"You have guts," M. Cleland Powell III recalls a friend telling him before Powell's first gallery exhibition in 2009.
Powell, executive vice president at Iberia Bank, is a self-taught painter — he says he's never taken a lesson. But because that show was driven not by a desire to make money for himself but by an interest in doing good for the community, he was able to take it all — the risk and the spotlight — in stride.
The show earned about $25,000, with half going to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. (The rest went to the gallery.)
Now, eight years later, the still-bold Powell has brought his own look to the Rex proclamation, the King of Carnival's call for all to take part in Mardi Gras revelry.
"It's different from most," acknowledges Powell, a 40-year member of the Rex organization.
He has eschewed the romantic pastels, dreamy mythological visions and bold but backward-looking styles of previous years. His take is a modern graphic one, tempered by the warmth of a Louisiana swamp scene writ small across the bottom.
Adding a timeless feel is the use of Roman numerals to spell out the year. It's the first time that's been done, Powell said.
Powell divides the canvas into three strips: purple, gold and green. The earthy feel of the green marsh balances the cool graphic imagery above: Ducks are in flight, and the cypress tress seem almost in motion as well.
The paper is a textured matte, another warm element.
The flags around the globe represent 15 countries that celebrate Mardi Gras, Powell said, going along with the 2017 theme "Carnival Fêtes and Feasts."
"I worked it out and then changed it and changed it and changed it," he said of the design. "I think it came out pretty well."
His work is in good company. Previous proclamation artists include Dawn DeDeaux, Mignon Faget, Randolph Tucker Fitz-Hugh, Tony Green, George Schmidt, Jean Seidenberg and Tim Trapolin.
The back story
Powell never studied art, but he has an MBA from Emory University and at Tulane, he had a double major in economics and English.
"I always kept journals," he said, "and I loved to read." Photography was another long-time avocation.
Powell began painting about a dozen years ago. "After Hurricane Katrina, the kids were grown, and I had a lot of time on my hands," he said.
Running across the book "Marsh Mission: Capturing the Vanishing Wetlands," by photographer C. C. Lockwood and painter Rhea Gary, planted the artistic seeds. He was struck by Gary's surreal images of the landscape, full of light and drama.
"I think I could do that," he said.
The outdoors aspect was a major appeal. Powell loves to fish, to be out in nature. "It's God's palette for us, and it's different every day," he said.
Powell works in oils and acrylics, usually creating impressionistic landscapes that he paints from his own photos.
He recently was seen in the WYES documentary, "Artists of New Orleans."
"I have always felt that painting should awaken something that one would not appreciate by looking at pictures," says Powell about his art. "I believe art should enable us to get outside of ourselves and see another's view of God's landscape as it appears on canvas."
Its own reward
The Rex proclamation artist traditionally gets 10 percent from sales — the poster currently is available only to krewe members — but Powell is donating his profits to the Pro Bono Publico Foundation, the Rex foundation that benefits the city, especially its public schools.
It's another in the long list of public services from Powell, who has served on the boards of institutions including Dillard and Holy Cross universities, Blueprint for Louisiana, the National World War II Museum, WYES, and the New Orleans City Park Improvement Association.
He's also done shows to benefit the Steve Gleason Foundation, among others. But he acknowledges that he gets something out of the work as well.
"It's self-actualization from canvas. Painting something ... the next day is like Christmas, and I can't wait to see it dry."