As featured in Springhouse Magazine
One of the little-known artists of Southern Illinois, whose paintings may be found in many homes, churches, and even public buildings, was Orval Madison Fowler – O. Fowler – of rural Marion, Illinois. Who he was, where he lived, and the legacy he left behind might be obscure to many, but not to those who knew and admired his work. His descendants are scattered over the United States, with many living in Southern Illinois.
Fowler never became rich because of a fear: losing his World War I veteran’s pension and his small social security check if he earned too much. Actually, all he wanted was praise and recognition.
Most people who commissioned Fowler to do paintings are gone and perhaps that is the mystery surrounding a scene he did of a Herod, Illinois cave and cliff building. The painting was featured in a Southern Illinois magazine – THE SPRINGHOUSE – in 1984, and prompted a request for this article of explanation.
The artist loved Southern Illinois areas and the outstanding scenery he beheld during many trips over the ribbons of highway that connect southeastern Illinois to the rest of the nation. He often talked of “going to Cat Skin country – Carrier Mills, Illinois – to visit relatives if he could bum a ride there.” He never owned a car.
His mother, Elizabeth Davis Fowler, who died in the late Fifties, was from there. His father, James Monroe Fowler was an offspring of the settlers of “Fowler District” near Pittsburg,Illinois where the artist was born.
Fowler boasted of having an inborn desire to paint, often telling the story of how his parents placed him on the floor near a pencil and some money. Young Orval promptly crawled to the pencil.
He claimed that his first painting, an owl sitting on a limb with a drive below, was laughed at by relatives. Rather than being discouraged, he studied it for improvement and claimed never to have been laughed at again.
During the earlier years of his painting career, beginning at age 18, he worked mostly in watercolors and pencil. Later, he learned of the ease of painting with oils, teaching himself to that end by trial and error.
With no formal training, Fowler worked out things for himself, and just before he died, he was still “learning.” He had only an eighth grade education, and couldn’t attend an Indiana art school he desired because of his father’s death.
The aspiring artist was little more than a teenager but was left with a mother and sister to support. As a young man, Fowler painted as much as he pleased, but in later years he had to admit to taking more orders than he could fill. He did hundreds of paintings, including wall murals.
Many of these may be still be found in Illinois and include, but are not limited to, other distant areas: Florida, Washington, D.C., Texas, Michigan, California, and Wisconsin. He had repeat customers, such as a Sister at St. Antony’s Hospital in Chicago, who ordered fourteen of his paintings.
By far, the best of his blue-ribbon portraits is of an auburn-haired woman, his son’s one time mother-in-law. The eyes of the painting are disconcerting, eerily following one anywhere in the room from where the painting is situated.
This painting hangs in his grandson’s home, Brian Fowler, of Harrisburg, Illinois who is also the grandson of the portrait lady.
Though he was mostly commissioned to do religious art work, he would also do family pets, loved ones, and special scenes. A foreign scene painted from a photograph taken in a country a client visited hung for years in the Marion, Illinois senior citizen center. Since he often worked from photographs, it is perhaps in this way that he produced the painting of the cave and cliff in Herod, Illinois.
He was not above doing copies for anyone who wanted them: he painted for the sheer joy of it. In his later years Fowler’s painting supplemented his meager income of a World War I veteran’s pension – of less than a hundred dollars per month – his social security income and what little his wife could make at miscellaneous odd jobs.
However, as mentioned earlier, he would not charge outrageous fees for the paintings, fearing it would deprive him of his other incomes.
His family of five children were never richly clothed or fed, but they survived through good times and bad, apparently happy with their lot in life. Fowler also supplemented the family income playing a “fiddle” at dances. He had no use for “high-toned violinists, and their violins.”
Fowler was not a handsome man by most people’s reckoning, with his rather large nose, close-set eyes, and a shock of unruly white hair, He managed to lure four women to the alter by the time he was thirty-two.
Three of these share the same cemetery with Fowler.
A son, a grandson, and a granddaughter – all deceased – inherited Fowler’s talent, but did not work at the art as he did. The granddaughter, Julie Fowler Orange, has paintings scattered over Southern Illinois. She died in a mysterious fire at age thirty-two, which cut off her legacy.
A miner until the mid-forties, O. Fowler retired early from the work force and devoted most of his time to the fiddling at dances, painting and reminiscing about his younger days.
He was conservative, using masonite – he called it – for most of his paintings, not only to save money: he found the substitute for canvas easier to work with.
It was rare to visit his home and not find one or two outlines of of paintings taking on the essence of yet another attractive work. He was not a modest man, and would not hesitate to extol the ability he believed himself to possess. In later years, sales fell off due to a loss of eyesight from cataracts, but this did not lessen his opinion of his paintings though he could not see the thick globs of paint and the harshness of color he was using.
His fourth and youngest wife – his eyes – had died several years before. Although the buyers took the paintings, disappointment was often evident on their faces.
Active and on his feet until the day he sort of stumbled and fell, he asked a son to take him to the hospital. Fowler could squat on his heels with the best of them at age eighty-plus until the the last day prior to hospitalization.
He died peacefully in 1969 in the Marion, Illinois Veterans Hospital. Just before death took him, his faded eyes suddenly cleared and he described every detail of color in his hospital room, probably thinking how he would fit it to canvas.