John Sowell American, 1864-1951


Very little is known about the long life and artistic aspirations of John Sowell, but the drawings he left behind (many of which are on file at the United States Patent and Trademark Office) are evidence of an ingenious mind and novel futuristic visions. Sowell was born in Grass Valley, California, and from a young age built mechanical contraptions. During World War I he worked at a machine shop in Stockton and in his free time created patent drawings and models (sometimes in partnership with an Ernest E. Sowell). He was particularly interested in aeronautical theory and engineering, with one patent application (filed in 1918 and granted in 1920) reading, “This invention relates to improvements in aeroplanes, the principal object being to produce an aeroplane which will control the air instead of the machine being controlled by the air; by means of construction, I am able to shut off the driving power and remain stationary in the air or ascend and descend at will thereby, and in a vertical plane.”

Sowell was neither a scientist nor a formally educated artist but an inventor in the broadest sense; his imagination seems to have been the main drive behind his creations and it is unclear whether he pursued any practical application of his ideas. The works in Victor Keen’s collection demonstrate Sowell’s earnest desire to advance the mechanics of aviation as they also demonstrate the creative possibilities within the rigid requirements of mechanical representation. Sowell’s illustrations surpass mere patent drawings; a surreal undercurrent suggests the connection between science fiction and technology. Sowell’s work was shown in the group show Visions from the Left Coast: California Self-Taught Artists at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum in 1995.