Internationally, 2016 was a year fraught with the death of beloved artists. Having lost Ron Hynes the year before, St. John’s might have thought it was safe, but the year’s end took master glass artist Graham Howcroft from our ranks.
His low-key public persona meant that by his last years he had dropped out of the public eye, but within the arts community the outpouring of grief was a moving testament to the influence he had on the creative life of St. John’s, and further into the island’s rural core.
I lived next door to Graham briefly. He would hang out in his back yard, I in mine, in comfortable silence. I don’t know that we ever exchanged more than 2 words, but the vibe was relaxed, no pressure to make conversation for the sake of social niceties. I’ve since realized this was a big part of who Graham was.
“He hated small talk. Big talk or no talk,” his apprentice-turned-business partner Jason Rendell, of Rendell & Howcroft Studio says. “Some people will tell you he was hard to get along with, but I find those people harder to get along with. They couldn’t accept that he had no time for small conversation.”
Born in Blackpool, England, Graham first moved to St. John’s in 1969 already a competent glassblower, after studies in stained glass and mosaic, and a return to England in ’74, he moved permanently to the rock in ‘77, opening up his own studio in ‘79.
His sister Barbara, who helped raise him, since both his parents worked unusual hours, describes his move to St. Johns as “when he began his alternative lifestyle.” St. John’s in the 70s was full of the most vivid cast to share this shift into artistic counterculture with.
A skilled bassist, also self taught Barbara proudly points out, an old band of his from the Blackpool days had opened a show for The Animals. He played in several bands over the years in St. John’s, Lukeys Boat with Sandy Morris and Noel Dinn perhaps the best known among them.
Friend Mike Wade made music with him, and more. They once had a legendary scrap, pulling the 2 swords displayed on the wall of The Ship Inn down to duel it out over some debate that had grown heated. The swords were never returned to the wall after that.
Graham was a formative influence for artist Clem Curtis. “Graham’s was the first studio I ever went into. I was painting murals on the LSPU Hall wall with house paint. Graham got an order of proper paint together for me, taught me what tools I needed to be an artist.”
They would jam or debate art techniques late into the night. Passionate debate is one of the things Graham seems to be remembered best for.
Anne Pickard-Vandeering, also an artist , says twice conversations with Graham inspired her to go back to school and up her game. In April 2015 she bought Grahams house on Gower, where he continued to live until his death last December. The deed to the house was very late in coming. Eerily, it arrived on the day of his death.
Asked to describe her friend Graham, she responds “Graham understood light and dark, in his art and in his life. He was complex, passionate, and kind. I will miss him.”
Multi -talented friend Liz Solo was influenced by and collaborated with Graham, often also with Janis Spence.
“Graham and Janis were a dynamic duo, partners in life and art, and for almost 30 years they collaborated on creative work – especially in the theater. I had the great fortune to be cast as an actor in plays that were written and directed by Janis and designed by Graham, like ‘Walking to Australia.’ Graham’s keen eye and distinct graphic style translated so well to the stage as a set and lighting designer.”
Graham was an audiophile, she continues, his musical taste running from Pink Floyd to Nick Cave to Amy Winehouse. His opinion was very important to Liz, considering it the highest compliment if Graham liked the music she was making.
Drummer and photographer Justin Hall was also very close with Graham, and contributed photos of Graham in life and work, choosing to express his feeling for Graham to me this way rather than words.
Luckily Liz can fill in the blanks for me, repeating the point that “Graham didn’t deal in small talk. He was challenging and very direct and many of our conversations would take the form of a classical argument, things could get pretty passionate but they never became personal. His interests were broad and he had a genuine curiosity about everything under the sun.”
Hilarious, loyal, gifted, and a “Scorpio through and through” are other descriptors she uses.
The stories, when they start coming, are mind blowing. Whenever Graham went into a church to install a window or work, he would start by sitting at the organ and playing “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” He was so well versed in the scriptures he depicted in the windows that he would often school the minister on them, and developed lifelong friendships with some members of the clergy.
The Light on the Rock project he collaborated on with Justin Hall saw them photographing and videotaping every stained glass church window on the island. His own work is in many of them.
In a DaVinci Code-like discovery, it is revealed to me that Graham hid images in some of the windows. In the 6 Days of Creation window, there is a Star of David hidden within the first day, well hidden I am told “but it is there.” There are others, but this is the only one I am given specifics on.
Clem Curtis recently finished a series of sketches entitled Not Without Risk, an homage to Howcroft and a statement on Graham’s ethic that “work in the arts is worth it, no matter what.”
The last word goes to Liz Solo in further explanation of Graham’s dedication to his work. “He showed us all, by example, how to live the artist’s life. Graham always ran an independent studio, always had a practice going, never stopped working, thinking, exploring and following his impulses. He mentored others. Graham taught us that being an artist is not simply a career choice or a thing you do for money. It’s a way of life. You make many sacrifices in order to maintain the freedom that an artist must have in order to live ‘the life,’ but there is nothing more important than that freedom. An artist answers to his or herself.”
Great article Felicity, but I do feel compelled to clarify one thing. While the words “Big talk or no talk” had my name after them, they are not words that I would use and certainly not to describe Graham. ‘Big talk’ implies grandiose ideas with little to back them up. This was not him. It may seem like such a small thing to point out, but Graham would have. I have witnessed him correcting clergy both on content and meaning of scripture, even at the risk of losing a commission. Words are important. Graham had always been dubious about interviews for this reason. Lesson learned, my friend. Lesson learned.