EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is third in our September series highlighting the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and several notable faculty and alumni.
John Miller Howard was born in 1908 to a young single mother who nurtured his early talent for drawing. He grew up in Mississippi, attending segregated schools, and graduated from Alcorn College in 1934. Although the college had no art department, Howard developed his natural talent by painting murals and signs, designing floats, and drawing for the school newspaper.
Howard’s first professional job was as principal of the black school in Toomsuba, Mississippi. In 1936, he began working at T. J. Harris High School in Meridian, Mississippi. There, he was given a scholarship for summer study at Atlanta University.
In Atlanta, Howard studied under the well-known muralist and painter Hale Woodruff, himself a student of Diego Rivera. Woodruff, who would become a lifelong friend and advisor, recognized Howard’s talent and invited him back to Atlanta in 1937 to study with a scholarship and a job teaching at the Laboratory High School. Howard thrived there. He developed his painting and teaching skills and became part of a network of talented young artists mentored by Woodruff. Howard also assisted in creating Woodruff’s historic mural, The Amistad.
In 1939, AM&N president John Brown Watson recruited Howard to launch an art department at the school, and Howard moved to Pine Bluff. There he created an influential art department by recruiting highly talented artists and art educators such as Henry Linton and Terrance Corbin. At AM&N, he worked to provide a top-quality arts education to his students, many of whom came from rural backgrounds and lacked exposure to art. The men Howard recruited influenced future artists, educators, and activists for African American arts, notably Dr. Jeff Donaldson, Kevin Cole, and Mitchell Caton.
Howard also fought for a fine arts building that opened in 1969 and, at his insistence, was named after Isaac Hathaway, a legendary former arts faculty member from the college. Howard convinced the Arkansas Higher Education Commission to fully fund the $1.4 million Fine Arts Center, which was at that time the costliest structure in AM&N history. Today, this center for the arts is named the Hathaway/Howard Fine Arts Center in honor of both men.
Throughout his tenure as an educator at UAPB, Howard’s career as an exhibiting painter continued. In 1946, he was awarded first place in the Arkansas Artists Exhibition for his painting The Old Lady with a Letter and a Picasso. Controversy ensued over the prize being awarded to an African American, and a second first-place prize was created to quiet the protest. Howard also won the John Hope Award in the National Negro Artists Exhibition in 1950 for his work Arkansas Landscape. Throughout his life, he continued exhibiting in state and national art shows.
John Miller Howard, Still Life with Fruit, 1967, Oil on Masonite, Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas Permanent Collection
Among numerous honors and appointments, Howard served on the Arkansas Advisory Council on Secondary Education and on the Arkansas Arts, Culture and Humanities Council. He was listed in the 1970–71 edition of Outstanding Educators of America and was chosen as one of sixteen Distinguished Artists in Arkansas in 1974. In 1978, he was listed in Who’s Who in American Art.
Despite having a stroke in 1971, Howard returned to AM&N in 1974, where he continued to work until his death on October 10, 1980.
A retrospective of Howard’s work was presented in 1981 at the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas. The exhibition traveled to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in 1982. Most of Howard’s work is on permanent loan to UAPB.
Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Arts & Sciences Center for Southeast Arkansas
Photographs courtesy of the University Museum and Cultural Center, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff