Earl O’Dell Henry (1911-1945)
Peregrine Falcon, 1943, Tempera on Board, Private Collection
Earl Henry, a local naturalist and self-taught artist, is often better known as the Knoxville dental officer who perished on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis at the end of World War II.
After his boyhood discovery of vividly illustrated wildlife cards found inside Arm & Hammer Baking Soda boxes, Earl began drawing birds. His wooden bird carvings drew acclaim while studying at Knoxville High School. He developed the art of taxidermy while a junior member of the East Tennessee Ornithological Society and that expertise informed his painting of birds.
After studying dentistry in Memphis, Henry returned to Knoxville and set up practice in the Medical Arts Building on Main Street. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving on active duty initially at the Naval Hospital at Parris Island in South Carolina. There, he honed his artistic ability using tempera paints on boards, and later incorporating detailed background landscapes, reminiscent of the style of John James Audubon, providing richer and more sophisticated natural settings.
Cmdr. Henry lost his life at sea at age 33. He died on July 30, 1945 aboard the USS Indianapolis shortly after the vessel delivered uranium for the first atomic bomb used in World War II. The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk within 12 minutes. Henry was not among the survivors. He was one of two Knoxvillians on the ship – the other being Knoxville Journal photographer Kasey Moore. Two of Henry’s final works, “Kentucky Cardinal” and “American Eagle in the Pacific” were painted aboard ship in 1944 and his artistic legacy remains part of the ongoing story of the USS Indianapolis.
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This art wrap is sponsored by RiverHill Gateway Neighborhood and a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission.