Hal Poth: Off the Wall

By Sarah Hermes Griesbach

Self illustration of Hal Poth from 1944.Any description of Hal Poth’s long and storied art career appears hyperbolic. He just did so much. Poth successfully took on as many creative techniques in the visual arts as there are course options in any school for the arts. He worked beautifully with paper as a sculptural form. His metalwork is equally skilled. The proficiency of his drawings, paintings, prints and woodwork qualify him a master of each.

Adding to this massive array of practiced skills with materials, Poth explored a baffling range of styles and subjects. His expertise in such an unlikely variety of art media was matched by his expansive interests. Few of his artworks duplicate even minute aspects of others. Once he had told a mythological story in a painting, that story would not likely repeat. Even within each grouping of material type, the ideas expressed through his undeniably recognizable hand are wildly divergent. Within his collection of beautifully inlaid wood objects are found a menagerie of creatures, real and imagined, alongside a bevy of decorative puzzle boxes and oddities. He engineered fantastical musical instruments and wildly impractical furniture as he simultaneously turned his deft hand to the ancient cloisonné technique for decorating metalwork objects.

Poth’s colossally ambitious tastes and accomplishments fit into a very local St. Louis life. His reputation as an artist didn’t extend very far, though he engaged with other artists around him throughout his life. Poth found fulfillment without seeking fame. A graduate of Beaumont High School and Washington University, he used his abundant creative talent to shape a career in commercial advertising.

Poth didn’t exhibit his artwork much until his retirement in the 1980s. But retirement from the business world resulted in a newly amped up art practice. He was as productive as ever, continuing to add new skills and interests to his multifaceted creative output. Elements of his vast collection were included in myriad regional group exhibitions. A retrospective titled, “Reflections of a Creative Life: Hal Poth” was held at the Regional Arts Commission in 2011 when he was 86. He looked back, then, with gratitude at the pleasure he had gained in a lifetime of intense artistic productivity.

After retirement from advertising, Poth reflected on the factors that led to his long and winding art career. His mother, an amateur dressmaker, and his father, an optometrist who Poth remembered making medical illustrations of X-rays for an author at Washington University in the 1930s, provided examples of art as a natural part of a fully lived life. His parents gifted him with opportunities to design and build what his imagination conjured. “I started by making pencil drawings at about eight years old on the back of the advertisements my dad would send to customers,” Poth was quoted to say by Mary Shapiro for an article in St. Louis Today (Jan 30, 2011).

In that 2011 interview with Shapiro, Poth referred to his collection as made by “a guy who didn’t know where he was going, trying to discover himself.” “I just try to have fun, which is what’s been important to me since I was 8,” Poth said. And there is no question that he succeeded at that.

The pleasure of being Hal Poth the Artist is something to take note of. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have long claimed that arts participation and arts education are linked with positive cognitive, social and behavioral outcomes in individuals across the lifespan. The field of behavioral neuroscience has revolutionized the way we understand the brain’s ability to adapt and keep itself vital. This process of adaptation and renewal is referred to as brain plasticity. Poth’s comprehensive creative exploration could only result in healthy aging.

Poth had remarkable creative insight. He followed the innovative artistic movements of his time and worked both within and around them. Creative insight, like Poth’s, depends on new combinations of existing ideas, concepts and perceptions. Such creative dexterity is credited with neural connections that can protect an aging brain. At the opposite end of the creativity spectrum lie older adults who suffer from functional fixity. Our thinking can become very rigid as we tend towards routine. Clinical and scholarly work on brain networks show that flexibility of perception, like that of Poth, has health benefits, not least of which is a joy in living.