Naoma Powell filled the community with love, charity and devotion to the arts

Naoma Powell, founder of Access Arts, died Saturday

COLUMBIA – Naoma Powell loved unconditionally and poured herself into bettering the people and the world around her.

She was an indispensable part of Columbia's arts community and devoted the latter part of her life to her teaching program, Access Arts, which made the arts accessible to anyone who wanted to learn.

"She was full of love, full of poetry, really just full of life," said Karsten Ewald, a former pottery teacher at Access Arts.

Naoma Powell died Saturday morning, July 20, 2013. She was 87.

She was born in Columbia to Dwight and Vera Powell on Aug. 12, 1925.

Ms. Powell never married but was instead devoted to her work with children and the needy, said Mary Kinney. When Kinney met Ms. Powell in 2000 at an Access Arts pottery class, she asked Ms. Powell whether she had any children. She responded with a poem.

"It began: 'I have a thousand children, some dark and some fair,'" Kinney said.

In her later years, Ms. Powell could still recite the poem, even as her body began to fail her, Kinney said.

Ms. Powell graduated from Hickman High School and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art and education from MU. She went on to earn a master of fine arts degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. She also participated in a yearlong special studies program in Denmark.

By living a structured life, Ms. Powell dedicated her life to helping those who did not know how to help themselves.

Ewald called her "small but mighty," saying the 4-foot-11 woman had a commanding presence and energetic zeal.

"You just don't meet people like her anymore," Ewald said.

In 1971, Hurst John, an architect in Columbia, created the School of Service, a nonprofit educational organization with the idea of bringing the arts to the disabled. However, he died in 1979.

Ms. Powell had spent nearly 20 years in the coal mining districts of Kentucky teaching art education and skills to the poor before receiving a call from John's daughter asking her to come to Columbia to save their vision.

Ms. Powell returned to help and later established the Access Arts program in her home on McAlester Street. For many, it became a sanctuary.

"She devoted her life to the program," said Sarah Novinger, former Access Arts student and friend for more than 30 years.

Ms. Powell poured out love and encouragement to all. Rather than limitations, she saw possibilities in everyone she met.

"She had intuition," Norleen Nosri said. "She knew how to mend the broken."

Ms. Powell encouraged Nosri to pursue her talents in pottery and pushed her to go back to school and complete her undergraduate degree. Nosri recently finished graduate school.

Ms. Powell also helped Nosri convince her parents to accept her future in art by helping her organize a pottery show to send back to her home country, Malaysia.

"Because of her, I became strong," Nosri said.

Ms. Powell created a fun and inviting atmosphere for her students at Access Arts. Novinger said Ms. Powell always had a cat or two roaming around the studio while she worked.

Even as Access Arts received grants and expanded in both size and staff, Ms. Powell remained the driving force of the organization. She worked without pay and contributed her home and most of her social security income to the program.

"We used to look through her old Hickman yearbooks," Novinger said. "She was really active in drama, making the backdrops and scenes. She is the person always doing the hard work behind the scenes. Nothing would happen without her work."

In her spare time, Ms. Powell's life also revolved around creating art. She was a poet and a painter, a potter and a weaver.

Novinger said Ms. Powell was kept busy with teaching at the studio and hardly had time to create her own pieces, aside from those she used for demonstrations during class. However, Novinger said that when Ms. Powell did have the time to invent an original artwork, she would sell her pieces and donate the money to Access Arts.

Ms. Powell officially retired in 2005, though she never felt ready to leave.

"Her mind was clear, but her body was frail," Nosri said. "She had this hat she would wear after all of her surgeries, it said T.O.B. – tough old bird."

Nosri said that the day after Ms. Powell was released from the hospital after undergoing back surgery, she walked eight blocks to throw away trash bags. The next day, Ms. Powell walked 16 blocks.

Nosri asked her why she was doing this and said Ms. Powell said if people see an old woman doing it, maybe they will, too.

In her later years, Ms. Powell was cared for by close friends Mandy Manderino and Virginia Bzdek.

"One of the things I will miss most is her splendid sense of humor," Manderino said. "She always played practical jokes. Virginia and I have this wooden frog that she would always hide when she came over and leave little clues about where it was."

Manderino said Powell was a wonderful mentor, role model and friend.

"She has left a big hole in my heart," Manderino said.

Powell is survived by her brother, Charles "Chick" Powell, and his wife, Robilee, of St. Louis; many nieces, nephews, cousins and close friends; and her "thousand children."

Her brother Harvey Glenn Powell, her sister, Irma Roney, and her brother-in-law, Charles Roney, died earlier.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2615 Shepard Blvd.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Access Arts, 1724 McAlester St. Columbia, MO 65201, or the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2615 Shepard Blvd. Columbia, MO 65201.

Supervising editor is Hannah Wiese.

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