How a Ghanaian Artist is Changing the Face of Cleveland USA

Larweh with one of his sculpture 
People hit their brakes when driving past Harry Larweh’s West Side home. Two large giraffes, as tall as tree trunks, command the front yard at 3553 Bosworth Road. The sculptures appear ready to browse on the leaves. Other animals, built from scraps of mahogany, prowl the back yard.

Not the sort of thing you expect to find in Cleveland’s Westown area.

The Ghanaian artist planted the eye-catching creatures there as a way to draw attention to his art.

One day, it was police officers who stopped in front of his house.

“I crossed the street and asked the police if there was a problem. I was afraid they thought the sculptures were going to cause an accident,” Larweh said. “They just smiled and gave me a thumbs up. ‘You are changing the neighborhood,’ they said.

“I see them drive by frequently. They tell me it helps to slow down traffic.”

Larweh grew up in Accra, Ghana’s capital. The sturdy man, with skin the color of the mahogany he loves to carve, says that although Accra is a big city, houses have lots of space, inside and out, for people to spend time together. That’s why he uses the whimsical side of his talent to decorate his yard, making it an inviting place and an easy conversation starter for neighbors.

Larweh is a relative newcomer to the art world. He began his career as a banker while living in Accra, following in his father’s footsteps. “I didn’t like sitting in one place all day,” he said. “I love traveling.”
So, in 1990, he moved to Holland.

While there, Larweh went shopping with his friend, Sharief, who was buying furniture. He looked at what Sharief was considering and stopped him. “Even though I had never carved anything before, I told him, ‘I can do this.’ Sharief said, ‘If you could do this, you wouldn’t be living like you do.’”

Larweh took that as a challenge. He did some work in Sharief’s restaurant, and everyone found the work to be inventive and stylish. Larweh believes that furniture should be unique, and he knew he could create what was in his head.

He went back home to Ghana and began to carve. He showed his doubting friend photos of what he made, and Sharief showed a gallery owner, who asked Larweh if he could create a shipping container full of his work. Overwhelmed, Larweh went to other sculptors and collected enough work among them to fill a container.

“Out of all the collection, they only wanted the things I had built,” Larweh said. I had to turn them down, I didn’t have the money for materials to make a whole container full.”

While in Holland, Larweh met his wife, Vern, who is from Barbados. Vern accompanied him to Ghana, and they lived in Accra for three years. After three years of carving, he thought, “Now, I have something that I can do. Why don’t I go and do it?”

They moved to the U.S. in 2010.

Things haven’t gone as well as they had hoped. Larweh doesn’t have anywhere to show his work besides the Internet.Unseen and unsold, his art fills more and more of their living space.
Larweh often works in mahogany, a reddish-brown hardwood, which he had shipped from his homeland.

“Getting a shipping container of wood through customs,” he chuckled and shook his head. “Such scrutiny. They drilled holes through the wood to test what is inside. You should see the sniffer dogs they brought to this container. But, eventually, they delivered it right to the house.”

Larweh said he nearly lost his house, just around the corner from West 105th Street, three times due to tough financial circumstances. He and Vern are desperate to keep it.

“It’s hard to make a living from my wood carvings,” he said, showing off sculptures, tables, storage chests, desks and lamps he has carved recently. “People look at the mahogany and the African rosewood and they say, ‘It’s too expensive.’ I say, ‘You haven’t even asked me the price.’ They see the beautiful wood and just think they can’t afford it.”

Larweh says he has applied for grants, but when they find he doesn’t have an art degree, they discount him.Painter Ron Johnston, who works in the 78th Street Studios, has a Master of Fine Arts. He has been Larweh’s mentor.

“I want to go to art school,” Larweh told Johnston.

“What for? Johnston asked. You already have the talent. They don’t teach what you do in school.”

Johnston says that Larweh’s work “really resonates” with him.

“Harry is a true artist. He is going to do his art regardless of his financial situation. He is going to follow his muse in spite of the obstacles. I respect him for that.”

Lately, Larweh has been working laying floors and doing home repairs to make ends meet. He has spent a lot of the summer working on a community art piece, bringing someone else’s vision to life. But a lot of that work has been pro bono, which doesn’t pay the bills.

Until his art finds its market, he will continue to create, he says.

Like starving artists everywhere, he will steal moments to be with his muse.

These are Larweh Works Below

This mahogany dining table, carved by Harry Larweh. It has a notch to allow a sheet of glass to rest over the carving, protecting it and providing a smooth, cleanable surface. (Lynn Ischay/The Plain Dealer)

Harry Larweh is carving an elephant on the side of this table he is making from a mahogany tree stump.

Artist, sculptor Harry Larweh next to a giraffe he sculpted using a sort of cement-based papier-mache

A pair of giraffes stand at either side of Harry and Vern Larweh's West Side front yard. 

Carving on the side of a mahogany chest, built and carved by Harry Larweh


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