08 JUNE 2012: THE DEVASTATIONS TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES

My shit could be on your wall – an’ I ain’t talkin bout no dirty protest!

Mister Seal (Oil on Board 9″ x 12″)

I studied painting for long enough back in the day to come away with a decent degree. But then I came away from painting altogether for a long while. After many years of lip service to a sometime return, I recently picked up a brush again on something of a mad whim. The move was precipitated by my proposed crowd-funding campaign, whereby I felt I needed a unique selling point for my reward bases.

The responsibility of this pledge drive produced an adrenalised terror that prompted me to spontaneously charge my credit card with the cost of oil painting materials – an act that generated  contradictory emotions: the guilt of improvident spending coupled with the long-forgotten joy of worthy acquisition. I justified it to myself with the assurance that at times like this one really must spend to gain.

So, in the last couple of months I’ve made considerable headway creating small works for partial rewards that may also appeal to those primarily interested in my musical output. They are all oil paintings on board and box canvas, (so far) no bigger than 10″ x 10″. I intend to create a reward option for the commission of larger works, however.

Although it isn’t strictly necessary, having a theme or subject in mind before approaching any creative endeavour makes the act of commencement easier – for me in any case. A college mentor of mine used to say (and probably still does) that in terms of making work, “it’s the easiest thing in the world to stop”. The converse and contiguous assertion is it’s (one of) the hardest thing in the world to start – the old fear of the blank canvas.

Although, prompted by a pragmatic consideration, this new beginning was also in part fired by my indignation upon learning about a fracking proposal made to the Irish Government by a multi-national conglomerate called Star Petroleum. This proposal to speculate for oil reserves off the coast of Dublin Bay is currently being reviewed.

As a coastal dweller, and someone who has always considered Dublin’s bay to be its shining feature, not to mention as a local sea swimmer, this proposal parented some very real and dreadful visions. The proposed rig would be positioned just off the Kish bank, within easy reach and view of Dalkey Island, sight-able even from my beloved Forty Foot bathing place. I love our cold and mostly storm-grey waters and all of the wild lives that fish and frolic in them. The thought of this visual blight and looming environmental threat is scary and abhorrent to me. So, I decided to paint about it.

And it’s surprising how available these wild lives have been in my pictorial memory. The painting I’ve shown above is one done completely from recall, without any associated visual reference. I have used photographs for some, but the seals of Bullock Harbour have got me by the bullocks – it seems those etched and ancient characters are psychically engraved, down to their impudent whiskers.

Where painting is concerned, both Dios and El Diablo are in the details, so I thought I would post some close-up photos of the work’s minutiae. Here’s Mister Seal’s head in close-up:

The oil rig of nightmares in bigature:

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And finally, the distant headland with a (why not) yellow Martello (Martyello?) tower:

And so it goes: that’s the first post of my finished works of which more will follow over the coming weeks. Because they are small they’re not excessively laboured but this has brought an expedience and decisiveness to the work. And yet there is still the magic of paint, that allows the working over or working back (with the medium of turpentine). So no mark is ever wasted.

No mark is ever wasted.

I think that might be a good life motto – if you can think of your life as a series of made marks and you as the brush-holder. Sometimes it goes tits up but as long as there’s still more paint in the tube… different and new media…. a fresh piece of ground when the last one is finished. Until the last bolt of canvas is worn through from the working back and over, we should all make a point of bringing to mind what we have made and making it call for small celebration. Because the devastations take care of themselves.

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11 JUNE 2012: WE ARE NEVER BEYOND WONDER

Whale Tail (oil on board 12″ x 9″)

Here’s another in the oil rig/fracking series, which I’m thinking of calling ‘Prospect’ (the series, that is). This one, like the last, is oil on board, same dimensions as Mister Seal, but in portrait (12″ x 9″). It’s more of a dreamlike abstraction than an anatomical study, but I hope it captures something of the gentle beast’s nature, at least as far as humankind’s allusive, to the point of mythological, relationship with these ocean giants goes. Well, some of humankind. I’ll leave the subject of whaling and its dubious governance by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for possible later posts.

I was lucky enough to catch sight of a minke whale in Irish waters. In celebration of my father’s seventieth birthday, June two years ago, my siblings and I pooled our financial resources to book a family weekend in Rosscarbery, West Cork. While there, we persuaded my folks, on their reluctant sea-legs, to join a whale-watching excursion off the coast of Baltimore. Our family group made up half the outgoing party, my parents, my brother and wife, myself and partner. My sister and brother-in-law, with two young children, had declined to come.

It was a lucky outing in many ways. To begin with, we were fated with uncharacteristically glorious weather for the whole weekend, and on this day we traversed part of the south west Atlantic without so much as a geansaí between us. Ní raibh aon scamaill sa spéir, as we used to say in our learned-by-rote Irish essays.

