paintings reveal a fascination with the odd, the quirky, the out-of-the-way found in nature, including unusual weather. If he were still here, we could talk about it — just as my mother and I look forward to sharing our experiences at our first-ever, long overdue watercolor session next month.

Though my father and I cannot have such a conversation, it is comforting to have his paintings, and to see a little of both of us in them.

Happy birthday, Dad.

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4 comments

  1. You look like him. Both parents artists! That would be a DUH–what SHOULD you do with time (left). A very moving piece, thanks.

  2. What a lovely recollection and discovery for yourself, but also for me. After our friendship of almost 30 years, it comes as no surprise that your childhood was so rich in the creative spirit. It was a wonderful morning reading experience. Deeply felt and shared with your friends. I am glad that you have these memories to sustain yourself and to nurture your own areas of self discovery. Thank you for this gift. Michael

  3. This was a real path for me to think about my own father–I am connected to him through his books and photographs. Thanks–

    Geri B

  4. We both, it seems, had waited too long . . . I never really knew my father, though we lived side by side for more than a quarter century. I have no expression of how he felt spiritually, such as your father’s paintings, and only memories of his very pronounced political leanings.

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