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Randolph Rowe was born in Portsmouth, VA., in 1922. His mother and father already had a healthy baby girl, Margurite, and later would have two other strong sons, but Randy was born with severe birth defects. His arms and legs were so misshapen that walking and using his hands were difficult awkward tasks.
While the limitations that his body presented meant ordinary living would be a constant struggle, with the help of a supportive family, Randy's keen mind and determined personality met that struggle; his wildlife art is the rich product of this man's efforts.
Rowe died in 1979 after a long period of debilitating illness but his legacy is naturalist art that is enjoyed in private collections and in museums across the United States. His pictures were published as covers on sportsman's magazines such as Pennsylvania Game News, Pennsylvania Angler, Virginia Wildlife and North American Decoys. He has had numerous exhibits, including a show at the William Penn Memorial Museum in Harrisburg. His wood sculptures have won acclaim in bird carving and waterfowl carving exhibits whenever they were shown. All these accomplishments take on an even greater meaning considering the personal handicaps that had to be overcome on the way to building the generous, self-effacing artist that was Randy Rowe. When the artist was a young boy his father, Marcus Rowe, who was originally from Reading, Pennsylvania, moved the family back to his hometown. They lived in Reading on North Sixth Street and Randy attended regular classes in the elementary school at Fifth and Spring. He never had special education for the handicapped, but learned to fit, as best he could, in the everyday world.
When he was 12 years old Randy joined the Boy Scouts of America and began an association that brought him joy and satisfaction throughout his life. He loved the outdoors and learned marksmanship with rifle, pistol and bow.
At this time in his life, Randy was able to walk - though awkwardly - and was able to swim. He finished his studies at Northeast Junior High School and Reading High School.
In 1943, when he was 21, he earned the Eagle Scout Award. Randy was given no exemptions from the stiff requirements for an Eagle Scout because of his deformities. He pursued this award with the same attitude that he chose to live his life. As far as Randy was concerned, he was not handicapped. If things were difficult for him to accomplish that only meant that they required more effort.
Randy stayed involved with the Boy Scouts and became assistant scoutmaster of Troop 12 (Now 312) of the Berean Baptist Church, 820 N. Ninth St. in Reading.
Dr. William Lord, of Reading, who became one of Randy's many friends and an early collector of Randy's art, also cared for the artist throughout his many years of illness.
"I first met Randy when I was 12 years old and Randy was my assistant troop leader," Lord said. "He had a kind of charisma about him. No matter what his personal difficulties were, he could still reach out in his own quiet unassuming way and share his love of the outdoors, of nature, botany and astronomy with all of us."
A graduate of Reading High School, Randy Rowe studied commercial art at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia.
Mr. Rowe apprenticed to two fine Berks County cabinet makers for some years, then was employed by Clarence C. Wenrich of Wenrich's Cabinet Shop.. He became known in the area for his expert workmanship, particularly in antiques. While at Wenrich's Cabinet Shop and with other employees produced and repaired some unusually fine furniture. Daniel S. Sciverling of the Pennsylvania Game News gave the following account:
"One day, Randy got a strange phone call. A moving company had been hired to take a baby grand piano from the first floor of a building to the second floor. They could not do this inside the building, so were hoisting it up the outside when something snapped and the piano fell. The corner of the instrument was broken off. Randy restored this so perfectly that even today the owner does not know anything happened to the piano."
Kim. M. (Wenrich) Mitchel, Clarence Wenrich's daughter remembers the piano incident. She related that Randy and her father were members of Lick Run Lodge in Potter County where they would go hunting and fishing on weekends. Kim has what may be the only oil painting Randy ever did.
It was not until his physical problems worsened in the early '60s that Randy came to art. Extensive surgery that curtailed his ability to walk forced him to give up his furniture business and turn to work that he could do while sitting. Despite the severe arthritis that affected all his joints, he could skillfully carve and paint the most detailed work. For about 15 years, until he was totally disabled, Randy produced amazingly accurate paintings, drawings and carvings that go way beyond rendering to become artistic statements.
He lived and worked in a 2nd floor apartment which had been fitted with a chairlift in West Lawn. Randy's mother lived with her son until her death and then a trusted friend and neighbor, Catherine Kemmer, helped care for Randy until his death.
"I met Randy when my nephew asked me to do some knitting for a Scout leader who needed gloves to fit his crippled hand," said Catherine.
That was 21 years ago and for nearly two decades she helped see Randy through his everyday struggles. While his works were well received and sold whenever they were exhibited, each piece was an original and time consuming effort that brought in barely enough money to keep ahead of the constant medical bills.
Still, the circumstances of Randy's life did not burden his spirit and his studio was a happy place where friends, artists and collectors were always welcome.
Early during his fertile period from the '60s to the mid '70s
the artist left a decorative Colonial style of carving - even
though those pieces sold well - and became a purist for natural
color, shape and detail in his work. His life-long interest in
the out-of-doors & nature has lead him to specialize in the
painting & sculpture of wildlife subjects.
He painted in watercolor, oil, acrylic & pen and ink. And his background in sculpture include works in wood, clay, wax, plaster, plastics & metal.
Some of his best bird paintings have appeared as cover illustrations on numerous national publications including Pennsylvania Game News, Pennsylvania Angler and Virginia Wildlife.
