The Miraculous Draft of Fishes

BY Susan Taylor Block

Wilmington artist Claude Howell (1915-1997) was fascinated with fishermen and some of his most popular works feature men who made a living by harvesting the sea.

With paint pencil and mosaic tiles Howell chronicled them over a span of five decades. During the summer of 1951 alone he made “hundreds of sketches” of Wrightsville Beach fishermen and seiners.

But it’s less widely known that Howell had a solid background in Bible study and that he had at least one “mountaintop” religious experience in his youth. Both aspects of the artist’s life came together in 1952 when he created “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes ” the stunning mural that hangs in Little Chapel on the Boardwalk which depicts scenes from John 21 when Jesus showed Himself to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias following His resurrection.

Howell was born in the Carolina Apartments building at 420 Market Street. Except for a short time in which he and his parents resided at 2309 Oleander Drive he was born lived and died in the same place. But like many fortunate Wilmington residents he spent a good portion of the summertime at Wrightsville Beach.

His artistic talent was clearly evident when Howell was little more than a boy. Scenes of Wrightsville Beach were always favorite studies for him. By the time he was 20 it was customary to see him toting paint and canvas on the beach car. Howell would ride the trolley from Front and Princess streets to whatever streetcar station he chose for his day of work. He stood out in his signature beach outfit: white shoes white slacks over a famously short bathing suit a striped shirt and an old felt hat.

Economic woes stemming from the Depression and his father’s sudden death made it impossible for Howell to attend college at the usual age. However he eventually acquired a fine education on his own. In addition to his boyhood classes with legendary art teacher Elisabeth Chant he won several fellowships and traveled the world studying art and artists. Until the last years of his life he read voraciously and made his own deep study of music theater and cinema. Though Wake Forest University (1975) and UNCW (1983) both bestowed honorary doctorates upon him he never achieved an earned degree. Despite that this “doing it my way” scholar served as chairman of the Art Department of Wilmington College later UNCW for many years.

But just prior to becoming a college instructor Howell was invited to create a work of art for Little Chapel on the Boardwalk’s new church building at 3 West Oxford Street. The original structure was built in 1907 as a joint mission of St. James (Episcopal) Church and First Presbyterian Church. Located on South Lumina Avenue it sat just across the street from the present-day site of St. Therese Catholic Church. Perfectly named by businessman Thomas H. Wright it was tiny and sat near the beach car tracks.

After the Episcopal Diocese established St. Andrew’s on-the-Sound Little Chapel on the Boardwalk gradually became solely Presbyterian. As the beach population grew so did the number of Calvinists. By the late 1940s the chapel seemed much too little. The Wilmington Presbytery asked Dr. B. Franklin Hall minister at Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Wilmington to scout out a building site and follow the project through.

It was a new hat atop the head of a classical scholar. Dr. Hall who eventually chaired the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Wilmington College is remembered by thousands of former students as the erudite professor who recited lengthy poems and long passages of Scripture with ease. His voice used to ring throughout the first floor of UNCW’s Kenan Hall a college address he shared with Claude Howell.

Hall a third-generation summer beach resident knew the territory well. “Frank wanted the cheapest lot he could find for the chapel and he wanted it to be in the center of town not at the south end ” said the minister’s wife the late Adelaide Hall recalling a time when Shell Island was not considered part of “the beach.” Eventually he settled on a lot situated on North Lumina Avenue between Fayetteville and Oxford streets. The Halls maintained a cottage on the ocean end of Oxford Street.

Because church members and regular summer visitors were eager to spring from their tight quarters building funds were easy to come by. But those with conventional taste were in for a shock. Though B. Frank Hall was raised in a conservative Presbyterian family his architectural leanings for Little Chapel on the Boardwalk were anything but. Leaning toward a modern design he chose an innovative young architect named Charles H. Boney. Boney a recent graduate of N. C. State’s prestigious School of Design was part of a family firm known as Leslie N. Boney Architects.

