Not Weird but Real

Celebrated British artist Edward Povey has good reasons for making Austin his new home

Edward Povey
Edward Povey

When you're 35 years into your professional life, with much of it centered in one region that's home to both works that helped establish you and institutions that have provided an ongoing base of support, pulling up stakes and moving thousands of miles away isn't really what you'd call a conventional career move. But then British artist Edward Povey has never been much about the conventional. He has always worked in the figurative mode, though it's not been much in fashion for most of his lifetime. The works that first earned him the art world's notice were massively complicated outdoor murals several stories high – not exactly the most commercial of pieces, especially for an emerging artist. And just when he had achieved a measure of recognition for his murals, he stopped painting them, and he and his first wife moved to the West Indies to raise their two sons without the distractions of modern culture.

So abandoning one home for a new one an ocean away isn't anything new for Povey. Still, he's leaving Wales – where he painted his original 25 murals in the Seventies and added a major indoor work at the University of Wales in 1993, where he maintained a studio affiliation with the university for 15 years, where he has widely exhibited paintings and bronzes in both private galleries and public institutions, and where he built a home as an architectural project and had the BBC label it "the most artistic house in Wales" – for Texas?

"It took me nearly 20 years to work out that the place we all should live is the place we slowly realize we can't live without – the one you never want to leave," says the artist. With Austin, "that's been the case for a very long time, but I didn't work it out until now."

Povey's familiarity with Central Texas began in the early Nineties when he paid a visit on the invitation of one of his sons' friends. "I met six people, who all said, 'You've got to come to dinner, and you must come and see us, and this and this,'" Povey recalls. "Then I'd come down and go to dinner with three of them, and each time there would be six more people who would say, 'Hey, you really have to do this and this.'" With every visit, Povey's circle of Austin friends kept expanding geometrically and with it the number of people who were also interested in his artwork. "It just sort of grew and grew, because I was doing these kind of Gertrude Stein-y things. Salons," says Povey. "And through those, I got some really fervent collectors, collectors who started out timidly and then became just obsessed. One of the biggest collections in the world now – it later moved up to the Panhandle, but there are about 60 works in that one collection."

<i>Hall of Illusion</i>
Hall of Illusion

What draws people so passionately to Povey's art – and to the art of his colleague in painting and partner in life, Donna Tolar – is an intriguing blend of accessibility and inaccessibility. Because the subjects are human, they and the emotions they express are easy for viewers to relate to, but the situations in which these figures are placed, their circumstances and surroundings, have an elusive, dreamlike quality to them, a subtext that you can't quite be sure of. Both Povey and Tolar are deliberately playing with symbols, and their deft employment of them adds both a theatricality and mystery to their work that is compelling.

Compelling to numerous Austinites certainly, and because of the sustained interest in their work here, our town became one of the couple's regular stops on their semiannual tours of the U.S. and even joined Wales and Florida (where Tolar was living when they met in 2003) as places where they kept homes. Then, a few years ago, Tolar's children (from a previous marriage) were getting ready to graduate high school and leave the nest, which prompted them to consider a permanent change of address. "Things were changing for him in Wales as well," says Tolar, "and we were expanding our international markets, so we started thinking about, 'Where do we want to live?' I was like: 'Florida is too humid and has too many hurricanes. Wales is too wet.' So we were traveling around on our lecture tours, and every time we would come to Austin, we would be really excited to get off the plane. It would be like Christmas. And we love to travel, but it was the only place where, when we would get back on the plane, we'd be depressed. It was like we didn't want to leave. So to me, that's the definition of home: You just don't want to go anywhere else."

Povey nods in agreement, but then the soft-spoken artist expands on the notion in a characteristically philosophical way. "I've really thought about this for a while: Why Austin?" he says. "Life is such an extraordinary gift. I mean, just the gift of eyesight, the possibility of friends and opportunity ... it's an incalculable gift. But human beings have an incredible ability to forget the situation they're in, to lose track of the situation they're in, and I really think that many people in the world – definitely in Wales and Florida – are not aware of their situation [in regard to life as a gift]. Because if you stay even slightly in touch with the value of life, you would have to be happy, somewhat childlike, very forgiving, and prepared to have a lot of fun. Austin is the place that's most in touch with reality that I've ever lived." That this mindset is generally referred to in his new hometown as "weird" is something Povey finds unfortunate. He doesn't consider it "weird"; he thinks it's "real," that is, the recognition of just how abundant in wonders life really is.

That's a feeling he and Tolar both know well from the studio, where their creative work puts them in full contact with what life means. But they're not accustomed to finding that sentiment outside those studio walls. "In most places we've worked, the studio has been a hermetically sealed island of our world," Povey notes. "But here there's a really fuzzy border, 'cause you come out of the studio, and it's as if people on the outside would get what we do in there. In other places, you've gone out of the studio, and it's like, 'Uh!' – like walking into a cold shower." He turns to Tolar. "It's not the case here, is it?"

No, she answers. And when asked if the city has opened any new doors for either of them creatively, she says, "Creativity is not something we say, 'Oh, we're waiting for the mood to strike us.' This is what we do. This is all we do. So in one respect, we're always on, in that mode, no matter where we are. But in Austin, because the other qualities of our lives are so improved, it just makes it a lot more fun, you know?"

The couple is in the midst of building a new home and studio in Wimberley – "Because Austin is too much fun," Tolar jokes – and planning a series of summer workshops, one for artists and another for art collectors, to be held locally, as well as more salons. Both artists will continue to exhibit and tour – Povey has an especially intriguing project lined up for a Welsh museum that blends live creation of visual art and live performance in a collaboration with the Broadway actress Anne Bobby – but expect them to get back here as quickly as they can. After all, now they'll be coming home.

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Edward Povey, Donna Tolar, Anne Bobby

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