Moving to West Cork proved a creative renewal for artist John Kingerlee, one which went hand in hand with his spiritual awakening, writes Arts Editor Marc O’Sullivan
When John Kingerlee and his wife Mo took Irish citizenship in 2010, it cemented their relationship with the country they had long known as home.
The Kingerlees moved here from Cornwall in 1982. They had run a small pottery in Treveor, but fancied a change, having reared their family of five. Kingerlee had enjoyed some success as a painter in the ’60s — the actor Richard Harris collected his work — and he hoped to return to the practice.
Ireland seemed like a good place to get stuck in: though born in Birmingham, in 1936, Kingerlee was of Irish descent on his mother’s side, and he’d always felt drawn to this country.
Part of the attraction was the people. Kingerlee remembers hitching through West Cork when they came here first, and overhearing a conversation in the Blue Loo bar in Glengarriff.
“This old boy was slumped over his Guinness. And he’d obviously just proposed to this old dear behind him. And she said to him: ‘And sure if I was to marry you, wouldn’t I need to stick my head under the hen’. You know what hens do, they hatch out eggs. And what she meant was, if she was ever to marry an alcoholic like him, she’d have to put her head under the hen to hatch a bit of intelligence.” Kingerlee laughs. “Wasn’t that wonderful?”
The Kingerlees settled in Cleanagh, a remote pocket on the Beara peninsula in West Cork, where they rented a cottage for some years. They managed without electricity or running water, and grew their own food.
It was in Beara that Kingerlee’s painting came into its own. By some process of enchantment, the landscape, sea and sky seeped into his work. He began to participate in group shows, and a solo exhibition at the Tom Caldwell Gallery in Dublin in 1987 brought him to the notice of critics and collectors. That same year, the Kingerlees moved from Cleanagh, buying a home of their own ten miles away, in Kilcatherine. Soon, as well as producing collages and works in paper, Kingerlee developed a system of painting in grids that allowed him the freedom to experiment with oils. It is a process that continues to absorb him: his paintings often take years to complete.
“Mo might say, ‘that’s beautiful, John’, and then I’ll know it’s done. Because I could go on and on, and then I might destroy what was a nice spontaneous thing. I’m trying to stop that. These days, I try to listen to people: that’s supposed to be a sign of wisdom, the ability to take advice.”
Kingerlee has exhibited widely. The art collector, Larry Powell — whom Kingerlee describes as his patron — organised a show of his work which toured to museums in America from 2006-10, and he was among the first Irish artists to have a solo exhibition in China. The prestigious American art critic and curator, the late Dr Ted Pilsbury, was another champion: he edited a book on Kingerlee, The Whole Planet is a Garden, which was published in 2010.
If painting proved to be Kingerlee’s vocation, there was a matter of the spirit that still needed resolution. He had been profoundly moved by a visit to Morocco in 1969, when he first encountered Islam.
“I got such a shake-up I didn’t get back for a few years after that. What you call the ego in our language, in Morocco they call the nafs. And my nafs knew it was under attack in Morocco. But gradually I learned what had put me together was all false. On the path to knowledge, you come to learn that the one thing you don’t want to see is yourself.”
Over the years, Kingerlee was drawn further to the teachings of Islam, and he and Mo converted in 1987. “We’re only created to praise Allah,” he says. “Against the wonderful cosmos that he created, this world, this life, it’s like a ring cast out into the desert.
“Finally, there is only one thing in existence. What brought us all into being is all that exists. The sufis’ path is to experience that. When you’ve got a good sheikh he can guide you through it. This was available in Morocco, but less so now. There is only one. All the great religions have offered their people that.”
Kingerlee’s studies of Islam have left him with a great disdain for the modern banking system. “Governments are held in universal contempt and the word democracy has come to mean ‘governments by bank’. And what are they? Two hundred families, or less. In Islam, the Prophet would not allow lending money with interest. No renting of money. Money’s like an apple: when you eat it, it’s gone. You don’t rent out apples, you don’t rent out money.
“Banking’s been big time for what, 250 years ... and what has it brought us? Usury will destroy the planet, and that’s why all the major religions forbade it. Our system kills 18 million to 20 million people a year from starvation. And people expect that you should go around being nice and domesticated and saying nothing, in the face of a total murder machine.”
Kingerlee bemoans the fact that people no longer protest as vocally as they did in his youth.
“This civilisation works by keeping everybody intimidated. I grew up as one of the hippies in the ’60s. You could mouth off about anything, but you’ve got to be very careful what you say these days.”
Kingerlee will be 78 next week, on Valentine’s Day. He and Mo recently moved to Skibbereen, finally acknowledging that the winters by the sea in Beara were no longer endurable. He’s got a new studio, several times larger than the one in Kilcatherine, and he’s as industrious as ever. Most recently, he’s been working on a series of paintings on paper, which he will show next week in Layers & Layers, a joint exhibition at CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery with the artist Colin O’Connor.
* Layers & Layers will be opened by writer Billy O’Callaghan at 6pm on Tuesday, February 11. All welcome. Further information on the art of John Kingerlee: kingerlee.com
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