Van Howell's drawing of presidential candidates appeared in a 1992...

Van Howell's drawing of presidential candidates appeared in a 1992 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Credit: Van Howell

A line can take you many places. For Long Island artist, Van Howell, it drew him around the globe to England and Australia in a career as an illustrator, portraitist, cartoonist, artist, newspaper man and teacher. Now it brings him back home and to an exhibition in Suffolk County Community College's Lyceum Gallery in Riverhead. "Van Howell: Drawing the Line," on view through Nov. 18, is Howell's first solo exhibition since 1966. How does it feel to have a major show of his work after more than 50 years?

"Pretty good," Howell said with a chuckle.

The exhibition came about serendipitously. On a recommendation, curator Margery Gosnell-Qua, a professor of art and art history and an artist herself, went out to see Howell's work. After looking through stacks of drawings she recalled, "I went from the process of looking at his stuff and thinking these were pretty good, to thinking these were amazing, to thinking how much do you want for this one? I wanted to buy them, and that almost never happens."

She offered him a show on the spot. "We have a lot of drawing and illustration courses that we teach at our campus, and we're the digital arts and graphic design campus for Suffolk County Community College. So, I thought this would be great. It's just exquisite draftsmanship," she said, adding, "He can teach you how to draw just by seeing what he does."

WHAT "Van Howell: Drawing the Line"

WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 18 with artist's talk and reception 2 p.m. Nov. 12; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Lyceum Gallery, Suffolk Community College Eastern Campus, Montaukett Resource Learning Center Library, 1st floor, 121 Speonk-Riverhead Rd., Riverhead

INFO Free; 631-548-2536, sunysuffolk.edu

HIS SKILL SET

The exhibition brings out how Howell put his skill to use in commissioned drawings for Marvel Comics, Newsday, Random House and The New York Times among others, building a career that stretched over three decades. He recalled the early days, "I was sitting in Penn Station with a roll of dimes calling every newspaper in the phone book. I got really bogged down around the Gs, and I thought it was such a waste. So I started at the bottom and came to The Wall Street Journal, and they said come right over."

He ended up making more than 500 drawings for the paper. Several are on display, along with illustrations for Newsday and for the book "Proust for Beginners" which features Howell's portraits of artists and writers like Claude Monet and Henry David Thoreau.

There are more than 80 works on view, including drawings from life, caricatures of buildings and studies from nature. Look for trees so animated they appear ready to dance off the page, cathedral interiors rooted in graceful tracery and figure drawings that evince the kind of mastery that can only be achieved after years of practice. "He's a master of line," Gosnell-Qua said, "and with his figure drawings, he just goes."

THE FORM'S THE THING

But Howell might tell you that the most important thing a line can do is help you to see. "If you look at a form, the history is integral to the form," he explained. "When you look at somebody's face, you see their whole life as well as all their ancestors'. That's what a form is: the history of the substance that it's made of."

Howell's drawings are complex, precise and extremely accomplished, but they're also fun, straddling reality and fantasy. "It's like a trip down memory lane with all these characters and illustrations that people know," said Gosnell-Qua, "and the drawing is just so beautiful. Some shows you go to, they're big and stupendous and fill the whole wall. These are smaller, but they're intimate and fascinatingly beautiful. I think for anyone who draws, or who just appreciates drawing, it's one of the best shows they're going to see."

There's an artist's reception and talk scheduled for Nov. 12, so people can meet Howell and find out more. "I hope," he said, "that there's enough life in the drawings to remind people that they're alive."