Profile: Houston Conwill (1947-2016)

Houston Eugene Conwill was an American multidisciplinary artist known best for large-scale public sculptural installations. Conwill was a sculptor, painter, and performance and conceptual artist whose site-specific works explore and celebrate spirituality and African-American artists, activists, and intellectuals. Studio Museum in Harlem recognised his body of work as a “lasting monument to black culture.”

Early life and career

Houston Eugene Conwill was born on April 2, 1947, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Mary Luella Herndon, an educator, and Giles Adolph Conwill, a waiter. He was the third of their six children. His father died when he was a child and his maternal grandmother (Estella Houston, who he was named for) played an important role in his upbringing. Conwill was raised Catholic, his mother a teacher and administrator at a predominantly black parochial school. His sister Estella Conwill Majozo is an author, poet, and professor. At least one of his brothers, Giles Conwill, went on to join the priesthood. For a time, in his late teens, Conwill lived in a monastery in St. Meinrad, Indiana. He joined the Air Force in 1966 where he served three years until the fall of 1970 when he enrolled in Howard University’s Art Department. During his time at Howard, Conwill worked with Sam Gilliam, Lois Mailou Jones, and Skunder Boghossian, and took in the displays of traditional African art exhibited in Howard’s gallery. It was here, and in his first student exhibition in 1971, that Conwill started making works with canvases stretched over pyramid shapes, a motif that would recur throughout his artistic career. Conwill graduated from Howard in 1973 and moved with his wife, fellow Howard art school graduate Kinshasha Holman Conwill, to California. Houston pursued his master’s degree from University of Southern California  and Kinshasha worked at curator of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, where they lived for two years.

Personal life

Conwill married Karen Holman (also known as Kinshasha Holman Conwill) in a Ghanaian ceremony at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington D.C. in 1971. Conwill died on November 14, 2016, of prostate cancer.

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