“Born on 21st March 1964, I began my meteoric decent into artistic oblivion the minute I popped out of my mother’s womb. I wish I could say that the first thing I grabbed for was a pencil or paint brush but the truth is probably a little more mundane, I picture myself being held upside down by Dr De Valera and being spanked into life…. The first lesson that life teaches you is that it is not all going to be fun and laughter. A second son for my Father, I find it difficult to picture him happy about my birth but I can picture his loving concern for my mum with ease. One sister, another brother and another sister later, did not diminish that concern. A man of science, he discovered the only disease that is idiosyncratic to Ireland, something that is called spongebob something or other. He taught me how to see. He taught me how to identify different species of birds and plants, how to look at nature and how to discern the differences between things. Like how to tell the difference between a willow warbler and a chiffchaff. `For years I believed there was none and was amazed that Carl Linnaeus and people of that ilk could see there was. Genius seems to be the ability to see things that other people can’t, unfortunately it also seems to be a symptom of mental illness and people often confuse the two. Dad possessed genius and I, like many artists possessed self-delusion. Many years after Dad had discovered ‘bovine gangliosidosis’ he told me that hundreds of other scientists had looked at the same thing that he had but they did not realise they were looking at something new, he did. His model of that particular corner of the scientific universe was more accurate. I knew I could trust my Dad to teach me how to see, a useful thing for artists as well as scientists. Academically, I was sub normal, a straight F student. I was far too busy with flights of fantasy to apply myself to study, I was unable to find fun in it! It wasn’t until I saw “Paint along with Nancy” on television in the 70s that I realised, there were adults making a living doing something that I could do. Forty something years later my childhood perception still delights me! She was painting Lowry type matchstick figures on glass, I had a eureka moment and realised that all I had to know in life is find out how to paint matchstick figures, she couldn’t be on telly for ever, I could take her job, easy, education over, all I had to do is learn how to paint matchstick figures and I’m laughing!
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I continued to perform abysmally in school, my parents put it down to the fact that I had been in a car crash when I was a baby and had been unconscious for a short while. For years they thought I was brain damaged. My test results at school confirmed this. When I eventually collected my leaving certificate results I said to the school secretary “mine is the one with all the fs”, she looked down at the report card and said, “I think you are right”. I left the school pleased with my ability to predict accurate results but fearful of my future. Art school required five passed subjects but I didn’t even have those. Back in the old days all you needed for admission was a good portfolio, I had that. All I wanted was to study art, what use was a quadratic equation or a past participle to me. In many households art school was perceived to be the place you sent the family fool. It was not seen to be a pursuit that was useful to society, like being a doctor or a banker. When I told people, I wanted to be an artist, their eyes would fill with pity as if they were thinking “you even need training to be a tramp, your poor parents”.
I got called for an interview on the grounds of my portfolio and did my best with my non-verbal skills to secure a place. I failed. Was my portfolio lacklustre? Were there too many goblins from the Hobbit? Were there too many magic mushrooms? Could they tell I hadn’t read Derrida? I was three years trying to secure a place. I did a post leaving cert course in Ballyfermot Senior College in Art design and media studies, it was its second year up and running and I spent the year drawing animal skulls and driftwood. The media studies lecturer, Brian O Neill introduced us to philosophy, I became familiar with the existentialists and other pontificators, I developed a liking for Colin Wilson, whose self-education I admired. With a stronger portfolio and a little knowledge under my belt I thought I was a sure thing for college. I was called for all three art colleges in Dublin. In the National College of Art all candidates were made draw an upturned bicycle. Three years running and the same task, so much for imagination! I guess the staff don’t need to prove anything. The interview was bizarre with questions like, why didn’t you put the faces on your life drawing? I didn’t have time, and what was that girls name? they wanted to know why I appropriated images from Ian Miller? because I liked the drawings and paintings in his book “Secret Art”, because I’m only learning. I wanted to be even more original. WTF. I told them I wanted to learn about anatomy to improve my drawing. One of the lecturers left the table, I didn’t know that they didn’t teach it there anymore, they didn’t teach cast drawing either, not since the student revolutions in the 60s, when students destroyed most of them. Years later Michael Kane told us that he had saved one and that he enjoyed drawing the casts in the cast room. I left the interview with the suspicion that they thought my model of art college was anachronistic, nobody told me this stuff and neither did they. I felt they just dismissed me. The interview in DIT was much better. During the year in Ballyfermot I had gone to every exhibition in Dublin, the one exhibition that I saw that had the greatest impact on me was “Life Drawing” by Patrick Graham. He had mixed media pieces with torn pages from notebooks with existential musings about feeling like an outsider. I left the Lincoln Gallery with the experience that I had seen the work of a real artist. Here he was sitting across from me as part of my interview panel. I had written a script for media studies, that was never filmed, due to it being crap. I handed the script over for them to read. It was called “The Great Art College in The Sky” they read it in silence and I created an atmosphere that was so tense that they had never experienced the like before. When the interview was finished they ran out after me and told me I had a place. I think they thought we better give this guy a place or we’ll create a new Hitler.
Art college was fantastic, it was a great time to study painting. Neo expressionism was powering the art world, and artists such as Edvard Munch, David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach and Anselm Kiefer were gods. Kiefer was dealing with murky German history and Paddy was dealing with Irelands bloody past. We felt like there was life in painting and that it all had a purpose. Temple Bar Gallery was still a slum building, I remember a lecture and slide show by David Crone and rats scurrying around behind him, I never ate from their canteen again but it was a great place, because it had a community feel. Anyone could submit work to the shows and they didn’t have to be masterpieces, students could and did submit work. Tim Cantillon, a classmate of mine, had a piece in the Independent artists show. “The Artist and The Bomb” was fantastic, Lorcan Walsh had a powerful piece in it of a hunched figure, it was used as the cover of the catalogue. “Woodcuts and Relief Prints” was brilliant, and not just because I had three pieces in it, one of which was used in the publicity blurb. My parents were too embarrassed to go to the opening because one of my woodblocks was a little controversial for catholic Ireland. If you can’t be crude when you are young when can you be?
Figurative painting ruled the roost in the early 1980s, it was easy to imagine it always would! The art world is built on tectonic plates and no one prepared us for the shifts. Boom time changed Temple Bar Gallery and it morphed into something I couldn’t recognise, something slick, efficient, competent, and something that you needed awareness of global art ideology for. It appeared to me that you needed to be connected to a gallery, to people, and I wasn’t. I did visit an old classmate in Temple Bar when we left college, as he had a studio there. I was stopped on the stairs and interrogated by another patient of the art asylum. ”WHO LET YOU IN HERE? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” Times had changed, my friend showed me his work wearing white gloves and I left feeling out of the loop. Over time artists who were painters adopted elements of performance and installation art. Most of the work didn’t seem any smarter or relevant to me. I just wanted to become better, more articulate and expressive, I wanted to understand the language of painting. I wanted to understand the gaps in my education. The artworld is great fun but it is a game where the goal posts are always changing position.
Today there are no colleges that teach classical painting in Ireland. In fact, as I write this there were no paintings at all exhibited in the graduate show of the college that I attended. It seems that painting is being systematically eradicated from the education system. The skill set necessary for teaching the subject is being bred out of art education and is becoming more and more occult. People are still interested in the subject. Private classes still flourish but seem aimed at the amateur. If you are wealthy you can attend the Angel Academy of Art in Florence but a fulltime classical painting course in Ireland seems beyond the desire of anyone.” – James Donnelly