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Home / Latest News / From under canvas to on the canvas

From under canvas to on the canvas

When out of control teenager John Abell was kicked out of school his life spiralled into drug addiction.

But in a remarkable turnaround the once homeless 26-year-old has been recognised as one of the best new artists in the country having just been named runner up in the Welsh Artist of the Year competition.

“My drug use escalated quite quickly to heroin, cocaine, crack, the works,” he said.

“It got quite bad before I sorted it out.”

John’s probation officer – he had been convicted for a public order offence – arranged for him to move to his grandmother’s Brecon Beacons home, in Llanfihangel Talyllyn, to keep him out of trouble.

John Abell's artwork
John Abell’s artwork

He said: “When I was there I thought, ‘I’m living in a little village with a population of 300 people. How can I be a Cardiff rude boy where everyone knows my business?’

“I started to think about life. It was a brilliant time.

“I had to leave Cardiff. I just knew I was really depressed and I had to get out of there because of the way my life was.”

His life was “fairly bleak” with “no money and having nothing to do.”

“That is why people turn to drugs and things,” John said. 

“Because you have got nothing. It’s quite a tough world really.”

The artist was booted from Bishop of Llandaff School when he was 15.

“I was getting suspended every week,” he said.

“It was just stupid really. It got to the point where I was not allowed out of the head’s office. I had to do all my lessons in there.

“I was really bad and after a time I got expelled. I was just disruptive.”

Despite playing up in class John did not struggle keeping up with work.

“I was top of my class in a lot of things,” he said.

“I was just really dysfunctional. I don’t think school is for everyone.”

He was left destitute after he left his mum’s home.

“I left my mum with no choice but to kick me out,” John said.

“That was when I was in my mid-teens.”

John told WalesOnline that since leaving home he has spent a significant time sleeping rough.

“I was homeless until last August,” he said.

“I stayed in a mate’s spare room. It didn’t bother me. I live a hand to mouth existence, not having a lot of money.”

So John was over the moon when he was recognised for his woodcut prints at the awards, held St David’s Hall, in Cardiff.

His entry was called Three Graces: All the Floods Left Them. It is inspired by Greek mythology and ex-girlfriends.

His recognition left John’s mum “made up.”

“The awards were great,” he said.

“I had a lot of family and friends there, a lot of support.

“I was very shocked, I didn’t have a speech prepared or anything.”

Painter Neale Howells – one of the judges – described John’s work as “the boldest use of the print technique.”

Fellow adjudicator Richard Huw Morgan dubbed John’s entry a “real gem.”

He was confident John’s reputation “will grow and grow within Wales and beyond.”

The artist recalled the moment he realised how well he had done.

“They announced my name and I got on stage and attempted to say a few things.”

He told the crowd “thanks” then announced he had to “nip out for a cigarette.”

John, who lives in Riverside, in Cardiff, gets materials for his work by raiding skips and asking builders for spare timber.

“I’m a pedestrian,” he said.

“I don’t own a car or a bike and I just walk around and spy wood.

“I will ask builders if they have any wood spare and more often that not I get some. I’ve got loads of wood spare at the moment.”

John, who trained at Hereford College of Arts, admitted he was not fussed about becoming rich and famous.

If he did he would spend the money on nice wine and food.

“My dream is to get a picture in the museum in Cardiff,” he said.

“That’s my biggest aspiration.”

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