William Howdershell stands inside the Zenith Gallery’s 7th Street space pondering his relationship with Batman. He’s examining Tony Eitharong’s M.I.A. Series, a multipart mixed-media piece featuring a Batman action figure framed by da Vinci-esque wing sketches.
The image of the Caped Crusader suggests our longing for a superhero, explains Howdershell, who curated Zenith’s “Collector’s Choice” exhibition. “’Where are you? We need your help. Because we’re in trouble here.’”
A photo at the work’s bottom hints at an Everyman in need of salvation. More than that, the image is of Howdershell himself.
“I’m just a human image in there, representing mankind,” he says humbly. But his appearance in the pieceand in the galleryisn’t mere coincidence. Howdershell has been collecting art for about 30 years, and Eitharong is one of eight Howdershell favorites who were featured in the show, which wrapped up its monthlong run at Zenith on May 15.
“I’ve known a lot of these [artists] for a long time now,” he explains, “so we’ve become friends. We’ve had a chance to sit down and have a beer and go bowling, so to speak.”
Zenith founder, owner, and director Margery E. Goldberg once lingered at Howdershell’s home after delivering a piece he had purchased. Her description of the prevalence of art in Howdershell’s digs“wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor, can’t-walk-in-the-place”is no exaggeration. From the cardboard boxes on the front porch to the Michael Farrar piece hanging in the basement bathroom (where, according to Howdershell, the lighting best displays its gold-colored elements), his narrow Capitol Hill row house is practically a gallery unto itself.
“His very taste in art kind of reflects Zenith’s very taste in art,” Goldberg says: works that have a sense of humor. “Either me or my employees have curated every show for 27 years, so I thought, You know, giving somebody else an opportunity won’t kill me.”
The 50-plus first-timer calls Goldberg’s decision “brave,” but Howdershell is hardly a local-arts-scene innocent. Though his university studies didn’t lead to a degree, collecting has been its own education. In the late ’70s, he was a gallery director at the Art League in Alexandria and interned at the National Museum of African Art. A home-based gallery he started in 1978 died after he moved to D.C. in 1980, and he currently works as a comptroller for the Navy Department.
“Collector’s Choice” came together relatively swiftly, in about four-and-a-half weeks, Howdershell says. “As soon as I called, [the artists all] went, ‘Sure, why not?’” he recalls. As the show’s title suggests, the results aren’t intended to present any thematic statement.
“This is more ‘Bill’s Favorites,’” Goldberg says. Hence, Lester Van Winkle’s wood sculpture Floyd, Irene, and some of their stuff, a contemporary spin on Grant Wood’s American Gothic via Wallace & Gromit, shares space with the more traditional still-life paintings of Bert Biernie. (Zenith is representing the show’s artists for two months, Goldberg says, “and then we’re going to decide where we go from there.”)
By late afternoon on this last day of the exhibition, some of the art is already back at home with Howdershell. He’ll be relieved to return Casey Downing’s sculpture Broken Circle to its normal display areaatop a stereo speaker. Joe Dempsey