The late J. Otis Powell.
Poet, playwright, and overall multi-talented artist J. Otis Powell died on Monday, August 28. Powell was 61 years’ old, and had been awarded a Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Commitment just five days prior. He had struggled with ill health, and received a kidney transplant several years’ prior.
Powell, who preferred to write his last name with an interrobang (a nonstandard punctuation mark combining a question mark and an exclamation point), was a distinctive voice in the landscapes of poetry, spoken word, and theatre in the Twin Cities. Multiple eulogies and reminiscences quickly sprang up on social media as word of Powell’s passing spread; the many words used to describe the man who wrote his name as J. Otis Powell‽ paint a complex portrait of a warmly remembered person whose art defied normal categorizations.
A transplant to Minnesota, Powell and his wife moved to the Land of 10,000 Lakes in 1987 after Powell completed a degree in Telecommunications and a minor in Philosophy at Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical University. Just a few years later, he began his first of many collaborations with Intermedia Arts, performing a piece called Gods Must Be Pimps, a sort of essay told using brass and bass drums. Not one to rest on his laurels, the self-described Bluesician also curated a show at Intermedia Arts that year. The show’s title, Endangered Species: Men of Color, could have been written yesterday – one of many timeless artistic creations and curations from his expansive output.
Other collaborations took Powell to KFAI Radio, the Loft Literary Center, Pangea World Theatre, Minnesota Dance Alliance, and others. He created books, recorded CDs and DVDs, wrote for a dazzling array of publications, and was found reading poetry everywhere from orchestra halls (complete with orchestras) to cafés. A small sampling of his many awards includes a Loft Creative Nonfiction Award, a Jerome Travel and Study Grant and a Mid Career Artist Grant, and an Intermedia Arts Interdisciplinary McKnight Fellowship.