Inside Out: Irish pop art queen Orla Walsh tells how a moment can change life forever

Eve Kelliher discovers how an artist is using life in lockdown to help families like hers affected by spinal injuries
Inside Out: Irish pop art queen Orla Walsh tells how a moment can change life forever
Orla and Kieran Walsh with Ali, Tess and Charlie and dog Bailey. Picture: Paul Sherwood

Eve Kelliher discovers how an artist is using life in lockdown to help families like hers affected by spinal injuries

Andy Warhol's image of a Campbell’s tomato soup can became an international symbol of modern art, and it was a painting of a Heinz ketchup bottle that shook up the Irish pop art scene — and Orla Walsh’s life.

Just as introducing a random new colour to one of her vibrant canvases might completely change its tone, a chance meeting with a passer-by was to transform the Dublin artist’s life in more ways than one.

A graphic designer, Orla was expecting the first of her three children when she picked up her paintbrushes again, encouraged by her husband Kieran, a banker, to follow her dream and become a full-time artist. “I loved working as a graphic designer and still do. But my one true love is pencil drawing. That to me is pure bliss. I can disappear into my own world for hours,” she says.

Orla’s first pieces featured in a gallery in Blackrock in Dublin and she went on to display her pop art at a pitch rented with a pal along the railings of St Stephen’s Green.

It was there a fairy godmother force was to present itself in an unlikely guise. “I had painted six huge ketchup bottles. I put them up on the St Stephen’s Green railings for the People’s Art 14 years ago. Habitat used to be nearby and the corporate lawyer for Heinz Ireland happened to be in the shop. She came over and at first I thought: ‘Great, I’m going to sell these.’ But she said they were an infringement of copyright.

I said I hadn’t sold any, which was true, and she took photographs of them.” But far from those snaps getting Orla into trouble, a few weeks later the same woman, Richelle McCarthy, returned with good news. “She had shown them to someone from the Heinz corporation headquarters and they loved them. She was so lovely, really excited for me,” said Orla.

Heinz bought the whole series of Orla’s ketchup bottle paintings to hang in its HQ in Pittsburgh and so started the queen of the Irish pop art scene’s relationship with the corporation. Her paintings depicting other iconic brands like Tayto, Cadbury’s and Coca Cola also swiftly grew a cult following.

Although Richelle has sadly died since, Orla says she will be forever grateful to her.

Another powerhouse for Orla as her career took off was her husband Kieran. In the weeks leading up to October 1, 2018, Orla was preparing for a major solo exhibition. Kieran, who would rise at 6am to cycle to his workplace, had also taken on all the cooking and cleaning at home to free her time. Orla and their daughters had prepared a special thank-you dinner that evening, but there was no sign of him. “He usually arrived home at 7pm,” says Orla. Then she received the telephone call that was to change the family’s life forever. A road accident had resulted in Kieran breaking his back, sternum and ribs. “He was paralysed from the chest down,” says the artist.

Orla, Kieran and their daughters have since entered what she describes as “a new world”. “Obviously it was a shock at first but we find ourselves focusing forward all the time,” she says.

Recovery is ongoing. And of course, life during the pandemic is particularly challenging for people with spinal injuries. “Since the accident Kieran has had many infections. This makes it harder for him to regain independence. Last Saturday we just finished seven days with home hospital where Kieran required intravenous antibiotics. He is in great form right now, building energy.” Overall the healing process is “a rollercoaster”, notes Orla. “But we’re in it together,” she says.

Life in lockdown also means Orla’s moments of losing herself in her art are now extra-precious. When Kieran returned from hospital, a carer from the HSE would call to the house between 8am and 10am each morning to get Kieran ready for the day, including showering him and dressing him. “Since Covid-19, it’s been too dangerous to have any carers in the house,” says Orla. “I do it all, but at a much slower pace — initially he’d be lucky if he made it into the kitchen by 3pm. But we just laugh and do things at our own time and speed.” And that fateful meeting by the railings with Richelle McCarthy was to help open another chapter for Orla and Kieran.

Orla Walsh in studio.
Orla Walsh in studio.

Richelle’s family had always stayed in touch with Orla over the years. “This is what is really weird. Her sister and mother dropped in to see us when Kieran had his accident and it was they who told me about Spinal Injuries Ireland. We wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. Richelle started my career and it turned out Richelle’s brother James McCarthy was chairman of Spinal Injuries Ireland.”

Because her husband’s injuries were so catastrophic, life for Orla had become “transient”. “It was just all tools down because there’s just no time for anything. At first my parents moved in to help and I slept in the hospital beside Kieran’s bed.” While she says she doesn’t think “normality ever came back” one calming ritual was a cuppa as she waited in those hospital corridors. “I was always drinking cups of Barry’s Tea and I said to myself, I’m going to paint one of those teabags,” she says.

Orla is using that painting to support other families like hers. On Monday, June 1, she will release 150 limited edition prints depicting Barry’s Tea, priced at €100 each, and 50% of all sales will go to Spinal Injuries Ireland. “Every spinal injury is different and Spinal Injuries Ireland for us, and many families, is a lifeline,” she says.

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