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James Howell, Spotlight 2004

"In the night all cats are gray," says James Howell, quoting Cervantes. Howell should know, having spent the past eight years developing Series Ten, an intricate progression of paintings based on a mathematically calculated movement of shades of gray, from the most delicate almost-whites to the most intense almost-blacks. Each work in the series has its own upward movement from dark to light, and the series as a whole advances from one extreme to the other. 

Howell became enamored of gray after living for several years on a secluded, fog-shrouded island in Washington State, where the land- and seascape were composed mainly of shades of gray. "Getting to gray was a long and gradual process," he recalls. "I remember looking at the sky opposite a sunset and finding that exciting. I like the disappearance of gray. It is mysterious." He notes that a color like red is only one part of the spectrum, but gray involves all the colors balanced with each other. 

This professional interest has carried over into his private life as well. He and his wife Joy live a loft in New York -- all gray -- so elegant that it has been featured in architectural and design articles. The other resident of this gray paradise is a gray cat named Pi, whose intelligence and discrimination (and yes, elegance) are legendary among the Howells' friends.

Howell has strayed far from his original career interests. He began with a degree in English Literature from Stanford. Pursuing this field into graduate school, and envisioning himself in tweed, smoking a pipe and supervising students' reading of Chaucer, he found, to his disappointment, that he was drawn more toward the visual arts. He switched to architecture, earning an advanced degree, and went on to design houses in the Northwest. Painting full-time proved to be a stronger interest, however; and he mined the knowledge he had gained from numerous art courses in architecture school, teaching himself the rest of what he needed to know. 

Howell painted for several years on the quiet Washington island where he learned to love the subtleties of gray. There was a point at which he realized that he wanted his work to be out in the world. A move to Los Angeles followed, and then in 1989 another move, this time to New York. "Everything happened there," he says. "Everything" included exhibiting widely in the United States and Europe, placement of work in major collections, and the birth and unfolding of his ambitious Series Ten.

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