Renaissance Woman

Article excerpt

The many facets of Nancy Howe's life-mother, animal lover, athlete, creative personality-all contribute to her accomplished paintings

It may not be clear at first how being a mother, training a three-octave singing voice, watching newborn lambs play in the barn, or spending the afternoon with an elderly aunt could contribute to one's development as a painter. But Nancy Howe is convinced that everything she does is integral to the artist she has become.

"I've learned that life is too short and too precious not to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves," she says. It is early spring, and Howe is sitting in the studio of her Vermont farmhouse. "I plan each day by asking myself, what's the most important thing I can do today, for myself or for others?" She believes that how and what she paints is a reflection of all the dimensions of her personality.

And there are many dimensions to Howe's busy life, just as there are many facets of expression in her powerfully refined paintings, whose subjects include landscapes, still lifes, figures, and many animals. She is not a prolific painter, because she gives to each work all the time and attention it requires. The result is sensitive, luminous paintings known for their strong compositions. Howe's works have been included in prestigious shows such as the Artists of America exhibitions at the Colorado History Museum in Denver, the Oil Painters of America national shows, and the International Masters of Fine Art event at Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, TX.

Howe's creativity and commitment are hardly surprising, considering the environment in which she was raised. When her mother was just 16, she was one of five ballet dancers hand-picked by choreographer George Ballanchine for his first American corps. Although she quit ballet in her 20s to raise a family ("We only saw my mother dance when she was vacuuming," Howe remembers), she also attended art school and studied fashion illustration.

Howe's father commuted daily from the family's rural New Jersey home to New York City, where he worked for Esquire magazine. He spent nights and weekends in his dirt-floored basement shop, inventing things like an electronic eye at the entrance to their long driveway to alert them when someone entered. He also came up with one of the first designs for a video camera with sound, but was turned down by Kodak. A couple of years later, the company came out with a similar device.

Her father's love of the outdoors deeply influenced Howe. As she tagged along while he fished, hunted, and hiked, she developed her own enduring affinity for nature. This, combined with an athletic inclination and a drive for achievement, made her a championship skier in high school and a member of the ski team at Vermont's Middlebury College.

Howe's love of nature extends to animals. As a child, she begged her parents in vain to allow her to raise sheep. When she was finally living on her own, she realized that dream. For almost three decades, Howe was out in the barn every spring, helping ewes give birth, nursing sick sheep, or watching the late-night antics of baby lambs. Meanwhile, she was raising two active sons, which she says has also influenced her strongly as an artist.

Howe finally gave away the sheep to allow more time for painting, but insists that she can never be entirely without farm animals. She replaced the sheep with two shaggy, long-horned Scottish Highland cows that she refers to as "pasture mowers."

The same patience and determination that drove Howe to learn about animal husbandry served her well when she decided to focus on art. In 1976, a friend suggested that she enter the Federal Duck Stamp Competition. She didn't win, but the process piqued her interest in painting birds and other aspects of nature.

For each of the next 14 years, Howe submitted paintings to the duck and turkey stamp contests, all the while refining her painting skills. …