Kildine de Saint Hilaire speaks to renowned Irish artist and RHA member Mick O’Dea ahead of his upcoming exhibition at the RHA this month.
You are currently working on your upcoming exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy, how is your work going?
It seems to be on target. I’m a little bit behind, I’m also dependant on a crew to help me with the sculptures, Terry here is leading that crew, and we are leaving the finishing elements of them which will be finished for the last two weeks prior to the exhibition opening.
What do you want the visitor to get out of the exhibition?
A sense of awe, I think. An epic kind of response, I want it to be quite theatrical and I want it to be visceral.
What is your method of work?
I’m painting on canvas, large scale, exactly 4, and approximately by 3m – it’s actually I think 2.70m – it’ll be 4 paintings and working with sculpture, cardboard wood and rope, so it’s an instillation.
Do you have any rituals that you perform before/while/after painting?
Not really, just trying to deal with anxiety. Sometimes I forget about it, but anxiety in terms of a show like this because I have a lot of other things to do to ensure that I am also giving the exhibition my primary attention.
What is your favourite light to work in?
Ideally, natural light, well ventilated high ceilings, in total contrast to where I am, which is the equivalent of a boiler room of a ship with no lights and in a basement.
Are you interested in any other medium other than painting?
To work in, yes, I would be interested in working with cardboard and wood and rope, which I am using the opportunity here to do, I like working with clay, I draw quite a bit, I like drawing medias, just pastel, and as I said I draw a lot for my own pleasure. I’ll look at anything really. I look at how anything is being presented whether it’s in a monitor, or TV screen or in live performance.
Do you use photography?
I do, I use photography a lot now. Up until five or six years ago, I would always work directly from life. Since I’ve been working on this theme, a historical theme, over the last six years, I have inevitably had to use photographs because of the way I’m working. I have found it quite liberating and have started to use photography in the way that I do painted portraiture as well. So, this historical theme that I have commenced purely from photographs has started to affect how I paint in all the other areas now, including landscape.
Last summer, you painted a portrait a day over tens days at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in front of a live audience. What was the main difficulty?
I was careful in that the public performance aspect happened in the afternoon usually. That was in the second part of the process in the painting because usually, in 80% of the cases, I had that person to work on in the mornings as well so I was able to get it on the way and then I just kept working in front of the audience. The hardest part was completed. However, there was one portrait that I started in the morning and I had a new sitter in the afternoon. So that was all down in front of the audience, commencing and starting. There was an element of danger, in the sense that I could have been exposing myself to public humiliation. Fortunately it didn’t work out that way, in that there was something tangible in front of me and I could say if it went wrong that it’s from my own perspective or view of it.
Did you like it? Would you do it again?
No, more or less that was it. It worked out. I think I fell off the audience, very much. A lot of the audience was there to encounter the people who I happened to be painting, so that was part of it as well. It ended up being a bit like a TV show of an hour and a half’s duration where I interview the person that I’m painting, they interview me, and it’s open to questions from the audience. In the meantime there’s a painting going under way. It’s good television.
How did your interest for Thom McGinty, aka The Diceman, affect your interest in portrait painting?
Thom McGinty, well known minor artist performer, model and clown died twenty years ago. He happened to come to Dublin from Glasgow in 1976, the same year that I came from Clare to Dublin. He was a model in the College of Art and he was a fascinating man and a wonderful artist. One wanted to draw him – not just me, but my friends as well. From drawing him constantly in NCAD, I got really interested in portraiture and working from life.
You taught for many years in colleges, and schools, how was the experience of teaching in prisons?
It was wonderful. I spent maybe six or seven years working in prisons constantly and then afterwards, for a few years, visiting. I was really highly motivated to work in prisons. I found it a unique experience and learned an awful lot – I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything.
In 1988 ‘Artists in Prison Scheme’ was initiated by the Department of Justice, following the successful ‘Writers in Prison Scheme’. I was asked to go to Saint Patricks Prison for young offenders. There was a lot of talent there.
Which contemporary artist should we keep our eyes on?
Peter Borrins and Vera Kluth stand out. She’s a versatile multi-media artist, good sculptor, good with machinery and she paints well. I think she has got a very good attitude.
- What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Putting things off.
- What is the trait you most deplore in others?
I’m very forgiving.
- What is your greatest extravagance?
Buying a car, I guess.
- What is your current state of mind?
- Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I’m probably not even conscious of it. The one I probably overuse is ‘like’.
- Which talent would you most like to have?
Musical. Play the fiddle.
- What is your greatest fear?
Somebody asked me that and the answer I had at the time was “being found out”.
- Would you still say that today?
A certain element of that… (laugh).
- What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Still being around.