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obituary

Michael Wrycraft in 2011.Neale Eckstein

Michael Wrycraft, a Juno-winning graphic designer who created thousands of concert posters and album covers, was a man devoted to music and musicians. He was a collegial presence at the backstages of Canadian folk festivals from coast to coast and embraced life and people with bear-hugging enthusiasm.

A larger-than-life figure with both a combustible temper and a fun-loving demeanour, he was an unsinkable, sparkle-eyed Falstaff who would not even allow a double-leg amputation to slow him down.

“I had an extreme pedicure,” he told friends, five years ago.

Mr. Wrycraft died on May 16 of cardiac arrest at Toronto Western Hospital. He was 65.

He was born in Toronto, Oct. 15, 1956, to sales and marketing professional Norman Wrycraft and homemaker Maureen (née Martin) Wrycraft. By the time he was eight, he had already decided on a career as a commercial artist after watching the American fantasy sitcom Bewitched. The magic that enchanted him came not from Elizabeth Montgomery’s nose-twitching witch character but from her husband, the buttoned-down advertising man.

“The idea of having a job where you get to create things from scratch for people and they pay you really turned my crank,” he told CKAU radio’s Peter North.

Bruce Cockburn's Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu.Courtesy of True North

At Westwood Secondary School (now Lincoln M. Alexander Secondary School), his hip art teacher allowed students to play vinyl. To be an album designer was a dream job for Mr. Wrycraft, who often brought in Bruce Cockburn records for the class. He would later create 11 album designs for Mr. Cockburn, including 1999′s Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, which made its way into a Museum of Modern Art exhibit that celebrated the Helvetica typeface.

“I am very much saddened by Michael’s passing, though I expect he would be cracking some wry joke about it if he could,” Mr. Cockburn told The Globe and Mail. “He was the funniest person I’ve ever known, but also sensitive and kind, and a pleasure to work with.”

On the other hand, Mr. Wrycraft was strong-willed and profoundly committed to his artistic inspirations. “You could move him off his position, but, man, you really had to invest in it,” said singer-songwriter James Keelaghan, who hired the opiniated graphic designer for seven of his albums. “It was easy enough to let his curmudgeoness just roll off your back, though.”

Though Mr. Wrycraft studied at Ontario College of Art & Design University and Sheridan College, wanderlust got in the way of a diploma. He had already begun performing stand-up comedy in Toronto when he took off to Los Angeles to pursue an entertainment career in 1982.

In California he found work with an architectural ceiling firm while plugging away at comedy. Competing in a contest at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in the mid-1980s, he won a free automobile rental. He drove north to San Francisco – and stayed there for three years.

As the manager of the Lusty Lady Theatre, he spent the 1989 San Francisco Bay earthquake in the basement with naked strippers. He told the Roots Music Canada website that he was making $1,600 a week at the time, but that he blew his paycheques on music.

“I basically spent and wasted all of that money,” he said. “I could’ve bought a house.”

By the early 1990s, at the insistence of U.S. immigration officials, Mr. Wrycraft had returned to Toronto. Through an affiliation with fiddler Oliver Schroer he was introduced into the Canadian folk music scene. He became one the most loquacious and outsized personalities within the close-knit community, whether designing CD packages or promoting and emceeing a continuing series of concerts at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room club.

The shows he presented were tributes to songwriters, including his favourite, Tom Waits. Mr. Wrycraft would curate thematic bills of unknown, up-and-coming and well-established musicians to perform the songs of whichever artist was being celebrated that night.

“Sometimes Michael’s shows were train wrecks,” said music publicist Richard Flohil,” and sometimes they were inspired brilliance.”

Mr. Wrycraft won the Juno Award for best album design in 2000 for his work as creative director for Andy Stochansky’s Radio Fusebox. He received four other nominations over the years for his album designs.

He created CD packages for albums by Murray McLauchlan, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Lynne Hanson, Watermelon Slim, Ron Hynes, Lori Yates and many others. He was known for thoughtful immersions into the music and lyrics that resulted in meaningful design work.

“If something touched him, it touched him to the core,” Mr. Keelaghan said. “And nothing inspired him more than to be around people who wrote lyrics honestly or created music from their soul, rather than being part of some music business machine.”

James Keelaghan’s House of Cards.Courtesy of Borealis Records

For his 2009 album House of Cards, Mr. Keelaghan told Mr. Wrycraft he envisioned a cover involving a photo of a typical house made of playing cards, perhaps falling apart. Mr. Wrycraft listened to the idea, closed his laptop and said he’d talk to the musician soon. Two weeks later he came back with a concept that was nothing like what his client had in mind. The design, art unto itself, dazzled Mr. Keelaghan.

“I seem to have a sixth sense for creating imagery for people that they wouldn’t have expected but somehow touches them very deeply,” Mr. Wrycraft once explained.

A fan of live music as much as recorded music, Mr. Wrycraft took off on a road trip one weekend with Mr. Flohil and musician Paul Reddick to Woodstock, N.Y., where the former Band singer-drummer Levon Helm held monthly Midnight Ramble hootenannies.

Preparing for the journey, Mr. Wrycraft hid three Saran-wrapped marijuana cigarettes within himself in a private spot where no border guard would care to look. After successfully clearing the border, he then needed to clear the weed.

The trio stopped at a Bob Evans restaurant, where Mr. Wrycraft immediately headed to the restroom to delicately retrieve the drugs. “All of a sudden, everybody in the restaurant is hearing Michael yell from the john,” Mr. Flohil said.

What had happened was that after Mr. Wrycraft had expelled the dope, he naturally stood up. But it was an automatic-flush toilet – the stash was instantly gone in a swirl of water.

“There was a deep sadness to his howl that I’d never experienced before nor since,” Mr. Reddick recalled.

If Mr. Wrycraft could howl with the worst of them, he could laugh with the best. He was a burly, baritone-voiced raconteur who easily sucked people into his orbit with outlandish stories and a buoyant vibe. “He was an entertainer, and entertainers want to make people happy,” said Heather Kitching, a radio freelancer and folk-scene veteran.

In 2017, Mr. Wyrcraft lost his legs to osteomyelitis. Though he would require a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he refused to let the setback defeat him. “I’m not shaking my fists at the world,” he told The Globe. “None of this affects the best part of me – my humour, my optimism.”

But it did affect his ability to host his singer-songwriter tributes at Hugh’s Room. The tiered venue – “a festival of staircases,” he quipped – was not wheelchair-friendly.

Though the club wasn’t accessible, Mr. Wrycraft still was. In recent years he held court on a corner just outside Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park, sitting and reading in his wheelchair while talking to friends and passersby. So common was his presence there that he showed up on a Google Street View image of the corner.

Suffering from congestive heart failure, Mr. Wrycraft spent his last days in hospital. On Facebook, he signed off in his typical untroubled way:

Life is crazy

But it is also beautiful

I have had a good run

Mr. Wrycraft leaves three younger siblings, Kim, Kevin and Karen Wrycraft.