John Powell has been one of my favorite artists for years. He resides in a comfy home with his wife, Wendy, not far from Santa Barbara, California. When not dodging the worst of the state’s fires, he plies his trade. Most of us picture a 9-to-5 job and think, well, boring. But an artist can put in whatever hours he wants, and whenever he wants, after all—he is an artist!
John works in his studio in a wooded area beyond his home. There is a large open space where a Persian carpet covers most of the floor, giving warmth to the California cool mornings and mountainy air. At one end of the carpet is a massive easel, with solid oak uprights and bars that cross them, chest high, so a canvas can be secured—actually, trapped in—so there is no movement while he works his magic.
Scattered around the edge of the large room are pots of every shape and size, with different designs, many of which have been colorful participants in scores of scenes he has painted.
If there is any question about his work ethic, look to the only worn marks on the carpet in front of his easel. You’ll find two ovals where his feet have been placed, day in and day out, pretty much on that 9-to-5 schedule. You work in your office; John works in his.
Through the 1980s, I had been a great admirer of Powell serigraphs, offered in many of the finer galleries. They were the best quality, and with almost all the individual colors of the artist’s palette. But to see a real, in-the-flesh, Powell painting sometime, that would be special, but not likely.
The serigraph I enjoyed most was “Parrot and Rooftops,” with a blue-fronted Amazon green parrot perched on a rod, extending from the left edge of the painting. John was able to make the parrot appear to be off the canvas, in front of the rest of the painting.
It has a red slash on its shoulder and a blue band over its beak and yellow face. It is posed above a luxuriant patio. This is the mark of a Powell painting: colors of every tint and hue emerging as though through the canvas, bobbing flowers, hanging baskets, and floral or geometric designs on heavy, glazed pottery. In the distance are red tile roofs. To me, it portrays just a comfortable feeling, a place you want to be—to step into.
Galleries will have others of his serigraphs on display, all with the key Powell elements. Those without a green parrot may have cockatiels, cockatoos, macaws, and more. Some appear in pairs, some in flight, but there is always movement, giving life to the image.
But where did all of these serigraphs come from? After Powell finishes three successive paintings, his publisher chooses one of them to make a thousand serigraphs. About a third of these go to Japan, where they so appreciate floral designs, another to Europe, and the last third are spread across the United States.
Imagine if each serigraph retails for $650, and there are a thousand. So, what would be the value of the original oil painting? When those thousand are sold out, it just increases.
I had never truly lost my poor-boy psychological outlook from childhood. A government salary, with five children to feed and clothe, always made me an art observer. I could enjoy it on a gallery wall and hoped, someday, to take a Powell home—a serigraph.
In 1990, we moved from northern Virginia to southern California. I was one of very few FBI agents who could afford a home in San Diego. That had come through a lot of do-it-yourself, backbreaking labor over a decade on our 3,500-square-foot home on a wooded lot in Virginia. I had built stone walls and put on a 1,000-square-foot, two-story addition, improving everything, giving me true weekend-warrior status as a master carpenter.
The sale of the house had brought in a pretty penny, the proceeds to be the down payment on our next home. We would have to completely remodel one on the West Coast: doors wide enough for a wheelchair, ramps to go with, and more. Working odd nighttime shifts in the FBI would enable me, during daylight hours, to drive thousands of nails, as well as provide long, arduous weekends to create the California home my family deserved.
After a packed-to-the-brim moving van pulled away from our Virginia home, we packed ourselves—mom, dad, boys (ages 6, 8, and 10), infant Natalia, and Midnight the cat—into our new Chevy van to drive across the great expanse of our nation to the Pacific Coast.
Still settling in, one day I wandered into a sophisticated gallery and framing shop down the hill in Solana Beach. I wondered if they had any pieces by Powell. The owner brought out an inch-thick stack of 4-by-6-inch photos of what she said was available.
I went through them, many of which I had seen before—flip, flip, flip, flip. Then my eyes came to rest on one that stood out. It was “Parrot and Rooftops.”
I asked her how much it was. She looked at the notations on the back of the photo, and then did some mental figuring. This was odd, I thought, for a number that should have been on the tip of her tongue. Didn’t all of Powell’s serigraphs go for about the same price?
