HMA recently (in 2015) acquired a treasure-trove of the artistic output of North Carolina native Harold Crowell, and this Matisse-reminiscent untitled work is one of them. Crowell posed with it in March 2016.
Crowell has been creating art since childhood. His vivid use of unexpected color juxtapositions and strong, confident lines has garnered the attention of museums, galleries and collectors across America. In the words of the painter Kate Worm who worked with Crowell at one time, "he really makes colors sing, [it's a] natural ability." Crowell finds inspiration in everyday surroundings, people, birds and religious themes.
The son of a minister and a teacher, Crowell has been developmentally disabled from birth. As a child, he was encouraged to draw in church to stay quiet during services. He went to public schools at first but had some problems with comprehension, and then at 15 he had seizures that prevented his continuing in the regular school system. In 1975 he went to live at what was then the Western Carolina Center in Morganton. This had been designed on a Scandinavian model by its director Dr. Iverson Riddle, and included a unique arts program. “No one thought people with serious mental handicaps could ever have any talent,” he said in 2013. “But what we have found is with a little learning and direction, they are phenomenal artists.” Crowell was one of the residents who was encouraged to paint, and he responded with prolific enthusiasm. His resulting dramatic acrylics were and still are accomplished as well as intriguing. (Pictured in 1987 and recently.)
One of HMA's other Crowell paintings, The Gourd Lady (circa 1995, acrylic on canvas, on left below), is of the life-long Conover resident Margaret Sparkman. She had adopted this persona as her artist identity, in that creativity with gourds was her medium; and that landed her a spot on the Jay Leno show in 2003. She died in 2012 at the age of 95. ( Link to Lengthy HDR obit.)
Sociable and outgoing, Crowell has been displaying his art since 1979, in North Carolina and beyond. He represented North Carolina for the 1985 opening of the Very Special Arts Gallery in Washington DC; and his art was chosen for the first National Exhibition of Art for people with a mental handicap. Also, his works were part of "Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art in North Carolina", an exhibit at HMA from October 1989 to January 1990 after its run at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
The wide recognition of Crowell's creative accomplishments has helped validate the therapeutic value of a good arts program such as that pioneered in Morganton.