Driftwood artist Paul Howard’s creations
- Credit: © James Bass 2018
Paul Howard’s charming creations are made from driftwood combed from Norfolk beaches. But his story begins with a very ill little boy...
When Paul Howard lovingly crafted a little toy boat out of driftwood for his desperately-ill son George, he never imagined that small craft would launch an artistic career.
George was born in 2002 and initially all was well. But then he starting having fits – and Paul and his wife Michelle were given some devastating news
“Everything was fine until about four months,” says Paul. “Then he started to have fits and we ended up in Addenbrookes in Christmas 2003 where he was diagnosed with Leigh’s Disease.
“We were told he wouldn’t have very long to live, probably wouldn’t see his first birthday. Everything kind of changed then.”
Leighs Disease is a rare, severe, life-limiting genetic disorder which has a profound effect on a child’s life. “George couldn’t do anything for himself; he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t sit up on his own. He was very happy, though,” Paul says, as we talk in the sunny garden of the family home in Ormesby.
The severity of George’s condition meant that he needed full-time care; Paul, then a conveyancer for a Yarmouth solicitor, gave up work to look after the little boy. It was challenging.
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While Paul had been caring for George he had some help in the form of respite care, when he was able take himself away for a few hours. It was during one of those small escapes that he fashioned a little boat for George from a piece of driftwood he found on the beach near his home.
The seaside had been a familiar place for the little boy; “We used to take him down the beach and collect sand and pebbles and pieces of driftwood so he could feel the texture of them,” says Paul.
“When our respite carer came along one day she saw the boat and asked if I could make her one for the bathroom and that’s how it kind of started.”
As well as boats, Paul had begun to craft charming little coastal houses and quayside scenes out of driftwood, painting them and using odds and ends, nails, screws, bits of wire, to decorate them.
“Someone else saw them and said ‘why don’t you put some online?’ and so I did and they sold and then I thought ‘I’ll see if I can get them in some shops or galleries.’” His first customer was in Wells; now there is a string of Norfolk shops and galleries stocking his pieces.
He draws his ideas, naturally, from his home county. “The inspiration really – and it’s going to sound a bit clichéd – is where we live. I love Norfolk; it’s a beautiful place. We often say ‘we’re so lucky to live here’.
“You’ve got the coast, the countryside, you can go to Norwich, which is a beautiful city. I genuinely do love Norfolk.
He also beachcombs most of his material. “I go to all the different beaches all along the coast, collecting bits of wood.
“You might walk for a couple of hours and only pick up two or three pieces. But I can think of worse things to do; it’s not hard work!”
“I got some pieces from the harbourmaster at Wells. He saw my stuff and said ‘I’ve got a few pieces in my yard, there’s some from a ship which sunk in Wells harbour in 1700s.’”
Remarkably, Paul has no artistic background at all. “I can draw but at school when we had options I never chose art because at the time I never thought it was really a proper subject!”
When he left school he became an apprentice shipwright at Richards before he and a friend developed a case of wanderlust and hightailed off to Australia and the far east for a few months.
“When I worked on the shipyard we’d start at 7, we’d be surrounded by tons of steel, it was noisy, echoey and cold. My friend said ‘do you know what, I fancy going to Australia.’ So we did it.”
On his return Paul decided on another change of direction, qualifying as a legal executive and becoming a conveyancer.
Now he is enjoying his life as an artist, with Michelle’s help. “My wife is really supportive of what I do. She works really hard as an A&E nurse at James Paget hospital and that support is really important to me.”
Paul and Michelle lost George in 2010; he had confounded expectation and lived for eight years, long enough to have, for 12 weeks, a little sister, Ruby.
“We always knew it was going to happen but I never thought it would,” says Paul. “Ruby knows all about George and that she had a big brother.”
Where to find Paul’s work
• The Handcraft Company, Blakeney
• The Garden House Gallery, Garden Street, Cromer
• Simply Local at Stalham
• The Jade Tree , Elm Hill, Norwich
• The Studio Art Gallery, Acle
• The Little Interior Company in Aylsham
• Serena Hall, Southwold