Neal Mann

Focus: John Howard Interview

Neal Mann
Focus: John Howard Interview

Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.

John Howard found his calling in climbing. After studying science the Irishman found the sport opened up a creative seam, ultimately leading to a career at a digital agency in Dublin. It also helped him find his artistic streak; a chance moment whilst out cleaning new boulder problems made him pull out his sketch book. That moment led to his current series of drawings in real world locations. It was the beautiful simplicity of these which caught our eye.     

It's fascinating that you made the move from science to creative arts. How did you end up in your current role?

I did an undergrad and masters in environmental science, more out of interest than practicality, and so upon graduating and being faced with the reality of academic research or trying to find related work at the height of recession, I went travelling/working abroad for a while to further avoid reality/try to figure myself out a bit. In retrospect it was just what I needed. I'd felt a bit rudderless but came back to Ireland much more sure of myself. I got into climbing in college and it had offered me a vehicle for self-expression where I really felt like myself. After travelling, I had a clear sense that I wanted to pursue a career where I could perhaps find an outlet for a latent creativity, and where I could produce work I was proud of and express myself. I've always been interested in visual art and wanted to see if it was something I could not just appreciate but make, so I enrolled in a part-time graphic design course and took on a junior role in a production company where I began by doing odd-jobs, transcribing audio for radio, proofing copy and so on. I slowly transitioned into a role as digital editor, recording interviews, filming, editing/designing for TV and radio series and client projects, so it's been great to get an insight into lots of aspects of media and design and get a sense of my voice and the work I enjoy. Growing up I think I'd always harboured jealousy for people who knew exactly where they were going, but taking the scenic route has been fun so far.

It's interesting that climbing offered you that vehicle. Is that because it gave you an opportunity to create media around the sport and learn or was it the freedom of the sport itself that spurred you on?

It was more just doing the sport itself. I think it gave me something to identify with and a sense of place. I wasn't a particularly athletic kid so I think I got a lot out of having this outlet where I could feel confident in my body, outside, in places that motivated me.

John Howard on a deep water solo in Ireland. Photo: Peter Linney

John Howard on a deep water solo in Ireland. Photo: Peter Linney

How did your Instagram series of drawings in physical spaces come about? What inspired you to start it and how do you go about the process? 

I think it was around a year and half ago, I was out on my own to clean a new boulder problem along the coast and I remember coiling up my rope and being struck by the landscape, the position and the sea breeze. I wanted to try and capture the moment I suppose and I had a journal in my bag that I had great intentions of using as a diary, so I sat along the cliff top and sketched out the view. I hadn't drawn anything since I was in school so I was a bit paralyzed by the blankness of the page, but it felt like such a release to tune out the chatter in my head and focus on letting my hand move freely. There was something meditative about it. I was forced to really inspect the view and fully appreciate where I was. It's clichéd to say but I felt very present and had no sense of time passing. I think I held up the drawing against the horizon to see how accurate it was and I liked the contrast between what was really there in my surroundings and what I had ended up depicting so I shared a photo of it. I started making a habit of making quick sketches when I was out in the hills or on lunch break from my desk job. I liked the challenge of seeing if I could make anything in these brief windows and enjoyed the immediacy of it. It made me keep my eye out for interesting compositions or subjects, whereas ordinarily I'd have my head buried in my phone scrolling through Twitter. I think with work being quite deadline- and results-driven I enjoy letting my mind wander and not having to analyze what I make or be too precious about it. I'm left with these little mementos that remind me of where I've been and where my head was that day.


You drawings have a beautiful simplicity to them. Has the creativity and escape you found through your art and climbing changed the way you approach the rest of your life?

I've always liked the idea of trying to communicate something or capture a mood with as few marks as possible. Through my drawings I get to feel uninhibited and I'm free to act without deliberate thought. 

When I need to let off steam, my instinct is to gravitate towards moving or making. These things allow me to articulate and share something uniquely personal in a way I haven't been able to with many other activities.

Where would you like to take your climbing and creative side next? Is there anything you dream of doing on both counts? 

I don't think there's anything overly specific beyond following my gut and seeing where it takes me. I think I've been guilty of giving a goal-driven outlook too much weight in the past, so staying injury free and keeping it fun is definitely the main thing in terms of my climbing. I'm hoping to go sport climbing in Europe for a few months this year and when I get back I'll be focusing on bouldering at my limit in Ireland. Creatively, I want to keep pushing myself and practicing. I'd like to hone my own artistic voice and commit more time to exploring ideas fully, in order to make work I'm proud of. Down the line, I'd love to be able to make my living in graphic design and to have a personal practice making visual art that connects with people.

Find John's work here on his Instagram feed.