Irish Artists Bono and Guggi Talk About How Their Friendship Formed Around Jesus

Musician Bono, left, and artist Guggi grew up together in Ireland. Video screenshots

At the height of Ireland’s sectarian Troubles in the early 1970s, when he was not long out of diapers, Paul Hewson met Derek Rowen, a neighbor boy from a few houses away in their working-class Finglas neighborhood of North Dublin.

The Hewson family lived at No. 5 Cedarwood Road.

The Rowens — all dozen of them — occupied No. 10.

More than 50 years (and two famous nicknames) later, Hewson, aka Bono of U2, and Rowen, the contemporary artist better known as Guggi, remain the best of friends.

As children, they bonded over a shared love of punk rock, mischief making and Jesus.

As men, they have channeled the spiritual, cultural and personal tumult of their youth into art.

For Bono, it became music.

Guggi, abstract art.

“Myself and Bono, we weren’t like the other kids in the street and we knew we weren’t,” Guggi told Religion News Service recently during “My Cup Overflows,” an exhibit of his new works at Arcane Space, a gallery in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles co-owned by Morleigh Steinberg, wife of U2 guitarist The Edge.

“I was seen as an oddball, a freak,” said Guggi, who turned 60 in May and is 362 days older than Bono. “We didn’t know what to say when they would want us to name our favorite football players because we didn’t know any names. We could get beaten up for supporting the wrong team or not supporting anybody.”

One thing they did have in common was an interest in developing their Christian faith.

Bono’s parents had what was considered to be a “mixed marriage” at the time — his father, Bob, was Catholic, his mother, Iris, Protestant. Bono and his older brother, Norman, were reared in the Church of Ireland (the Irish iteration of the Episcopal Church).

Guggi was rarer still in the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland, where he was born into a devoutly religious family rooted in the Christian Brethren (Irish cousin of America’s Plymouth Brethren) tradition. He is the second oldest of 10 children (seven boys and three girls).

Guggi brought up his own children religiously in one of Dublin’s Baptist churches. “It just happened to be a Baptist church — I’m not interested in brand names, I just wanted the message as it is in the Gospels,” he said.

His father, Robbie, who turns 86 this month, was and remains something of a zealot.

Bono once told me that the elder Rowen was “straight out of a Flannery O’Connor novel — it was like the prophet Jeremiah lived on our street.”

“I always remember the color of the language he used when he preached at us and the conviction of the words he used,” he told me in a 2005 interview.

Guggi describes his spiritual upbringing as “strict, Puritan,” and says his father ruled his family with an iron fist. And yet he had a genuine faith that has compelled a lifelong generosity.

“Bono came to his faith through my dad. And I came to faith through my dad,” Guggi said.

The eccentric elder Rowen was a virtuoso salesman, first for Eveready batteries and later for Raleigh and Peugeot bicycles, with a passionate, if sometimes overbearing, faith. He was also a consummate collector — of motorcycles, boats, “anything with wheels,” and once, a flock of sheep.

Bono’s mother, Iris, died when he was 14. After her death, Bono spent a lot of time at Guggi’s house, where he fell in naturally among the 10 Rowen siblings.

Guggi persuaded Bono to attend a Bible camp when they were tweens.

“My Dad would send us to the YMCA where they had something called the ‘boys department’ where boys went — not boys and girls, just boys — and the boys department went on a camp every year, Guggi said.

It was called “camping,” but it was more like sleeping bags on the rec room floor, he said.

“We slept in tents maybe a couple of times, but it was mostly school halls, church halls, that kind of thing, and yeah, myself and Bono went there every summer,” he said.

Like his friend Bono, Guggi tried his hand at music.

As a teenager, he formed a band, The Virgin Prunes, with Gavin Friday (another childhood friend of Bono’s), Dik Evans (brother of U2’s The Edge), and others.

The Prunes, who disbanded in 1990 and still have a hearty cult following in parts of Europe, incorporated elements of goth, performance art, and cross-dressing into their performances.

Guggi left the Prunes in 1984 to focus full time on his artwork.

It was about this time, at his grandmother’s funeral, that he heard a message that changed the way he understood his calling as an artist.

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Source: Religion News Service