“Charlie ” as friends know him has a deep background in church history and an easy way with a drawing pencil. The resulting building dedicated in 1951 was an award-winning structure that would be the first contemporary church design in eastern North Carolina. Smooth lines natural light a clever accentuation of interior height and a stylized spire set the building apart.

The venerated periodical Progressive Architect Magazine praised Boney’s design. At home Hall and many others were delighted with the fresh look. But like anything wholly new and full of originality the design had its critics. Hall’s own father John Hall criticized the church saying it looked like an “automobile service station.” Boney himself remembers “getting some telephone calls” from Presbyterian protestors. But thankfully the architect continued to design with a novel touch: The Cooperative Bank building 201 Market Street and Alderman Elementary School on Independence Boulevard are two of his many local landmarks. Over time his work has been celebrated in other national publications and has won awards from many organizations including the American Institute of Architects

But for conservative members of the congregation more consternation was on the way. For while they were adjusting to their new building on the eastern edge of New Hanover County artist Claude Howell was on the western side creating a cutting-edge mural for Little Chapel.

Both Hall and Boney had encouraged the project. All three were Wilmington natives and Wrightsville Beach devotees who had celebrated each others’ talents for years. And Boney made it a habit to blend art with buildings the Roy Gussow eagle sculpture outside Cooperative Bank being a good example.

Hall explained to Howell that funds were scarce and therefore he would like for him to paint a small picture. Howell replied with characteristic directness and economy of word: “No.” Though the artist stuck to his own instincts concerning the size of the work he did go the second mile to respect the church’s financial challenges. He refused any form of payment.

Meanwhile those who criticized modern design gave Boney a different perspective on the mural’s installation. “At first there was an idea that Claude would paint the mural in plaster on the rear wall of the sanctuary ” said Boney. “But since the building’s contemporary design had some opposition I didn’t want someone to come in one day and just do away with the mural.”

So Boney suggested the artist paint the mural on canvas so it could be hung on the wall. Then if necessary to satisfy critics it could simply be removed and salvaged. “I knew we could put angles underneath it and screw the mural to the angles to mount it ” said Boney in 2006. Today the mural hangs high in the chapel narthex but originally it sat at eye level. At either level making the mural portable also comes in handy when hurricanes approach.

Howell began his preliminary sketches months before he started painting. “I practically know by heart now how a fisherman dresses and looks and moves ” he wrote. By Feb. 7 1952 he had a Bible text and a visual concept for his work. “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes” would relate the story found in John 21 in which the resurrected Jesus appeared to some of His disciples while they were fishing. Though they had seined all night their nets were empty. From the shore Jesus instructed them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. When they did they caught an overwhelming number of fish. After returning to shore they cooked some for their breakfast and dined with the risen Lord in their midst.

From February to July 1952 Howell devoted nearly every minute of his free time to the mural. He designed it as a triptych keeping the great Italian frescoes particularly those of Giotto in mind as he worked. He decided the painting on the left would depict the apostles catching the fish; the painting on the right would show the apostles bringing in the nets; and the large painting in the center would show Jesus and the disciples sitting “at table ” eating fish from the catch.

Fellow artist Margaret T. Hall B. Frank Hall’s cousin offered helpful constructive criticism of Howell’s preliminary sketches. But Hall who would later become director of St. John’s Art Gallery also tried to talk Howell out of painting a red early-morning sky saying it would “jump from the walls.”

“I see no reason why one should use pastel colors ” Howell said. “I intend to keep the sky red and still keep it flat on the wall.”

Howell drew the seven disciples depicted in the Biblical account as individuals who bore the faces of actual Wrightsville Beach fishermen. By using ordinary folks as models he kept the work even closer to the original story. Howell was then faced with the challenge of keeping drawings true and artistically harmonious throughout the triptych. Additionally he had to create distinctions between live fish dead fish and cooked ones. “This is much more complicated than anything I have undertaken before ” he wrote. “It becomes a fascinating job. I am completely lost in it.”

