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Art Scene – Lonnie Powell

Let’s start with the Congressional Record proclamation in the House of Representatives in the state of Missouri on March 26th of 2015, recommended by the Honorable Emanuel Cleaver. Lonnie Powell’s accomplishments and contributions were and are so vast that a seven-paragraph entry was required to list the basics regarding this talented and dedicated artist and citizen. To wit, here is the ending paragraph penned by Mr. Cleaver, “Mr. Speaker, please join me and our colleagues in expressing our appreciation to Mr. Lonnie Powell for his endless commitment to our artistic community. He is not only a role model for our artists, but he serves as an example of how we can all live our lives. Mr. Speaker, his art moves us and his contributions have enlightened our community.”

If I Had Only a Pencil, graphite, 42_x56
Summer Acrylic2 on canvas, 4’x5′

How Lonnie Powell arrived at this juncture is the interesting part. Graduating from Central High School in Kansas City, Lonnie then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in art education from Lincoln University in Jefferson City. (His higher education happened despite his father’s insistence that a trade must be learned in order to earn a living.) “When I saw images of Blacks painted by others, we were often portrayed as cotton pickers or servants without the dignity of my father or my grandmother, so I decided to do that. During my early college years (around 1962) I found Charles White and I said, ‘That’s what I’ve been waiting to see.’ After that I became the only art student at Lincoln University with a Tuesday and Thursday-only limitation on using the painting room after classes. The head of the art department very nicely told me that I was using too much of the department’s supplies. I understood.”

After teaching for more than a decade in the sixties and seventies, Lonnie left the academic environs to check out the corporate world. His foray into sales turned out to be quite rewarding, including being inducted into the Presidents’ Club of Xerox. Not a shabby way to make a living, but it was missing the most important piece of life for Lonnie – art. 

He missed creating art, and he missed his students. By then, art was a driving force for him. Throughout his youth, he was challenged to find a Black artist, much less a Black painter among the books in the libraries. He decided to become that person. Lonnie returned to where he belonged, which turned out to be a variety of schools in the Kansas City, Missouri School District – never straying far from his home. He had grown up in Our Town, experimented with all manner of artistic media, and was ready to launch his own career as an artist. Having been imbued with the sounds of jazz and the sights of Negro Leagues Baseball, Lonnie wielded pencils, oil paints, watercolors, pastels, and acrylics as his tools to create his craft. 

After retiring from teaching in 2000, his career as an artist blossomed and brought with it a community activist in the making. Founding the organization, The Light in the Other Room, in 2001, Lonnie set in motion the potent combination of artist, observer, organizer, and activist. The Light in the Other Room is a collaborative of local African American artists working with organizations, schools, agencies, and universities to, “Create compelling and provocative artwork that will encourage the community to take personal responsibility in addressing handgun violence.” Lonnie is also a charter board member and a past board president of The Black Archives of Mid-America and a co-founder of The Euphrates Gallery. He is also a past president of the Friends of Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. Lonnie was named one of the “Ones to Watch” by Watercolor Magic Magazine in the December 2006 issue. In December of 2007, he traveled with members of Change the Truth to Kajjansi, Uganda, to give a series of art workshops for children of St. Mary Kevin Orphanage.

His accolades are plentiful and meaningful, his art has been accepted into numerous juried exhibitions and competitions, and his work is represented in dozens of important  collections including, H & R Block Corporation, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Andrews/McMeel Universal, Sports Association Management, Truman Medical Centers/University Health, Kansas City Chiefs Arrowhead Art Collection, and permanent collections at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, American Jazz Museum, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, and Mulvane Art Museum. But, all of this recognition does not describe Lonnie’s philosophy – only the artist’s words can do that: “I realize that my art is an experiment in a genre that most artists have forsaken for more ethereal pursuits and I have no problem with that. I do not believe that artists like Bearden, Vermeer, Charles White, and Rivera said all that needed to be said. My art is the only part of me left uncompromised and it is my intention to keep it so. For this reason I have never made art my source of income. My art should never be referred to as work — like a saxophonist, I don’t work, I play. If my art ever becomes work it too will be compromised and I am sure I’ll not last long after that. My art is not a business or something done solely for competition, nor is it a hobby or a pastime — it’s much more than that. My art is something that I am compelled to do. It is my very life, it is my way of life — my religion.”

Take in the colors, the contours, the shades and shadows, the complexities of people, the expressions of living a life – all of that is from Lonnie Powell’s being. From Looking Him Back reflecting his memories of Monarch’s baseball games of yore, to Bluerooming, which speaks volumes about jazz and Kansas City (and resides in the Arrowhead Art Collection), Lonnie is true to himself and his roots. The magic of music and baseball and everyday life come alive to us through his tender and talented representations of things we might take for granted. We can never take a genius such as Lonnie for granted though, because, as he stated, “… it is compelling.”

Also featured in the September 18, 2021 issue of The Independent
By Anne Potter Russ

Anne Potter Russ

Anne is thrilled to be working with The Independent again, and even happier to be with some great people. Having served as editor from 2005 to 2009, it is a pleasure to be able to connect with the readers of this timeless magazine. Anne and her husband, Norbert, live in south Leawood, and have two grown kids, Diana and Nick, as well as two rambunctious dogs.

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