After a while, it began to seem like everyone wore the same clothes, ate the same foods, spoke in the same accent and expressed much the same opinions.
It was a relief to return to Beara in West Cork, where my friends and neighbours included many who were born and bred on the peninsula, along with a scattering of Buddhists, a Cockney agnostic, a Connecticut Jew, and the Kingerlees, an English couple who had recently converted to Islam.
One of the first jobs I did on my return was to paint the Kingerlees’ house. They were an industrious couple, with John painting all day and Mo tending to the vegetable patch and cooking.
Their house was in an idyllic setting, in Kilcatherine, a few miles beyond my own place in the village of Eyeries. There was very little traffic on the road past the house, but one day, while I was painting the chimneys, a vintage Mini Cooper went by. It was soon followed by another just like it. Then another and another. Over the next ten minutes, at least twenty Minis snaked by. To this day, I am unsure if they were real, or if, intoxicated by the paint fumes and the otherworldly beauty of my surroundings, I simply imagined them.
Kilcatherine was like that: a place of enchantment. Much of that enchantment has seeped into John’s paintings, which are more like landscapes of the soul than the lyrical representations of the countryside for which Irish artists are best known. John has studied deeply and travelled widely, in Spain and Morocco and beyond, and all that experience has fed into his work.
In those days, I chaired the local arts’ festival. That summer, we included a solo show of John’s collages and works on paper along with our annual ‘Artists in Beara’ group exhibition.
Looking back, it was an innocent time, when an artist might count himself a modest success if he could afford to engage a house painter, and a tradesman might count himself blessed if he could afford to invest in an artwork. I was saving for my first car, but I was happy to put off buying one a while longer so I could acquire one of John’s paintings.
The one I chose had a penny postage stamp in the middle. It would be years before I realised that it was partly the stamp that had beguiled me: my late grandfather had run the post office in Eyeries, and his house was the one place on earth I have always thought of as home.
John has gone on from one success to another. His work has toured across museums in America and China, fetched six-figure sums at auction, and been championed by the likes of the legendary American curator, Ted Pillsbury and the New York Times’ art critic, William Zimmer.
My own career as a painter did not have quite so glorious a trajectory. A series of back injuries in my thirties put paid to me: I fell — off a plank, and through a garage roof — into journalism.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of curating a series of exhibitions with the arts writer Tina Darb. In 2012, we curated the third year exhibition for the Crawford College of Art and Design; last year, we had Terry O’Neill at the CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery; this month, we have Layers & Layers, an exhibition by John Kingerlee and a young Cork artist named Colin O’Connor, at the same venue.
Colin works with paper, making extraordinary sculptural pieces whose colours chime beautifully with John’s collages. This week, Colin is working on a new piece in the gallery’s vaults, which he will create from several hundred copies of The Irish Examiner.
It’s an interesting pairing: John Kingerlee is 78, Colin O’Connor is 26; and each is as committed as the other to his vocation as an artist.
When we named the exhibition, it was a reflection on how both artists build up their work in strata, in Colin’s case, of paper, in John’s case, of paint. But the longer I have spent with their creations, the more I have begun to appreciate that art is not a static thing, but an accumulation of influences that continues to reinvent itself in new and surprising ways, and continues to reveal itself, in layers and layers. It doesn’t get much more multi-cultural than this.