The Butterfly Art of William H. Howe
William Hugh Howe (June 18, 1928 - August 18, 2009). When Bill Howe was 6 years old, his father, an entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture, used to take him along on field trips to help the elder Howe collect specimens. "I caught beetles, crickets and other insects," said Howe. "But butterflies and moths were what I focused on." Thus began his lifelong love of lepidoptera, a word of Greek origin meaning "scaly wing" referring to the thousands of tiny scales which cover the insects' wings and give each species their distinctive wing pattern.
Howe's fascination with butterflies and moths quickly turned into a passion as he began to capture them with a net- and colored pencils and paper. Five years later, while living in California, his elementary school teacher glimpsed Howe's sketchbook in class, borrowed it, and showed the detailed sketches to the principal. Convinced that a prodigy's time was being wasted, the school principal suggested to his parents that he should take a year off from public school to attend an art institute. Howe was enrolled in the West Coast Institute of Art at Berkeley for a year before his father moved the family to Ottawa, KS in 1942. Howe's fascination with collecting and drawing butterflies followed him to the Midwest and the family's new home.
Upon graduating from Ottawa High School, Howe's father, a man not to be trifled with, told him he had two choices: go to work or enroll in college. "I worked for two weeks before enrolling in Ottawa University," said Howe. Graduating with a degree in biology in 1951, Howe then pursued his art interests at the Kansas City Art Institute. While attending KCAI, Howe met George Krug, owner of True Color Publishing Company in Kansas City. Krug was entranced with Howe's work and persuaded him to do the artwork-and then the text- for a book Our Butterflies and Moths, published in 1963. A few years later, Doubleday Publishing Company saw the book and hired Howe to illustrate and edit a book for them entitled The Butterflies of North America, published in 1975. Today, many lepidopterists still consider the Doubleday book to be the premier illustrated work on the subject of butterflies of this continent. Other works illustrated by Howe include the butterfly section of Reader's Digest North American Wildlife and Mariposas de Mexico by entomologist Dr. Carlos Rommel Beutelspacher Baigts.
While publishers were impressed with his work, Howe's instructors at KCAI were becoming annoyed that he refused to paint anything but butterflies, insisting that he take his art in a different direction. "I don't like someone telling me what to paint," said Howe. "my philosophy in art is- if you enjoy it, do it." And so he did, parting ways with KCAI and pursuing his life's love. For more than half a century, Howe has been doing what makes him happy: documenting the natural beauty of butterflies for future generations. "My entire life has been tied up in butterflies," Howe said, as he talked about the hoard of butterflies descending upon a Kansas sunflower field in one of his paintings. "Years and years of butterflies...."
His lifelong devotion to lepidoptera, a consuming interest shared by the likes of writer and poet Vladimir Nabokov, is evident in his acrylic paintings. His rich, vibrant colors embarrass Kodachrome. The painstaking attention to detail would impress M. C. Escher. When looking at his childhood pencil and ink sketchbook, one would swear that it is the work of a professional artist- and not the eleven year-old kid who actually produced it. In fact, it is the work of a professional. Howe has made a living all of his life by selling his art. In 76 years, proceeds from Howe's paintings have helped send him to Guatemala, Honduras and more than 80 (that's 8-0!) times to Mexico to depict butterflies in ink and paint. Howe's artwork hangs in the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History and dozens more museums, public libraries and institutions across Canada, the U. S. and Mexico. One of his paintings, Canadian Sunset, even hangs in the home of a thief (or by now, possibly, an unwitting buyer) who stole the piece from a show at a Topeka bank in 1999. If you see the work, please contact the Topeka Police Department at (785) 368-9551. Howe's work also hangs in the state capitol buildings of Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia.
Several of Howe's paintings- he produces about 25 per year- were featured , along with his childhood sketchbook, books and prints, at a one-man show sponsored by the Ottawa Community Arts Council in Ottawa's Carnegie Cultural Center. In addition, Howe's work has been featured at shows in Topeka and Lawrence, KS along with the work of moth artist, Dr. John Cody. Some of Howe's early works in colored pencil and watercolor are now in the permanent collection of the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. Howe's work has also been featured in shows in Texas, at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and at the Heard Natural Science Museum in McKinney.
Much of the text of this article was written by Darren Osburn, appearing first in the Fall 2001 issue of Ottawa Spirit, the alumni magazine of Ottawa University.
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