Howell painted the mural in the basement of First Presbyterian Church just off the gymnasium of the 1928 building in Wilmington. Willie the sexton gave him a key and the artist entered the building after supper most evenings and didn’t emerge again until around 11 p.m. During one 24-hour holiday from his usual stenographer’s job at the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad he worked 14 hours on the mural.

Howell purchased the smooth English linen canvases from a “Mr. Torch” in New York. He stretched the two small sheets of linen at his apartment but the large one required the bigger space at his First Presbyterian “studio.” He recruited friends Gar Faulkner and Jimmy McKoy proprietors of St. John’s Tavern at 118 Orange Street to help stretch the 58-by-98-inch canvas. Cumbersome the fabric had to be stretched twice. “Now it is as taut as a drum ” said Howell.

Friends like Faulkner and McKoy were welcome to visit Howell while he worked — as long as they remained silent. Sometimes they would be drawn into the work quite literally. Though the fishermen’s faces came from both small drawings and full-sized paper mock-ups of the artist’s fisherman friends Howell often called his nocturnal visitors for specific features. “Occasionally I dropped in on him while he was working ” said Charles Boney.

“One night Claude said ‘Charlie will you sit in a chair and let me look at your ear?’”

“So I sat there and posed — and one of the disciples has my ear.”

Gar Faulkner and another of Howell’s close friends Harry McGirt posed for various feet and hands. But the craggy faces remained those of real men of Wrightsville Beach who look like they might be long-descended from Ulster Scots or the English who first settled coastal North Carolina. And though one of Howell’s friends posed for some aspect of the head of Jesus he based Christ’s image on a well-known formal head from Byzantine art so that viewers of the work would feel familiarity with the painting.

But by 10 p.m. the visitors to his basement studio were gone and Howell faced another challenge: old-fashioned fear. Being alone in a large dark Gothic Revival building got to the artist from time to time. “Sometimes on windy nights ” he wrote “I hear things banging floors above me. Once or twice I have heard footsteps when I was sure no one was in the church. It is an isolated place and occasionally the silence unnerves me. I turn out lights to leave. As I go upstairs and down the long hallways I have to force myself not to panic and start running.” For someone who appeared fearless in virtually every situation it was a brave admission.

Howell’s work took him across town many times to study the space and light at the Little Chapel. It also sent him back to private Bible study to learn all he could about the disciples.

Howell had read the Bible through when he was only a teenager and relished the book of Psalms throughout his life. As a boy he attended First Presbyterian Church regularly where he took up the offering kept a scrapbook of youth-group activities and learned to tithe on money he earned from doing chores. A religious retreat at Davidson College seems to have been the zenith of his young church life. In later years he distanced himself from organized religion yet left instructions for his funeral to be held at First Presbyterian Church a favorite sight from the balcony of his apartment. “Always there is the church spire rising up towards the sky ” he wrote in 1936.

But the mural itself dedicated in 1952 and Howell’s response to its harsh critics make it clear that his early religious training left its mark. “I draw myself up and tell them ” he said “that I care little what they think. I did it for God and not for them.”

Among those who applauded the newly installed mural were Charles Laughton famed actor and art collector; Dr. Dallas Herring N. C. educational pioneer; Richmond artist Robert Gwathmey father of Cameron Art Museum architect Charles Gwathmey; Ben Williams curator of the N.C. Museum of Art; and Henry Kamphoefner of N.C. State’s School of Design.

Dr. William Randall Wilmington College president was duly impressed as well. Not long after seeing the mural he invited Howell to become a member of the school’s staff.

The triptych stands today as testimony to Howell’s art industry and faith. And like all good art the more one looks at it the more one sees.

(Quotes from the Claude Howell journals used by permission of the Cameron Art Museum — Deborah Velders director.)