Our skipper, Nic, instructed us to relentlessly scan the horizon and watch out for massed sea-bird activity. They would be after the catch that the large cetaceans round up in their course. A sighting of wheeling gulls, plummeting gannets or a glut of little skittering petrels made us lean forward and peer with eye-straining concentration. And we were told to shout and point determinedly at any suspected mammalian location, so that others could also focus on that spot.

It’s easy to mistake the bulk-head of a wave for an organic form out on the open sea, so the experienced skipper was the first to make a genuine sighting. Radio correspondence with other watching boats had brought us to the whales’ hunting ground. Positioned at different parts of the prow, I’m not sure everyone on board was so fortunate, but at one point I caught a distant glimpse of an arcing dorsal fin. And it drew from me an instantaneous, round-mouthed gasp of awe that I’m not sure I could voluntarily reproduce.

As we journeyed on toward our lunch stop at An Siopa Beag and Sean Rua’s pub on Cape Clear Island, skipper was radioed confirmed sightings of porpoises in the area. Over the starboard bow I thought I saw an arching mammal in the distance but couldn’t be sure of my eyes. Then shortly after, a shout was raised from the port bow and those of the twelve passengers on the wrong side of the boat rushed cross-wise to see. Sure enough, there was a family of porpoises, maybe 500 feet from the bow, riding a silky current. I went to join my dad at the stern of the boat and we were the the only ones on board to see a dun-coloured porpoise, just a metre or so beyond reach, riding the slipstream of our boat.

We picnicked on the island in the sunshine and made our way back to the vessel, a satisfied lot, but there was a hat-trick yet to come. On the round trip back to Baltimore, off the coast of neighbouring Sherkin Island, skipper received a last radio tip off. A basking shark in the calm waters off the island’s eastern shores.

The basking shark is the second-largest fish after the whale shark; a slow-moving, toothless giant that feeds by filtering plankton through the white gills inside its cavernous mouth. From his perch above the hull, skipper gave an excited yell and, true to his word, pointed determinedly. And there it was, a small example of its type, probably a juvenile, a dark shape beneath a cruising dorsal fin. Lost to ourselves, we all watched a while and then it did something uncharacteristic to its species – it breached. Skipper, who had seen such behaviour only once before, conjectured that it may have been a young male practicing its mating display.

I think it goes without saying, although I’ll say it anyway, we were a decidedly fortuitous group of fairweather salts that day. My hesitant parents were glad they had been persuaded to come. Dad especially, a mostly armchair wildlife enthusiast, expressed incredulity that in his seventy years he had never before done anything like it. Which goes to show that, however long in the tooth we may chance to get, we are never beyond wonder.

We made our trip with Nic Slocum, http://www.whalewatchwestcork.com/

Some close-up details of my whale tail.

If you want to get some virtual idea of what this experience was like, here are some YouTube films of similar sightings in the area. The first, of basking sharks off the coast of Baltimore, was filmed just a month before our outing. The second (short but excellent) footage is of breaching minke whales with the attendant seabird activitiy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scn8xF_ybzQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQGd-dqwGXo

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12 JULY 2012: A LACK OF APPROPRIATE AWE

Sea Eagle and Fish (10″ x 10″ oil on box canvas)

Amidst a general interest in wildlife, I have a particular fascination with raptors (birds of prey) and there are few more impressive than the white-tailed sea eagle, a once native Irish species that has recently been reintroduced here. Anyone with more than a passing interest in the reintroduction programme will know that several birds have been destroyed on Irish farmland by the consumption of toxic products left out on the land. Whether the result of wilful or unwitting sabotage, the poisonings point to at best ignorance of species conservation and biodiversity. In truth, a lack of appropriate awe for these majestic avians.

You can read more about the reintroduction project here: http://www.goldeneagle.ie

I’ve been lucky enough to handle a few examples of this ornithological order, though nothing as large as the sea eagle. A few years ago I was gifted a visit to a falconry centre in County Wicklow with some friends. On arrival, we were given an introductory lesson into the ways of the raptor and its expert handling. The centre kept trained birds of a number of species, including vultures, buzzards, hawks, kites, eagles and falcons. I got to hold an adult snowy owl balanced on my fore-arm for as long as I could support its surprising weight (which wasn’t long). We watched a turkey vulture spread its wings like a Stevie Nicks shawl to gather in the heat of the sun. And we flew a pair of peregrine falcons.

I would defy anyone to feel less than wonder when handling something so unexpectedly lightweight and breathtakingly swift. To look sidelong at a peregrine’s warm brown eye is to register the sharpest intelligence and a heartbreaking serenity. It is to recognise, if you didn’t know before, how vastly misunderstood these creatures are.

A peregrine can reach speeds of well over 300km p/h in its hunting stoop and can identify small prey as far as ten kilometres away. Their eyesight is considered to be eight times more powerful that of a human’s. But, as skillful and tenacious a predator as the peregrine is, it only hunts when hungry and wastes nothing of its kill.

