I always knew I wanted to go to art college, although I didn’t quite know what that meant until around the time I sat my Intermediate Certificate. After that, I became determined to go.
Growing up in Ennis, I was a mixture of an outgoing and an introverted child. I was naturally shy but learned how to deal with the public from a young age, as I helped out with the family businesses.
My parents ran a pub on O’Connell Street and a grocery shop and they also had a farm. I worked in the bar and I cycled around town delivering messages for the shop.
When the time came, I totally embraced the move up to Dublin to study at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). It was what I’d been waiting for — to experience something different.
Once I got there, I knew I’d be a painter. It was just a case of when would I be able to do it full time, to earn my living from it?
I’m not particularly good at routine. I was brought up in an environment where nine to five jobs didn’t exist. My parents didn’t have a routine, they were on call all the time.
So in lots of ways my experience of having no set routine, as an artist, is not too dissimilar to what I grew up with. But, I make sure to spend a couple of days in the studio each week, in Henrietta Street, when I’m in Dublin, or in my studio at home when I’m in north Mayo.
My biggest fault is taking on too much, having too many commitments and then leaving certain things on the long finger.
My favourite piece of advice is from George Bernard Shaw: to never let your schooling interfere with your education. There is a difference between the two. I got, and continue to get, my education through experiencing many different things — teaching, farming, labouring, working as a security man — and through meeting various types of people.
I became President of The Royal Irish Academy two years ago and I enjoy the role, although initially I was a little anxious about making such a commitment.
I paint a lot of portraits and historical subjects. Painting someone’s portrait is quite an intimate scenario but the experience differs with each individual. I’ve been doing it for so long now that it is a completely normal situation for me.
I’ve been lucky because the people I have painted seem to have been familiar with the process, comfortable with the creation of the portrait being a journey rather than a destination. I’m working on a portrait of President Michael D Higgins at the moment.
I’m curious about people. Particularly people whose lives have had a different trajectory to my own. I’m fascinated by how they find themselves where they are right now, to see if their path took them from pillar to post, rather like a game of pinball, or, if it followed more of a straight line.
The traits I most admire in other people are steadiness and reliability.
My idea of misery is having to commute to and from work at peak times, being forced to sit in lines of traffic each day.
If I could be reborn in another era, I’d like to go back to pre-Reformation Ireland so that I could witness the frescoes that still existed in monasteries and churches back then.
My biggest challenges in life have been the normal ones I guess. Deaths. Divorce. All the usual near fatal injuries which make you who you are.
I have two daughters. The eldest is just about to get married. I’m making her table decorations: sculptures of birds on bamboo legs.
I don’t think there is an afterlife. I’m not religious but I am interested in religion and I respect people who have faith. But for me, it all boils down to love.
If I could change one thing in our society I’d change closed minds.
Artist Mick O’Dea is also President of The Royal Hibernian Academy, whose Members Exhibition takes place from November 16 - December 21, at the RHA, Ely Place, Dublin 2.
A selection of new works by Academy members, will include painting, print, sculpture and drawing.