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 collegiate backstage presence at Canadian folk festivals coast to coast and embraced life and people with bear-hugging enthusiasm.
A larger-than-life figure with both a combustible temper and a playful demeanor, he was an unsinkable Falstaff with sparkling eyes who wouldn’t even allow an amputation of both legs to slow him down.
“I had an extreme pedicure,” he told friends five years ago.
Mr. Wrycraft died May 16 of cardiac arrest at Toronto Western Hospital. He was 65 years old.
He was born in Toronto, October 15, 1956, to sales and marketing professional Norman Wrycraft and homemaker Maureen (née Martin) Wrycraft. By the age of eight, he had already decided to embark on a career as a commercial artist after watching the American fantasy sitcom Nice to meet you. The magic that enchanted her came not from Elizabeth Montgomery’s nose-wiggling witch persona, but from her husband, the buttoned-up publicist.
“The idea of having a job where you can create things from scratch for people and they pay you really made my head spin,” he told CKAU radio’s Peter North.
At Westwood High School (now Lincoln M. Alexander High School), his hip art teacher allowed students to play vinyl. Being a record designer was a dream job for Mr. Wrycraft, who often brought Bruce Cockburn records for class. He would later create 11 album designs for Mr. Cockburn, including those from 1999. Breakfast in New Orleans, dinner in Timbuktuwhich made its way into a Museum of Modern Art exhibit that celebrated the Helvetica typeface.
“I am very saddened by the passing of Michael, although I would expect him to crack a 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 willful and deeply committed to his artistic inspirations. “You could move him out of his position, but, man, you had to really invest in it,” said singer-songwriter James Keelaghan, who has hired the savvy graphic designer for seven of his albums. “It was easy enough to let his curmudgeon ride on your back, though.”
Although Mr. Wrycraft studied at the Ontario College of Art & Design University and Sheridan College, wanderlust kept him from earning a degree. He had already started doing stand-up comedy in Toronto when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment in 1982.
In California, he found work at an architectural ceilings company while dabbling in comedy. Entering a contest at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in the mid-1980s, he won a free car rental. He drove north to San Francisco – and stayed there for three years.
As director of the Lusty Lady Theater, he spent the 1989 San Francisco Bay Area 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 was wasting his paychecks on music.
“I basically spent and wasted all that money,” he said. “I could have bought a house.”
In the early 1990s, at the insistence of US immigration officials, Mr. Wrycraft returned to Toronto. Through an affiliation with violinist Oliver Schroer, he was introduced to the Canadian folk music scene. He became one of the most outspoken and outspoken figures within the close-knit community, whether designing CD boxes or promoting and hosting an ongoing series of gigs at the Hugh’s Room club in Toronto.
The shows he put on were tributes to songwriters, including his favorite, Tom Waits. Mr. Wrycraft would arrange themed bills of unknown, up-and-coming and well-established musicians to perform the songs of the celebrated artist that night.
“Sometimes Michael’s shows were train wrecks,” said music publicist Richard Flohil, “and sometimes they were inspired by brilliance.”
Mr. Wrycraft won the Juno Award for Best Album Design in 2000 for his work as creative director for Andy Stochansky’s Radio fuse box. He received five additional nominations over the years for other album designs.
He has created CD packages for albums by Murray McLauchlan, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Lynne Hanson, Watermelon Slim, Ron Hynes, Lori Yates and many more. He was known for his thoughtful immersions in music and lyrics that resulted in meaningful design work.
“If something touched him, it touched his heart,” Mr Keelaghan said. “And nothing inspired him more than being around people who honestly wrote lyrics or created music from their souls, rather than being part of some musical commercial machine.”
For his 2009 album Card castle, Mr. Keelaghan told Mr. Wrycraft that he was considering a cover involving a photo of a typical house made of playing cards, possibly falling apart. Mr. Wrycraft listened to the idea, closed his laptop and said he would talk to the musician soon. Two weeks later, he came back with a concept that had nothing to do with what his client had in mind. Design, an art in itself, dazzled Mr. Keelaghan.
“I seem to have a sixth sense for creating images for people that they wouldn’t have expected, but that somehow touch them very deeply,” Mr. Wrycraft explained.
A fan of live music as much as recorded music, Mr. Wrycraft went on a weekend road trip with Mr. Flohil and musician Paul Reddick in Woodstock, NY, where former band singer-drummer Levon Helm hosted hootenannies Monthly Midnight Ramble.
Preparing for the trip, Mr Wrycraft hid three saran-packaged marijuana cigarettes inside him in a private place where no border guard would want to look. After successfully clearing the border, he then had to clean up the weed.
The trio stopped at a Bob Evans restaurant, where Mr. Wrycraft immediately headed for the restroom to carefully retrieve the drugs. “All of a sudden everyone in the restaurant hears Michael shouting from the customer,” Mr Flohil said.
What had happened was that after Mr. Wrycraft expelled the drugs, he naturally stood up. But it was a flush toilet – the stash disappeared instantly in a whirlwind of water.
“There was a deep sadness in his howl that I had never felt before or 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 storyteller who easily sucked people into his orbit with outlandish stories and a dynamic vibe. “He was an artist, and artists want to make people happy,” said Heather Kitching, a radio freelancer and veteran of the folk scene.
In 2017, Mr. Wyrcraft lost his legs to osteomyelitis. Although he would need a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he refused to let setback defeat him. “I don’t clench my fists at the world,” he told The Globe. “None of this affects the best part of me – my humor, my optimism.”
But it affected his ability to host his tributes to singer-songwriters at Hugh’s Room. The tiered venue – “a festival of stairs”, he joked – was not suitable for wheelchairs.
Although the club was not accessible, Mr. Wrycraft still was. For the past few years, he’s sat in a corner just outside Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park, sitting and reading in his wheelchair while talking to friends and passers-by. His presence was so common that he appeared on a Google Street View image of the corner.
Suffering from congestive heart failure, Mr Wrycraft spent his final days in hospital. On Facebook, he signed off in his typical, serene way:
life is crazy
But it’s beautiful too
I ran well
Mr. Wrycraft is survived by three younger siblings, Kim, Kevin and Karen Wrycraft.