A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, Claude Flynn Howell found a lifetime’s worth of artistic inspiration in the coastal scenery and activity of his hometown and its surrounds. Howell’s highly keyed canvases often feature the shrimpers, fishers, and tourists who populate the nearby piers and beaches. A master of color who reveled in the particular light available at land’s end, Howell refused to “paint anything unless I know all about it.” Such intellectual and emotional familiarity with his subject matter makes Howell’s canvases especially engaging.
Howell’s youthful talent was encouraged through lessons with Wilmington artist Elizabeth Chant. Following high school graduation at the height of the Great Depression in 1931, Howell necessarily took a job with the Atlantic Coastline Railroad as a stenographer, a post he held for over twenty years. However, his free time was filled with painting, and he regularly traveled to the Northeast during his summer vacations, often studying at art colonies such as Rockport, Maine and Woodstock, New York. A Rosenwald Fellowship helped fund travel to New York in 1948. The following year, he joined his friend and fellow artist Robert Gwathmey for a Parisian sojourn. In both these locations—and the European cities he toured—Howell absorbed the local aesthetic and cultural energy. The stained glass windows of European cathedrals had a profound impact on Howell’s work, leading his shapes to grow flatter and colors to become brighter.
Despite his lack of formal education, Howell was invited to establish the art department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 1953. The program thrived under Howell’s direction, which continued until 1981, and he is remembered by his former students as an encouraging mentor. In 1965, a bizarre case of poisoning—presumably from paint toxins—left Howell completely paralyzed. Hospitalized for months, he was unable to resume his creative work for almost two years. During his recovery, he had to relearn to draw and to paint, and he often credited the rigorous physical rehabilitation for the hard edges that increasingly defined his style, especially his more abstract and architectural compositions.
Throughout his career, Howell exhibited widely in both regional and national exhibitions, earning significant critical acclaim. His work was represented at the 1940 World’s Fair in New York and included in the landmark traveling exhibition, Painting in the South, which opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1983; he participated in one-man and group shows at such prestigious venues as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, High Museum of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Howell also executed murals, employing tesserae to complete the abstract mosaic compositions. His work is especially popular in North Carolina museum collections, including the Mint Museum of Art and North Carolina Museum of Art.