Ed Towles

1945, Coatesville, Pennsylvania

Ed Towles was born in the steel industry town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, nestled between Philadelphia and Lancaster. As a child, he remembers sketching with his brothers and sisters in the family living room, and when he was older, drawing portraits at local arts festivals. But it was Towles’ high school art teacher who helped him get his first big break with a partial scholarship to the New York Phoenix School of Design, which he attended for the next four years (1963–1967) majoring in magazine and book illustration.

The traditional art school taught the fundamentals in composition, drawing, and painting in the style of Norman Rockwell. One of his classes required a weekly drawing session at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sketching the work of Renoir and Degas. “Looking back over the years, I can truly say that being able to quickly translate editors’ notes to storyboards and thumbnails and drawing on location can be attributed to my early art school preparation.”

After graduation, Towles did design and production work at boutique studios and small companies, including Record World magazine, a weekly music trade publication, third behind Billboard and Cash Box. This was his first magazine job, and it opened the door to pursue publication design.

Towles became art director of Black Enterprise magazine in 1971, a role he held until 1982. It was a pivotal juncture in his career and an opportunity to develop a mainstream magazine for an African American market. “It allowed me to use all my skills as a designer and artist to create the editorial page,” Towles says. Under his direction, Black Enterprise became known for its high standards and for cultivating a talented group of emerging artists and photographers who helped the magazine win a host of awards and industry recognition.

One of the highlights for Towles was commissioning painter Romare Bearden to create the cover art of the annual “The Top 100 Black Businesses” issue in June 1978. The original art was a collage of different types of businesses that also incorporated the number 100. With publisher Earl G. Graves, Towles also commissioned Bearden to create a 16-color, poster-size serigraph print edition of the “100” cover, now a collectible, sought-after auction item. In addition to Bearden, Towles tapped top artists and illustrators of the day to work on the cover and interior. Caldecott award-winner Carole Byard was a regular contributor, as were illustrators Jerry Pinckney and Higgins Bond.

Between 1975 and 1980, Black Enterprise curated quarterly exhibits in their corporate offices that featured both emerging and well-established artists and photographers, including Gordon Parks, Adger Cowans, Tony Barboza, and Ming Smith. Part of the fun of the exhibits were the specially created promotional graphics, including four-color posters and postcards used as promotional mailers.

After Black Enterprise, Towles founded his own studio, Edward Towles Graphic Design, in 1982 to focus on print and advertising projects for companies like Pepsi, The World Bank, Baltimore City Community College, Procter & Gamble, and West Harlem Environmental Action Agency. But magazines continued to influence his work. Client American Visions, a D.C. bi-monthly on African-American culture that profiled icons like Duke Ellington and Zora Neale Hurston, had a lasting impact on Towles—particularly his work on a series of offset Smyth-sewn coffee table art books for Virginia independent publisher Dennis Forbes.

Illustrations remain a part of Towles’ work, but on-location drawing assignments have been especially fun and challenging. He spent a week in Haiti drawing different aspects of Haitian life with journalist Jacob Wortham. Armed with a Rapidograph pen and pan watercolors, he’d set up and draw market places, fishing villages, and peoples’ homes. Some drawings were more difficult to achieve than others; in one instance Towles flew from Port Au Prince to Cap-Haïtien and then rode on a donkey up a mountain to sketch the Citadelle, considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the world.

Many of these drawings were published by Black Enterprise and American Visions, and his art has also been shown at the Rathbone Gallery in Albany, NY in a 1980 solo exhibition that included conceptual, op-ed style drawings and paintings. Earlier, in 1975 and 1976, his two offset posters “I Decree I be Free” and “Frederick Douglass” were shown in the juried Intergrafik international in Berlin.

As a freelance illustrator, Towles worked on a range of assignments, from children’s book anthologies for Holt Rinehart and Winston to a weekly column in the New York Times weekly Home section, and features in Town & Country, Opera News, and Essence magazine.

In 1982 Towles was one of 12 New York artists, including Keith Haring, who were given a platform to create interactive computer-generated art that appeared in Times Square. Towles project, “Celebration of Life,” was inspired by the birth of his first child. “On our way home from the hospital after Lauren was born, we drove down Broadway to see the illuminated homage to my wife and child,” Towles recalls. A year later, he and his wife Linda created a quarterly tabloid publication called In The Arts to highlight the achievements of visual artists and to network their services to prospective clients. It was published sporadically between 1983 and 2006, and a digital version is currently in the works.

More recently, the 2014 retrospective, “Ed Towles: Black Enterprise & Art,” was mounted at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University in Baltimore by instructor and graphic designer Joseph Ford, and museum curator, Diala Toure. The exhibit featured editorial pages of art and photography from 1971–1982, as well as pieces by 15 artists who worked on and influenced the magazine, including Romare Bearden, Tony Barboza, John Pinderhughes, Barbara Higgins Bond, and Overton Loyd. Following the exhibit Morgan State University invited Towles to be an artist in residence in the design department.

“Early on it was important for me to understand the commitment it takes to have a fulfilling career, to develop the necessary skills to stay current, and help others in the process,” Towles says. Since business can be fleeting, one should develop an entrepreneurial eye towards marketing one’s work. Self-publishing books, creating limited-edition linoleum prints, letterpress cards, and giving lectures and workshops are all part of Towles’ regular work routine.