Access Arts founder honored

Monday, November 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:38 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Although she only stands 4 feet, 10 inches tall, Naoma Powell was a powerful, extraordinary presence in a roomful of people who came to honor her Sunday night. The recently retired director of Columbia’s nonprofit School of Service-Access Arts program was awarded with a proclamation from the city of Columbia, declaring Nov. 20, 2005, to be Naoma Powell Day.

The proclamation recognized Powell’s lifetime contribution to Columbia’s art and educational community.

“Naoma is a truly remarkable person,” said Mayor Darwin Hindman, who presented her the proclamation. “She devoted basically her life to others through the arts. We owe her a tremendous debt. This (award) is just a small token toward repaying that debt.”

“I’m just proud that we’re the home of Naoma Powell,” he added.

A native of Columbia, Powell, 80, attended Hickman High School and graduated from MU with bachelor’s degrees in art and education. She also went on to receive two master’s degrees in fine arts. She founded Access Arts in 1983 and started with 28 students. The program now has more than 2,000 students enrolled. It offers a variety of art classes for children and adults including pottery, drawing, weaving, painting and photography. Access Arts makes itself accessible to those with physical and financial disabilities by providing scholarships, special-needs classes and wheelchair access in its three buildings, one of which is Powell’s home.

Since its founding, Powell has not only devoted her home and her time — 60 to 80 hours a week — to Access Arts, but also her personal savings, including her inheritance and a portion of her Social Security check each month, to ensure that the program can continue. Chris Sharp, the director who took over for Powell when she retired Oct. 31, said of her devotion: “I’ve never met anyone who’s given so much of herself to a cause she believes in.”

Access Arts board member Michael Finke said, “She is probably the most dedicated person I have ever met in the non-profit sector — really a force of nature. It’s through an incredible sense of purpose and will that this organization has thrived.”

Powell retired from Access Arts but will remain a director emerita on the board, which also gave her a plaque of recognition, though its award didn’t include the date. Board President Ed Maynard said the omission was purposeful because he thinks Powell’s influence will continue.

Former student Carolyn Leuthold agreed.

“Naoma really deserves recognition for her continued, steadfast, unrelenting (work), Leuthold said. “She’s unstoppable.”

Although the day was in her honor, Powell could only express appreciation for others she has worked with, saying, “I’m grateful for all of the people that have contributed to (Access Arts) because it took everybody to make it work.”

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