Bill Powell

“A beatnik who turned into a hippie”.

Bill Powell’s (1938-2015) presence in Hamilton was described by singer-songwriter Tom Wilson as “the Tabasco sauce in a bowl of dull porridge”. Between running the Ebony Knight and the Knight II coffee houses, founding the Canvas Gallery, the Tiger Group, the Earthsong Festival and the Festival of Friends, managing numerous folk musicians, as well as painting his own art, Powell personified Hamilton’s electric thirst for arts and culture.

The Ebony Knight coffee house was a bohemian paradise. A gathering place for artists, intellectuals and general free-thinkers in a city that was focused on other pursuits. In 1964, Powell began to rent the “rambling old house of 15 rooms” near Main and Bay for $250 a month, gaining income mostly through the rental of the rooms upstairs to what he called “artistically and intellectually-inclined people,” and by running a club downstairs. Patrons would pay $1 to become a member of the Ebony Knight and coffee was sold cheaply. Food was often served and eaten communally in the back chess room. Profit was not the goal of Powell’s vision, but rather to provide a space for like-minded individuals to come together and form a community. He described his regulars with glowing admiration as people with “kindred and divine diverse thought… they are beautiful people with beautiful hearts”.

Article on Bill Powell's Ebony Knight cafe. Hamilton Spectator, 1966.

A 1966 Hamilton Spectator article, ‘Knight People’, paints a portrait of Powell as the perfect leader of such an alternative group, describing him as still in bed by midday, propped up by pillows, bearded, smoking a pipe, having had “a long discussion about magnolia blooms” the night before. Spiritually and intellectually minded at a young age, Powell originally planned to become a minister, then a schoolteacher, before deciding to pursue arts and community building in his hometown. The opening of Ebony Knight began a lifelong commitment to uplifting the people around him to activate their artistic and mental potential:

All I want is to provide this facility for people to get to know themselves. I never wanted this place to become a commercial proposition. It isn’t. We don’t make that much money. People come. People go. Some are made very happy. Some remain sad. That’s the way it will always be.

After the closing of the Ebony Knight, Powell moved on to expand his vision by opening the Canvas Gallery on Augusta Street, with a new coffee shop, Knight II, located just across the street. The Canvas Gallery offered support to many local artists, including Conrad Furey who found a fast friend and job as an installer with Powell upon moving to the city from Newfoundland. The gallery became a more focused meeting place for visual artists to begin organizing and more thoroughly promote Hamilton as an artistic hub. In 1978, Powell, along with fellow artists Furey, Rick Cook, Gunder Robez and Wayne Allan, started the artist collective the Tiger Group.

Poster for the Tiger Group featuring Bill Powell, Wayne Allan, Rick Cook, Conrad Furey and Gundar Robez, 1979.
Brochure for the Tiger Group featuring Bill Powell and Wayne Allan, c.1978.

Knight II, a new iteration of Ebony Knight with many of the same values, became a haven for folk music to thrive in the city, hosting musicians Powell would then go on to manage such as Tom Wilson, Jackie Washington and Paul Langille. Musician Ian Thomas said that Powell “did more for Hamilton culture than any single person I can think of.”

Powell’s foray into the music scene led him to begin large scale community events. The first Festival of Friends was organized by Powell in 1976. Keeping in line with his anti-capitalist values, the event was free and focused on grassroots folk music, creating a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere for Hamilton’s people. He always used it as an opportunity to raise environmental awareness, asking attendees each night to pick up a piece of garbage on their way out. Powell remained the manager of the festival until his retirement in 2000, when his longtime partner in career and life, Lynne, took his place for 2 years. The two were a dynamic duo, sharing their skills to elevate the cultural landscape for over 50 years. As Stephanie Beatson wrote, “Bill was the ‘mouthpiece,’ the talent recruiter and booking agent while Lynne worked to keep them in the black, making budgets and winning grants…The contributions of Bill and Lynne Powell have had a ripple effect within the Hamilton area arts and music scene, which would most certainly not have developed the way it did without the “Dream Team”” (Hamilton Musician Magazine, March 2015).

Photo of Bill Powell, from wife Lynne Powell's Facebook.

After his retirement, Powell devoted his time to his own art making, returning to painting full time. Reflecting on his whirlwind legacy a few months before his death in September 2015, he shared:

I was put on earth by the lord to lead, teach, share, and reward my fellow man. I was put here because I have a mind that has the ability to assess a person to find out what is good about that person, and how I can bring it about and help them rediscover it inside themselves and grow… it’s important to be a good listener, a good questioner, and by all means help your fellow man (Hamilton Musician Magazine, March 2015).

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