Best Citizen

Robert Powell

To sculptor, gallery owner and art teacher Robert Powell, 58, St. Louis' "Gateway to the West" slogan is a steaming pile of toxic brain dung. "This crazy slogan -- it says 'come to St. Louis and then make your way west," he says, fuming and pacing around the hardwood first floor of his marvelously restored, mid-nineteenth-century Grand Center gallery. "There's nothing that says 'come to St. Louis.'" Unless, of course, you consider Powell's workspace, Portfolio Gallery and Educational Center, tucked behind Powell (no relation) Symphony Hall at 3514 Delmar Boulevard. Powell's deft curation yields a consistently eclectic and high-caliber annual schedule of African-American art exhibits at Portfolio. In addition to showing the work of nationally-recognized artists, Powell's instructional outpost a few blocks up the road teaches budding young artists how to connect their work to the urban streetscape, as evidenced by Portfolio's many murals downtown that liven up what would otherwise be drab, plywood construction sites. A Kansas City native and unabashed critic of suburban flight among his fellow African-Americans, Powell retains a residential roost near O'Fallon Park in north St. Louis and is a stealth player in St. Louis' political landscape -- his gallery was commissioned to create former Mayor Freeman Bosley's official portrait. And yet, Robert Powell is largely invisible to the public, plying his culturally significant craft as zeitgeist galleries a few blocks east pour most of their hipper-than-thou energy into pop art, apple martinis and buzz. Sure, Powell -- who faintly resembles actor John Amos -- talks. But then he walks -- proudly and with considerable substance. His enterprises are labors of tender love for his people and his adopted hometown. Ain't no half-steppin' in his game. (For more information, call 314-533-3323 or visit
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