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Man puts images to paper

by Linda Hiller

Lowell Callahan paints what he sees, and most of the time they are images in his 90-year-old memory and endless imagination.

“I’ve always seen things differently than other people, I think,” he said. “When I look at a mountain or a sunset, the colors are so intense, and that’s how I’ve always painted them. I grew up in Arizona and I remember sitting there, staring at the sunsets – they were so intense to my eyes.”

Coming from a Southwest state that has inspired many other artists, Callahan plays the images of adobe houses, cacti, waterfalls, mountains, burning sunsets and bright flowers into his prolific collection of paintings. His father was a cotton farmer in Gilbert, Ariz.

“I think my first painting was on my father’s barn,” he said. “I was in 8th grade and I did a landscape. It’s probably still there if the barn is.”

Born May 15, 1910, Callahan was an all-state fullback at Gilbert High School, where he was called “Flash” by his teammates. He won a college scholarship to Arizona State in 1930, where he played for three years.

“There, they just called me ‘Cal,'” he said. “In those days, we had to play offense and defense. We didn’t get a rest. I was a linebacker on the defense and a fullback on the offense.”

– Things change. Callahan initially planned to be an art teacher and coach, but a shoulder injury sent him on another path. He did get to teach what was then called “dumbbell” art to beginning ASU students to satisfy their graduation requirements, and around that same time, he built a float that won first prize for an ASU celebration parade, discovering that he could build things.

Marrying his “sweetheart Nellie” in 1934, the Callahans had five children, keeping Lowell working a lot and painting very little.

The Callahans moved to the Carson Valley in 1959 while Lowell worked on a road crew that built, among other things, the highway from Sorenson’s to Red Lake. When Nellie died around 13 years ago, Lowell said it was painting that kept his mind occupied so he wouldn’t think about missing her.

“Whenever I would get a bit sad, I’d start to paint,” he said. “It helped.”

– Forgets to eat? When the spirit moves him, Callahan can paint for hours on end in his Ruhenstroth studio.

“I sometimes get to painting and forget to eat,” he said. “The time goes by so fast.”

“Sometimes, he’ll go on painting into the night and he’ll be up until 2 or 3 a.m.,” said Lowell’s son, Don Callahan, who lives in Minden.

These days, Callahan has diverged from his favorite medium, which was watercolor applied with brushes.

“My hand’s not as steady as it was, so I use these watercolor markers now and then you can add the water on later,” he said.

At 90, Callahan doesn’t yet wear glasses. Someone gave him a box of Louis L’Amour novels that he is reading. He painted a picture of a cowboy by a campfire from an inspiration in one of L’Amour’s books about a lonesome cowboy that popular artist Thomas Kinkade (“the painter of light”) could learn from.

And when Lowell Callahan watches television, he uses a black and white set.

“The color sets are too much for me,” he said. “They hurt my eyes.”

Don said that one time he suggested his dad might consider painting with more natural colors instead of his usual intense hue selections.

“He turned to me and said, ‘If you want it to look natural, you can go and take a damn picture,'” Don said. “‘This is art.'”