Functional Sculpture

“Call me John B., ” smiles my bespeckled host from behind an outthrust hand. There’s no pretension here. Tan pants, denim shirt – working man’s garb.

His workspace, the Idea Factory, is cluttered. It sits across the street from Fairhope’s Windmill Market. Everything has a story, a purpose.

With practiced touch, the artisan leans into a spinning chunk of laurel oak. He throttles his lathe to a comfortable rhythm. His instrument gives a metallic stutter and releases an arc of damp shavings. Fragrant fragments nestle in his hair. He tenderly coaxes a bowl from the cellulose.

John B. Howell III, above, is keeper of legacies. His dad, granddad and great-granddad were small-town doctors, rooted in their Mississippi communities. In turn, John B. practiced gynecologic surgery, turning to art as an avocation.

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The Howells are both healers and creators. His mother, now 90, is a folk artist; wife Stacey is a popular painter. Son John B. IV, a board-certified internist, works in glass. Younger son James is also a woodturner.

John B. says of his youth: “We all made things. Everyone in town used to wait to see what the Howells were giving for Christmas. One year we made kissing balls out of chicken wire and mistletoe. Another year, we got cypress knees, boiled and stripped them, and made lamps.”

Initially, John B. resisted calling himself an artist. Today he’s comfortable being a “functional artist.”

“I create art you can use, not just look at, ” he says.

Howell is the ultimate recycler. He fashions platters and cups from storm flotsam and pulls a chainsaw from his trunk to convert roadside debris into artistic media. The woodturner wastes nothing, bagging shop shavings as mulch for friends and neighbors. John B. finds his greatest enjoyment creating pieces from wood that has meaning. Families will cherish for generations a bowl or cup fashioned from the tree grandpa planted and in which young Sarah learned to climb.

Pecan pedestal bowl: The smoothly finished piece is perfect for elevating a spring salad.


Natural-edged drake elm bowl: Suitable for presenting small delights, this smooth-hewn piece is John B.’s first experiment with drake elm.

Gnarly pecan bowl: John B. fashioned this from an old pecan tree that had been
attacked by time and insects.

5 Rivers Cypress Gift Shop
30945 Five Rivers Blvd., Spanish Fort. 625-0814.

Patina Gallery
19 N. Church St., Fairhope. 928-2718.
Ashland Gallery
2321 Old Shell Road. 479-3548.

Giles Vaden

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