Compelled by the power of landscape

Visitors to Ireland are powerfully influenced by the extraordinary play of light, the crouching mountains, the impossibly green patchwork quilt fields, the tumbling water, and venerable monuments in stone — everything from crumbling castles and abbeys to elegant prehistoric stone circles.

Artists too have been — and still are — compelled by the power of the landscape.

Like JG O’Donoghue, a Cork based artist-illustrator whose pen and ink illustrations and ink paintings and drawings often depict solitary gallauns, or ogham trees.

JG believes in living as if he were a tourist in his efforts to keep open to his surroundings. This heightened consciousness means that his artist’s eye is constantly rediscovering the past, and the subtle effect that it still has on us today.

He rejects the notion of the past as something that has gone, never to return. He feels that such things as Irish place names with their evocative and descriptive ethos in areas that were once known for their historical significance still retain the power to affect people on a subliminal level, even if they may have been concreted over.

I talked to the artist about his journey, and how these subtle influences have shaped his work.

* Where did you grow up?

>> “In Ovens, Co cork. There were trees and farms, and our nearest neighbour was five minutes away. Now I live on the Model Farm Road in Cork.”

* I’m fascinated to know what part Sonic the Hedgehog played in your artistic evolution.

>> “I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, and I used to copy Sonic comics, drawing really badly at the time, I’m afraid. I wanted to do lots of other things too — writing, acting — but somehow I always came back to drawing.” 

* You studied art in Hertfordshire and Brighton. How was that?

>> “It was very different, a good experience for me. I learned a lot and I couldn’t get over how you could sometimes see the coastline of France from Brighton, it gave me a different perspective. During that time, I experimented with digital and 3D images, and I began to see the process of making art as more of a journey. I realised that art is a two-way process, that you are also being fed what you are creating.”

* And yet, you say that you eventually returned to more traditional methods?

>> “Yes, I did, and particularly in the medium of pen and ink. A lot of artists might have a fixed idea in mind of what they want to create, but they can often be disappointed when the finished work is not exactly what they had in mind. But for me it’s the journey and the process of discovery that matters. My work explores how language and the environment have shaped Irish identity and culture.” 

* Given that you believe in a past that has never really vanished, do you think that your involvement with the living history groups has brought a greater immediacy to your work?

>> Definitely. I spent a week with a group who recreate living conditions in the Iron Age. We camped out at Loch Gur, which is often known as the enchanted lake. It’s an amazing place with so many myths and legends attached to it. There was a full moon while we were there, and it was so strong that the effect of the moon shining on the water was blinding. It lit up the whole place. You could feel very close to past lives and people in that setting.

* A folklorist once wrote of Lough Gur! “All of Munster knows Lough Gur is enchanted. No minstrel, piper or poet would willingly spend a night within a mile of its shores.” And you spent a bit longer than a night. How was it?

>> Amazing, The Lough has a unique energy that is hard to describe. The time I spent there definitely had a big impact on me. I’m currently working on illustrating a story, The Legend of the Lough, for an on-line magazine which an artists collective I belong to is working on.”

* Landscape has obviously had a big effect on your work

>> “It has. Landscape dictates in art. And just under the surface, there are hidden worlds, even if those worlds have sometimes been concreted over. The memory of them lasts in the Irish place-names, even if people may not understand the words they are using.” 

* How difficult is it to make a living as a freelance illustrator in today’s market?

>> It isn’t easy, that’s for sure. I’ve had several exhibitions, and they have helped. I work on commission, and there are several examples of my work on sale on my website. To have access to multi-media sites like Facebook and Twitter has made a big difference, and I’m doing the work I want to do.”

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