In 1979 Daniel S. Sciverling wrote an article in the Pennsylvania Game News describing how he met Randy Rowe and how Randy's paintings came to be on the covers of these publications While playing tennis, Randy's brother Larry Rowe had told Daniel Sciverling about his family, especially his older brother Randy. One day, Sciverling promised that the next time he was nearby he would stop and see Randy and his mother.
"They lived above a small hardware store. I climbed a steep stairway, puffing a bit near the top. His mother met me and ushered me straight to Randy's studio. Sitting on a high stool with special crutches stacked close by was a small man putting the finishing touches on a large watercolor portrait of a red-tailed hawk holding a blue jay. But even more impressive than the artwork was the fact that it was being created with hands that were congenitally deformed. Randy had barely three functioning fingers on two hands. Furthermore, he suffered from severe arthritis, clubbed feet and a fused hip. He lived in constant pain. Yet he produced highly impressive wildlife paintings and wood carvings. Obviously, here was a most courageous and impressive person."
Studying his completed, almost-dry painting, I suggested he submit it to Pennsylvania Game News for consideration as a cover. He said, "Dan, take it along and see what they think of it up there in Harrisburg. As we talked, a whole bunch of his Berks County buddies stopped in for a visit. They, too, encouraged me to show those 'boys on the Hill' some of Randy's art. With the hastily wrapped painting under my arm, I headed home, singing all the way!"
The next morning was clear but windy. I headed for the Game Commission offices, barely able to keep the painting from blowing away."
"Who did this?" Game News editor Bob Bell asked, and I related the story above. "Can you get him to do something less controversial?" He explained that bird watchers did not appreciate a picture like this no matter how great the art work. (It's interesting to note that ten years later Ned Smith had a wonderful painting of a goshawk grasping a blue jay on the cover Game News. Attitudes toward predation are changing.)"
I mentioned that I'd seen two paintings of woodcock in Randy's studio. Bell told me to get them, and assured me that something would be used."
So I hightailed it back to Reading with the red-tailed hawk painting and my wife, as I wanted her to get a true picture of the situation I'd told her so much about."
Randy and I became the best of friends right from the start and frequent visits and trips together became standard procedure until the end."
Randy's mother wrapped the woodcock paintings and soon we were ready to leave. "Hey! You forgot something," Randy said. I looked around and there was the red-tailed hawk wrapped as a Christmas present for us. It hangs above my bed as a reminder of one of the most unselfish gifts I ever received."
The woodcock painting appeared on the October 1968 Game News cover. It is a beautiful portrayal in acrylic of an adult male timberdoodle resting on some forest leaves. Randy's other woodcock appeared on the cover of Virginia Wildlife magazine."
At last, Randy Rowe was getting some of the exposure he so richly deserved."
Before his last illness, Randy Rowe had seven covers on Game News. The July 1973 Game News cover featured a picture of his famous carving, "The Wildfowler," which portrays a duck hunter bundled in a sheepskin coat, complete with muzzleloader and string of decoys. This carving won him high acclaim when he exhibited it at the Atlantic Flyway Waterfowl Carving and Arts Exhibit. The muzzleloader even fires!"
It was at this exhibit that I heard the world-famous carver Lem Ward refer to Randy Rowe as 'a genius.' I was around both Lem and Steve Ward many times and whenever I mentioned Randy's name, they would stop what ever they were doing and praise him."
The last two times we saw Randy he was in the hospital. His kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis. Always a fighter, he rallied from comas and returned home even after his family was advised the end was near. Our last visit was to the Reading Hospital, where we saw a truly touching display of love. Randy's old scoutmaster came into the room and embraced him, encouraging Randy to keep "hanging in there!"
Randy Rowe couldn't walk across your living room without help, but everyone he touched is far better off because Randy quietly brushed by. And, although he's gone now, his memory and his art remain to inspire us."
In 1968 when originally commissioned to do a cigarstore Indian, he rejected the stiff image of the adorned and phony native and carved "Blue Nose," replica of a Delaware Indian. "Blue Nose," is now part of the permanent collection of the Reading Public Museum & Art Gallery, Reading, PA.
His works have been exhibited in the William Penn Memorial Museum in Harrisburg, the Atlantic Flyway Waterfowl Carving & Arts Exhibition in Salisbury, Maryland and the Third Biennial American Bird Carving Exhibition in Chestertown, MD.
During May of 1970 his works were displayed in a one man show at the Berks County Historical Society, and at the William Penn Memorial Museum in Harrisburg in 1971.
His carved Bald Eagle is the official emblem of the National Rifle Association, Washington, D.C.
In 1979, a hundred original works by Rowe were borrowed from collectors for the Randy Rowe Memorial Art Exhibit and Sale. Reproductions of Randy's works were offered for sale during the exhibit. A special memorial edition of "Canada Geese and Goslings" was printed in a very limited number (100) and proceeds from the sale of Rowe works benefited the Hawk Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America. The funds established a program for handicapped Scouts in Rowe's name. Today Randy Rowe's legacy lives on, the Scouts have the Randy Rowe handicapped accessible cabin and Randy Rowe handicapped accessible campsite at Hawk Mountain Scout Reservation which is near Summit Station in Schuylkill County.
Dr. Lord, chairman of the Randy Rowe Memorial Exhibit and Sale, chose a phrase from the Scout laws to describe how people felt about Rowe. Inscribed on the bottom of each memorial print is "a friend to all, a brother to every Scout."
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