Busser Howell

Artist Q&A with Busser Howell

Busser Howell is an abstract expressionist painter and sculptor who lives and works in New York City. His painting has undergone a steady and restless evolution, from the exploration of geometrical shapes as a vocabulary for generating harmony and luminosity, to a series of tar paper and mastic aerial-view collages evoking the landscape of night bombing at the beginning of the Iraq war, to a period of more densely-textured works that were both more formal in the rectilinear division of the canvas. Originally from Ohio, Howell attended the Dayton Art Institute, Wright State University, and Boston University School of Fine art.

“Untitled (201025)”, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 in | 122 x 183 cm, 2020

Who is your favorite artist of all time?

I do not have one favorite artist. The first time I saw the Impressionists, Post Impressionists, and Fauves in Paris, I was blown away with their beauty, the colors, and use of paint. I love Egyptian wall paintings, sculpture, and design, Minoan art, Byzantine wall paintings, murals in Pompeii, Roman mosaic floors, Etruscan sarcophagi, 14th century Italian painting, Dutch painters of the 16th century, Chinese ancestral portraits, Primitive American portraits by itinerate artists, folk art, and children’s paintings. I like Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Kline, Rothko, Klee, and Pollock. Obviously, I have forgotten many, but these all stand out in my mind.

How did you become a professional artist?

I believe the short answer to becoming a professional artist is that I was born that way. There was never a time in my life that I did not know that my being was meant to create. Fortunately, I had a supportive family that gave me the opportunity to study painting with an American impressionist at the age of 13, and I attended the Dayton Art Institute during summer sessions while in high school. One semester I had the good fortune to study painting under New York artist Jay Milder, and would attend Boston University, School of Fine Arts. I moved to California and exhibited work in L.A., San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, and have been painting and exhibiting ever since.

What are the influences and inspirations in your work?

I am from Ohio where I grew up on a farm and have always been captivated by the geometry and patchwork of cultivated fields, the stark contrast of the tree rows, Federal style farmhouses, barns, and silos. This interest led me to appreciate antique furniture, implements and architecture that has changed through the ages. Although I have lived in major cities and abroad, that the crops may be sunflowers, grapes or corn I have an affinity to agriculture and architecture regardless of the location.

Busser Howell, photo by Michael Chapman.

How is your work different from everything else out there?

I do not think my work is different than everything else out there. I believe that all artists share in a universal source of creativity, and therefore often come to similar solutions at similar times. My work is the culmination of my experiences in life, often guided by what I read, or some new experience, and are influenced by the material that I choose to use in creating my work. As a once sighted person that is now blind, I do use meditation to open myself to work. I rely greatly upon new things I read or hear and listen to directions that come from within and from what the works I am making dictate.

When is a piece finished for you?

Often people ask me how I know that a piece of work is finished. This has not always been the case, but as a blind artist, who depends on meditation and listening to the quiet within, I know that a piece is finished when the “energy” stops. I won’t say that I am always capable of hearing this silence. My consciousness may step in and I miss the cue, but invariably I will “feel” when something is overdone or needs changing. There are often times that a work never comes together.

“Untitled (200927)”, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 83 in | 183 x 211 cm, 2020

What’s different about your current body of work?

Though painted just before the dawn of the pandemic, my new series of paintings could be taken as images of the reawakening of the earth and its non-human species after the lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic stopped industry, air travel, and other engines of pollution. A literally new vision became possible. These works show what I consider to be the actual form of reality:  energy–an idea shared by both Eastern thought and contemporary physics and even the newer field of quantum biology.  The title of this series, Evolution, evokes the micro and the macro–the individual and the species–just as the images evoke the quantum, the molecular, and the galactic.  To a certain extent, these paintings are the product of a mystical practice, the imagining of views of the earth from a great distance. In each, an upper level plays over a lower level as layers of water might in a stream, one slower moving, with one population of life forms, the other faster, with others. The series itself contains numerous evolutions–in the gradual muting and deepening of the colors, the interaction between the surface elements and the underlying pattern of streams or lines, the shrinking and reconfiguration of the surface shapes, and the increase in a vibrancy and harmonics among the elements.  

Evolution is my second aerial series of views imagined from above the earth. The first was a response to broadcasts during the Iraq War of the massive night bombing campaigns launched by the United States. The Iraq series, in stark contrast to Evolution, was about darkness and consisted of collages made of ripped black tar paper, the material itself manufactured from the product that triggered the war–oil, itself the blackest black, the absence of all light. The result was a compounding of the darkness of violence by the darkness of night by the darkness of ignorance. 

In Evolution, though, the vantage point is far above the surface of the earth, and the subject is light and color and movement. The evocation of the minute and the vast together is more compelling in an age when an object invisible to the naked eye and technically not even alive has killed half a million people and disrupted life as we know it worldwide. Yet it too is nature and may share forms and colors with these images.

At this point in history, the very question of evolution raises the question of its direction: evolution away from or towards? And towards what? The pause occasioned by the pandemic provides a clear indication of what direction the world was heading and seems to offer regardless of the duration of this crisis a choice of enlightenment, or a return to blindness.

“Untitled (210101)”, acrylic on canvas, 65 x 72 in | 165 x 183 cm, 2021

Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?

Probably the first experience that changed my life was the first time I used oil paint at age 13. From the beginning of squeezing paint out of a tube, I felt a deep excitement, a true sense of joy that would continue even when I unscrewed a jar of acrylic paint and saw the pure color. I would like to say that I have experienced “ah ha” moments while exhibiting my work, but as I look back at my life, I would say that seeing Paris for the first time deeply affected me. As did seeing the mountains and deserts of the West. The sun and deep shadows in Florida, the light in Southern France, Pompeii, Tuscany, Greece, museums around the world, Ellsworth Kelly’s, and Warhol’s work at the Walker Art Center, so forth and so on.

What’s coming up for you?

At my present age, my hope is to just keep painting and doing sculpture. I continually try to live my life today, and not to rehash the past or worry about the future.

“The Band”, wire on steel base, with plexiglass inserts and LED lights, 7 x 8 x 6 ft | 2.1 x 2.4 x 1.8 m, 2020

 What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?

My advice to a young person who wants to pursue an art career, would be to go to school in New York City. The contacts one would make during this time in your life would be priceless. Secondly, include an in-depth study of art and design of the past. This should be accompanied by traveling to see the actual work and styles of art as they have developed and changed throughout the ages. Thirdly, I would recommend a healthy lifestyle that would include both physical exercise, meditation, and work on developing a spiritual way of life.

“Untitled (210115)”, acrylic on canvas, 65 x 72 in | 165 x 183 cm, 2021

To learn more about Busser and his work, please visit www.BusserHowell.com.