This text is from an interview with émergent magazine from 2017:
How was it growing up in Dublin? Were you creative as a child?
I grew up in Tallaght, a large housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin. Tallaght went from a village to a mini city in a fraction of time. Most of the new inhabitants were young couples from closer to town moving out to start families and as a result it was an overwhelmingly young population. There was a real buzz about the place and never a shortage of other children to play with, there were dozens of football teams, judo clubs etc. and about ten marching youth bands. I loved it. There was a real sense of community and my extended family (which is fairly big - I’ve 53 cousins) all lived there. There was plenty of space and we were only twenty minutes from the Dublin mountains. I fancied myself as a creative footballer, if that counts. But ill-health put an end to that and I became more interested in music and art. I studied piano and played bagpipes in the Tallaght Youth Band which travelled quite a bit to London and Europe to perform which was great fun. I was lucky enough to have an excellent art teacher Peter Weafer in the secondary school. I’d always loved watching my Dad and my uncles working with their hands but when I went to school Mr. Weafer was the one person I saw practising a skill and myself and my friend Jason spent way more time than we were supposed to hanging out in the art class working on posters and painting. At home my parents were always making stuff. My Dad was a talented tailor and made my communion suit and was forever rejigging our house. I loved watching him mix cement, it really was a form of creative magic. My mother knitted a lot when home from work and also made nail pictures, amongst other things. I have strong memories of the smell of evo-stik she used to glue the felt onto the chipboard with and the care with which she marked out the patterns into which she hammered the nails. As I write this it occurs to me now how similar this is to some of the techniques I use.
Your background is in design, how did this develop into painting?
I was training to be a designer, but because I was working as junior in the design studio of a point-of-sale printing business at weekends, and holidays when I was in college all I wanted to do was experiment and as a result I wasn’t very good at sticking to a brief. My projects would often end up way off course. I remember passing the furniture-making department and seeing this cool bandsaw one day. The next week I showed up with a curvy painted coffee table and the lecturers were scratching their heads. In my final year I spent ages working on a series of notebooks which were like visual diary, not that they made any sense. They were mostly experiments in colour, lettering and mark-making. The other students and the lecturers were interested in them and somebody suggested blowing up individual pages and exhibiting them, which I did. I never got a qualification partly because the design lecturers said it wasn’t design and the fine art lecturers said it wasn’t fine art. I was offered a place in third year painting but I’d had enough of college at that stage and most of the work I saw being produced there seemed either pretentious or really a form of art therapy. I had an exhibition of the work from the notebooks shortly after finishing college which went well and things just developed from there. I never made a conscious decision to be an ‘artist’. I just followed my interests and instincts.
Is the art scene big in Dublin?
Not really, but it’s not a big city. There is plenty of good stuff going on, but those involved know who the others are, maybe not directly (although I can think of one or two people who might know everybody) but you’d be aware of what other work is out there and even if you didn’t know the artist personally you’d probably know someone who did.
You recently moved to Shillelagh, away from the city (Dublin). What provoked this move?
I’d always wanted to live in a more rural setting but with the exception of a few residencies circumstances had prevented it. Then last year the rental situation spiralled out of control and living in Dublin became unsustainable. My wife and I decided we needed to buy a house and establish some security for ourselves and our two young boys. We were looking in Dublin but moving further and further away until we saw and fell in love with the house in Shillelagh. From the moment I stood in the kitchen and saw the light that came in I knew this was where I wanted to live.
What do you do outside of painting? Do you draw inspiration from outside the creative industry?
I read a good bit, and listen to music which I do find inspiring. I think music is probably the most powerful artform. Recently I’ve started to play the piano again. I love spending time with my family which recharges me. Our boys are seven and ten and are great fun and my wife is a constant source of encouragement, inspiration and constructive criticism (even if she isn’t always right).
You talk about the influence of Cy Twombly and Robert Ryman could you tell us a little about how their work has shaped your open practice?
The pieces of Twomblys where he is just mark-making and there are no allusions are inspiring. Some people might look at them and say “well he’s just scribbling” but to me he is not. The marks he’s making are a very particular size, a very particular weight and made with a very particular pencil on a very particular paper with a very particular rhythm and scale and colour (yes colour, all his whites are different). Try copy them and then say there’s nothing to it. With Ryman there is the attention to detail and the interest in refined subtle surfaces. His textures and lines are exquisite. The remarkable thing is that there are books of his reproductions that sell. I mean his work more than anybodys is very difficult to reproduce. They are the kind of pieces you want to move around and watch how the light reflects of and how they appear at different times of the day. I was at a recent of exhibition of his work in Dia at Chelsea, NY and was talking to one of the invigilators who had been given strict instructions about where he could stand (there were two spots he could move between) He was telling me what he thought the best time of day and the ideal weather conditions to view the work in was. I loved that the paintings needed and brought forth that level of attention and awareness. Other artists whose restraint and discipline inspire me are Agnes Martin, Josef Albers and closer to home Charlie Tyrell.
There is a definite signature to your work, yet you jump between colour to muted, or monochromatic tones. Could you talk about your relationship to colour and your painting process?
When I came across the Impressionists in secondary school it was a revelation to realise how much colours affect each other. Then I discovered Andy Warhol and it was like WOW you don’t even have to use colours to make the image look like how you see it. Well that opened the door to a huge room of fun. You can put baby pink beside mint green and the result is electric. It took me a long time to get tired of that. But the more I work the more interested I become in the subtleties of colour. I realise that used judiciously a little goes a long way. I am interested in making colours that are really close to each other sing. In some ways you get a richer reading of a colour when placed beside something similar in tone in that they are not knocking each other out like in a Warhol but enriching themselves the way a cellist enriches the same note by drawing the bow back and forth, slowly. Also working with subtle variations of colour draws the attention in to the surface and to the mark-making.
You work with lots of different tools and materials, which are you most comfortable with?
Water-based paints and oil based colouring pencils on paper on plywood are my favourite. I also like using oil bars on the same support.
You work on quite a small scale when painting, often on paper, is there a reason for that?
I worked on 8 x 4 sheets of mdf for a while but they are a nuisance to move, need a lot of materials and very few people have space for them. Working on paper on a small scale is something I’ve done since I started school at four years old. Initially I loved writing on the right hand page because it was like walking in crisp pristine snow or lying of freshly laundered and ironed sheets. But then I developed an appreciation for writing on the left page, the reverse, with its history and the indentation from the other side coming through. It was the texture I loved and the sense of time past inherent in it. I know paper. It’s not expensive and it’s not precious. It yields faithfully to a line. Canvas breaks up pencil lines. Working on both sides can lead to unexpected results. The intimacy of the small scale appeals. “Good goods come in small parcels” my grandmother used to say. I have created a number of large installations from arrangements of the smaller paintings which can be challenging because they paintings have to work individually and as part of a larger whole.
Do you see a distinction between your works on paper and works on canvas?
No, but I rarely use canvas. I spent a whole year working on canvas because I felt ‘as a painter I should paint on canvas’ but it didn’t give me any results I was happy with and I didn’t enjoy it so I haven’t tried it for a while, although recently I’ve been thinking of trying a new process out on some canvas so we will see.