If you want to try the falconry experience visit http://www.falconryofireland.com/ to find out more. For a more family-oriented outing, kids (of all ages) love the Woodlands Falconry at Rathwood in County Carlow: 

http://www.rathwood.com/WoodlandsFalconry.html.

It’s a family-run centre that has a charming menagerie of owls and raptors, most of which are placid enough to be handled. They even have a YouTube-famed golden eagle who was filmed chasing a wild mountain hare for BBC Worldwide (spoiler for the squeamish – the clever hare gets away):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sic7z2pjjAY

And now for the devil in the details:

 

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13 AUGUST 2012: PARAGLIDER

Oil on board (6″ x 9″)

Here’s a funny little one that I thought was a bit of a doozy until people reacted to it. I was walking up Killiney head, not the obelisk side but the other one with the view over Dalkey Quarry. I had my phone in hand because I was filming the walk. I stopped at a verge where I remembered seeing three men dressed as Elvis some years back (that was as surreal a sight as you might imagine). Suddenly a multi-coloured yokemee sailed over my head and off to the distance with a wee man attached to it.

I’ve seen paragliders up on the Hill before – a dual sense of freedom and terror at the thought of it. So radical and risky. I was late out of the blocks to capture the moment on film, but the image stayed with me, in a dreamy sort of way.

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31 JULY 2012: DARK DOLPHIN AND GANNETS

10″ x 12″ oil on board

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A few months ago we were in Killiney at White Rock and spotted a family of three dolphins in the water off Killiney Bay. A good way off and hadn’t brought my damn binoculars, but from the sloping path back up from the beach we saw them frolicking. Three. This here is a dark painting featuring just one. And gannets.

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19 MARCH 2013: OUT OF THE CORNER OF ONE’S EYE, A THING PERCEIVED

LIFESAVER – Oil on canvas (7″ x 9.5″)

This post is about a small canvas that I sketched out very quickly and partly from memory after an afternoon visit to Bray, County Wicklow. I’ve been to Bray many, many times since childhood, and its familiarity and proximity make me hard-pushed to even think of it as being in another county. Can’t say as I’ve ever especially liked the place, although its long-shabby Victorian undergarments are sadly evocative in a way. I had a great-aunt who lived there and worked as a cashier in the now defunct (but still standing) old amusement arcade – she, herself, something of a late Victorian relic.

Dawson's amusement arcade, Bray

Dawson’s amusement arcade, Bray – now closed

Aunty Eileen, as we called her, and Uncle Alfie, as we called him, lived in a Victorian house on one of the Bray side-streets. I have a girlhood memory of a dark and high-ceilinged living room, shabby but which must have been grand in its day. That was the child’s impression. People of my parents’ generation didn’t seem to go in much for mood lighting – the aesthetic effects of domestic light and shade (the manufactured variety) seems quite a recent preoccupation. In the eighties there was a fluorescent strip-light fitted overhead in our family living room – the only source of artificial light. It was the high style of the day to be fair. I have a recollection of the bulb flickering and buzzing as it died, like a swarm of iridescent insects attacking a nerve cell.

Small wonder we didn’t all suffer migraines. There may be no scientific proof that strip-lighting causes migraines, however I have empirical proof that it causes arguments. But that’s another story.

Eileen worked as a cashier at the arcade well into her retirement years. She was the sister of my paternal grandmother, Catherine, who I loosely characterised in my song ‘The Comb’. She was, perhaps unusually for her age and the times, a woman of independent means. And of independent spirit – was wont to call upon her sister Catherine’s house (at the time also our family home) with no prior warning. She would turn up in a taxi and seesaw up to the door on her one peg leg and one good. For some reason, Eileen had a knee-cap removed for in her childhood and walked with a cane.

I don’t know if I was a particularly inquisitive child – in fact, I think I may have spent a fair bit of time ‘in my own world’, as they called it – so it’s as a result of my parents’ “transparency” (remember what I said about arguments?) that I gleaned Eileen’s impromptu visits were not always welcome. I remember her as a no-nonsense woman of strong and forthright opinions. I was not insensible to the disapproval she displayed toward her whimsical and eccentric sister, my grandmother. Oh there’s so much shadow in that familial line. One day I’ll research that side of the tree and cast some light in dark corners. I expect I’ll find the seeds of at least one song in Auntie Eileen.

Anyway, I painted this scene as one of the ‘Oil about OIL’ series and gave little thought to its verisimilitude. All of these works are impressionistic in one way or another.

Oil on canvas, 7" x 9.5"

 

Bray railing
The primary-coloured pickety-fence that I painted in front of the sea seemed “right” at the time of painting, in that artful sense of things just being right. The whole scene became invested with an arcadian, whipped ice-cream tonality, evocative of the seaside but with a candy-cotton sickliness. Later it transpired borrowed partially from a building on the residential side of the Strand – a house with the primary colours daubed on its quoins. 

A thing perceived unminded, out of the corner of my eye.

LIFESAVER - lifesaver detail

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