She tilted her head from side to side, made some last calculations, trumpeted her lips in and out and said, “I can get it for you for a little under $10,000—but you will want a good frame, so it will be a little over ten.”
I had not understood that this establishment sold only original oil paintings. They were the real deal, and serigraphs were not in their repertoire. So, you picked the painting you wanted from a stack of photos and, within a few days, they had it in hand. I had never stepped foot in a gallery like this, which presented only original pieces. The very idea of having one by John Powell had been well beyond my thought process. Now I had the opportunity to purchase something that was more to me than just oil paint on canvas. It seemed like liquid gold.
My mind was dazzled, but I quickly looked through the few dozen other paintings in the stack, now realizing that these were not serigraphs, none of them, but all original oils. I had to catch my breath.
How many linear yards of three-foot-high, stone walls had I built around our house in Virginia? How many thousands of nails had I driven into broad decks that nearly surrounded the house, with catwalks connecting them, and on two levels? How many square feet of Mexican paver tile had I laid for the new 16-by-32-foot kitchen, and the skylights installed high above so light would stream down on us. If all of that could be calculated for what it had saved us, and as extra profit on the sale of our home, could I take the leap to do something that still seemed so far outside the realm of my comprehension?
I asked the owner, “How could the original oil of ‘Parrot and Rooftops’ not be long gone, sold to a wealthy aficionado of Mr. Powell’s artwork?” She had no idea, but knew that if it was in her magical stack of photos, it was still available. And it seemed that not too many people had access to them, or even knew of a business with a similar pile of images. I had walked into the right gallery, and at the right time in my life.
My cranial synapses were firing off. A long time ago, I had been in the presence of a painting that had almost gotten away. Here I was again, in an art gallery, with the apple of my eye—actually the parrot of my eye—right in front of me. I dared not make that mistake again.
I held out the photo and gave her a nod. “This one.”
My own lesson, now more than two decades since I had learned it, was the deciding factor. This painting would find a home in my living room, across from a tall wall on which hung “The Mountain and the Valley.” No indecision this time.
Taking You There
A marine layer floats above the coastal town nestled in a Pacific cove. The scent of morning dew reaches only the earliest risers. Seen from above, the rooftops are a patchwork of slopes dotting the landscape throughout the valley.
The flowers are both natural and extraordinary. They grow high and low, over and around, in the ground, and out of the most gloriously glazed vases and pottery whose colors rival the beauty of the blossoms they hold.
A breeze flows down the valley floor, shimmering the leaves and vines. Cymbidiums laugh, shaking their heads in the gentleness of nature. Bougainvilleas climb up the archways of the patios and porticos, then burst into bloom on the downstroke. Orange-red geraniums offset gray-white stucco walls, and dazzling tapestries give life to rustic tile floors.
On a veranda high above, hemmed in by a colonnade of archways, and standing out among an assortment of huge urns and floral clusters, is a vibrant green parrot nodding his yellow head and blue-bridged beak. Red slashes on his shoulders mark his rank to command the scene before him.
The parrot’s veranda is as exquisite as it is ostentatious. A cleft in the wall off to the right offers flower-lined steps down to a garden hideaway you can sense below. Dew-glistening flagstones walk around a path where a waterfall and lily pads lap over colorful koi, and lush rushes and grasses are just out of sight.
The parrot on his perch is suspended in midair and central to the scheme of activity. He has one more degree of life than his floral cousins and we are drawn to him, again and again. He is frozen in his space, yet we know his head is bobbing and his squawking calls out to the valley below.
The scene holds us in a moment in time. The shadows will always mark an early morn and the coming of a new day. The flowers will hold their blossoms forever, and the parrot, mid-bob, pokes out from the canvas every time we glance his way as he impatiently awaits an answer to his calls echoing off the rooftops.
Some pieces of art move me so that I am compelled to write about them—what they look like, but more often, how I see the scene in its own history. This is what the series “Taking You There” is about.
Wayne A. Barnes was an FBI agent for 29 years working counterintelligence. He had many undercover assignments, including as a member of the Black Panthers. His first spy stories were from debriefing Soviet KGB defectors. He now investigates privately in South Florida.