Opinion

Dwane Powell, an artist both comic and righteous

Dwane Powell lived two lives, one in the world and another in his cartoons.

As a man, he was a big-shouldered, handsome fellow, an unlikely liberal raised on an Arkansas farm who loved his family, enjoyed his friends and, away from his drawing board, honed his skills as a photographer, a guitar player and a weekend athlete. And then there was The News & Observer cartoonist, a figure who came alive on the page with an irreverent but smiling style that announced itself distinctly and unmistakeably as Dwane Powell.

Powell, 74, died Sunday night from an aggressive cancer, mesothelioma. His image on this page of President Trump hugging a flag during his two-hour March 2 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference is the last he submitted to the N&O. The cartoon wasn’t requested, but he couldn’t resist.

Many will mourn the passing of the man who inked the foibles and follies of so many honorables. Even some of his targets may miss the sharp point of his pen.

Steve Ford, the N&O’s retired editorial page editor, supervised Powell for two decades, including the years when Powell would spoof Sen. Jesse Helms, Gov. Jim Hunt and legislative leaders such as Marc Basnight and Tony Rand, Republicans and Democrats alike. “The people he skewered would be the first to call up and ask for an original they could hang on their walls,” Ford said.

Those originals now hang in homes and offices, in a “Powell booth” at Raleigh’s venerable Players Retreat restaurant and in a special exhibit at the City of Raleigh Museum that runs through June. The incidents he depicted were part of the passing news and their meaning has in some cases faded too, but what always remains fresh in a Powell cartoon is the presence of an energetic imagination and the details that the eye discovers as comic asides. The cartoons were funny because the cartoonist was having fun.

While Powell’s style was playful, his mission was serious. He grew up with black friends in a rural area at a time of segregation. He knew it wasn’t right and rejected it. He had a strong sense of moral justice and took aim at those who misused power.

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Dwane Powell cartoon for 11/23/2000

Jim Jenkins, recently retired after a long career as an N&O editorial writer and columnist, said, “Dwane had the soul of a poet and the heart of a lion and when you combine that with the righteous indignation of someone who believed his job was to stand up for people who were the victims of injustice or discrimination — look out. Dwane was fortunate to have an organization behind him that stood for those same values, but he wasn’t afraid to step out and lead the charge for a cause in which he believed.”

Powell, who started with the N&O in 1975, retired from working full time in 2009, but he returned on a freelance basis in 2013 to draw the Sunday editorial cartoon. Ford said Powell’s work hit a new gear once he could concentrate on just one cartoon. His cartoons were also a needed rebuke, he said, to the legislature’s turns toward intolerance and injustice.

“He had a lot left to give. Some of his best work was after his official retirement. This was a time when his services were very useful and needed,” Ford said. “In that regard, he was cut short.”

Dwane Powell is gone, his last lines drawn before his picture was complete, but he lived such a very good life — both of them.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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