"You need patience and mindfulness - light is everything."
Kev Howard is an angry old man – although he isn’t that old, and his anger is mainly an activist’s anger, on behalf of others as well as himself. I had a fascinating afternoon with him in the Boro’s redesigned Baker Street café.
I’ve known Kev a long time: we met fifteen years ago, when he and I travelled to Finland together as part of a Baltic exchange of poets and musicians. He appeared at the airport with a long tubular piece of luggage, which turned out to be a didgeridoo. I remember him teasing me.: “Did you think they were golf clubs?” He was, and is, great to work with. But it seems there’s even more to him than I thought.
KH is a photographer and a musician – in that order, he insists, although he began his creative life (and initially earned a living) as a musician. Since 2010, photography has been his main creative driver and also his bread and butter. He’s currently doing an MA in Fine Art at Teesside University. This could make him sound like a dilettante, but that’s the last thing he is – his attention to detail is evident in everything he does.
Kev photographs bands in performance, and has a remarkable collection of portraits, poets being a speciality. He is also a stunning landscape photographer – nobody captures a north eastern sky like he does. Living in Saltburn gives many opportunities, but he is also a very patient man when it comes to waiting for the right moment.
“You need patience and mindfulness. Light is everything,” he tells me.
He learned photography early in his life, as a student of photography and film making after leaving school with no qualifications. “I started excelling instead of failing.”
The other thing about Kev is that he is a disability rights activist, and often works with people who are excluded from the mainstream. He speaks passionately about what he considers to be the regressive state of disability rights in this country. He lived in Holland in the 90s and considers this, and other European countries, to be way ahead of us in this regard. He believes we have a history of “shuttering out” people with disabilities: in the past, in institutions, and now in more subtle ways, through benefit capping and restricted employment opportunities.
He knows what he’s talking about: all his life, he has experienced Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC) – a term used to describe over 300 conditions that cause multiple curved joints in areas of the body at birth. He has had 55 major operations as a result of AMC each one shifting his centre of balance, so that he has had to learn to walk 22 times. He documented this experience in his exhibition d-Formed
I thought I knew Kev reasonably well, but this exhibition reveals so much more about the visceral and psychological effects of the many surgeries he has undergone. It also reveals the determination and persistence of an artist who wants people to understand something important. I asked him where this came from.
“I had very strong parents,” he tells me. “My mother was brilliant: she was a realist, and she was determined I was going to be independent.” This seems to have been the element that engendered his “can do” attitude. It’s interesting that he also learned his first musical instrument, a dulcimer, at 18, because a musician friend refused to see any possible limitations.
He lived in America for a year (199-2001) camped on the side of a mountain in an American school bus without water or electricity. It was an isolated spot:
“One of the best memories I have is of waking up to find a herd of deer grazing all around the bus. It was awesome.”
Kev also learned the instrument that most people would now associate with him, the didgeridoo. “With the didge, you’re the instrument,” he says. “I’m a contemporary didgeridoo player, although I have the greatest respect for the culture it comes from.”
He’s a very positive guy, but of course, he’s had his own struggles. He fought and won a battle with alcoholism.
“A promise I made to somebody I loved very much who passed away keeps me straight.”
He has also struggled with accepting his body shape.
“Partners have helped,” he says, recalling how he came to reject the prosthetic hand he had been given. He replaced it with a much more practical hook: all part of learning to love his own body as it is.
He is concerned about the mental health issues which are cropping up around body shaming and body fascism, as endless images of the “perfect body” are flashed at us, particularly the young. He also has concerns about clusters of childhood diseases and genetic disorders which crop up in areas with heavy industry. He cites research done on US companies who set aside a percentage of their profits to compensate families affected by pollutants, which cause cancers and deformities.
It’s all a bit scary, especially as Kev reiterates that deformity in all life forms is on an ever increasing rise. This applies to flora, to fauna and to aquatic life. I know this is the case, but when Kev tells you about it, it’s hard not to feel the urgency.