By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
The artist Houston Conwill, a son of Louisville’s West End, died Nov. 14, 2016, in New York City. He was 69.
Conwill, who attended St. Augustine Church and later Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in his early years, was remembered in an obituary published by the New York Times Nov. 25 as one who “assimilated a wide range of genres and forms, among them maps and bowls of earth, to depict memory, heritage and the African diaspora in works that blurred the boundaries between performance and conceptual art.”
In an interview with The Record recently, the artist’s brother, Father Giles Conwill, described his brother as “extremely talented and very humble.” Houston Conwill possessed a soft-spoken nature but communicated through his artwork, said Father Conwill, who taught history at Morehouse College for 23 years and is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Ga.
The artist often collaborated with his sister, the poet Dr. Estella Conwill Majozo, and architect Joseph de Pace.
He is perhaps best known for his memorial to the poet Langston Hughes at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, according to the New York Times.
Conwill’s works are also installed near the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan and at the Harold Washington Memorial Library in Chicago.
He also created a 50-foot tall and 20-foot wide waterfall fountain in San Francisco with Majozo and de Pace. It’s located in a garden at the Yerba Buena Performing Arts Center in San Francisco and honors the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
His first commissioned artwork, according to Majozo, was at St. Augustine Church at 13th and West Broadway in Louisville.
In the late 1970s, Conwill and his wife Kinshasha Holman Conwill painted a series of six murals that flank the nave of the church.
The four-foot by eight-foot paintings were painted in vibrant acrylic colors and “depict themes that parishioners identified as the reasons for the existence of St. Augustine Church,” according to a parish history.
The three murals that hang on the left side of the nave are titled “Worship and Praise,” “Continuity and Tradition” and “Celebration and Joy.” The murals on the opposite side are titled “Love and Concern,” “The Christian Family” and “Kings and Queens Arise.”
Conwill and his wife, Kinshasha, who is the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, also designed a large stained glass icon of St. Augustine for the parish that is visible from West Broadway.
Tony Heitzman, a former priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville who served as pastor of St. Augustine in the late 1970s and later at Immaculate Heart of Mary, remembered the Conwill family as active members of both parishes.
“They were very faithful and full of life. (The family) had a love of neighbor and community,” he said.
Heitzman, 85, particularly remembered the matriarch of the family, Mary Luella Herndon Conwill, and her passion for education. She served as an educator and was the first interim principal of the then-newly opened Immaculate Heart of Mary School until Dominican Sisters arrived to lead the school.
Father Conwill, 72, said faith and education played a vital role in his and his siblings’ lives.
“My mother was very devoted to her faith. She would have us recite the rosary at night before going to bed. We would go to daily Mass early in our young lives,” he said. The education he and his siblings received at St. Augustine and Immaculate Heart of Mary was the “foundation for all the rest.”
“When we were growing up, my mother realized education was the way we would not only survive but prosper,” he said.
Father Conwill said the Verona Fathers, missionaries from Italy who staffed Immaculate Heart of Mary, served as father figures after his father, Giles Conwill, died, and were instrumental in his discernment to the priesthood.
Houston Conwill also briefly entered the seminary and discerned with the Benedictine monks at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. He left, Father Conwill said, because “he couldn’t realize the expression of his artistic genius.” The artist later graduated from Howard University.
Father Giles said Houston, who attended an Episcopal church later in his life, was always dedicated “to his faith, to Christianity, particularly the mystical element.”
In addition to his wife, sister and Father Conwill, Houston Conwill is survived by his brothers William and Spivey.