The Writing Is on the Wall, John Underwood's special report on academics and athletics, which begins on page 36, is the result of exclusive research covering schools and colleges all over the country and topics as diverse as students' reading scores in 1928 and educational abuses revealed as recently as a few weeks ago. For illustrations as wide-ranging as the text, Art Director Richard Gangel called on Ivan Powell, a 43-year-old New York artist whose work has appeared in Esquire, Red-book and World Tennis.
By way of research for his opening illustration—of a forlorn athlete in a graffiti-covered playground—Powell returned to a boyhood haunt in the shadow of the Polo Grounds. "I used to play basketball and handball there," he says. "Now the area has turned into a ghetto. I felt very uncomfortable—like a visitor to a poor country—but I was struck by images.
"The athlete in the drawing is based on an old photo of me. And the picture of the jock crucified on a football [page 62] is also something I can relate to. I was a sprinter at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. The coach wanted us to dedicate ourselves to track, but we carried a very heavy class load, and one day it came down to either finishing a painting or going to practice. I finished the painting, and the coach got on me the next day. He said, 'You're an athlete, not a scholar.' That's the last time I ran track.
"Actually, artists and athletes have much in common. Both face pain and commitment—hours and hours of it. Both can get tunnel vision about what they're doing and miss out on other experiences. And both suffer from typecasting. I'm very outspoken, and sometimes when I say something outrageous, people will react as if to say, 'Oh, it's because he's an artist.' "
Though he gave up track, Powell didn't abandon athletics. During the 14 years he worked in art studios or taught illustration at Syracuse University—he now is well enough established to make his living as a free-lancer—he began dabbling in race-car driving, tennis, golf, sailing and darts. "I can't work unless I'm fit," says Powell, who gets by on three or four hours sleep a night. "Shooting baskets keeps me fresh. When I was at Syracuse I found eight courts, side by side, on top of a hill. No one was ever there and I used to play by myself, sometimes as the sun would be setting. It was very inspiring." He prefers solitary activities, but basketball remains his special passion, and he is an avid Knicks fan. "I still have the fantasy of being called upon to go in and score the winning basket," he says.
Powell and his agent, Jacqueline Dedell, share a converted loft in Greenwich Village, and their apartment is nothing if not eclectic: wood sculptures by Powell, some 300 bottles of wine, several dozen exotic plants and a greenhouse filled with parrots, parrakeets and doves. Nonetheless, Powell finds it easy to immerse himself in his work. "You can be socially aware, you can interpret, you can change or heighten reality," he says. "But you're constantly wrestling with the problem: How can I make this beautiful, how can I make this exciting?"
In his illustrations in this week's issue, we feel Powell has done both.
ARTIST IVAN POWELL: A RETURN TO HIS HOME COURT