The art of reinvention
Artist Richard Gorman changed his life when he quit the motor business to pursue his passion for painting 30 years ago.
'You may be dealt your cards in life but you can re-deal them," says Richard Gorman. The Dublin-born artist is a firm believer in getting up and creating the life you want.
"You can reinvent yourself," he says. "You can go somewhere and become something and then you are that thing that you become. You can be who you decide to be."
This is not just idle talk. The artist is living testament to these words. Richard Gorman's life story feels perfect for these January days when people are feeling glum about their dwindling resolutions. He knows all about fresh starts. There came a time in his life when he realised that it wasn't too late to change his career and so he did just that.
But he very nearly didn't become an artist. As a young lad growing up in Mount Merrion, he was always drawing and painting. He had vague ambitions about art but he never took them seriously enough. Besides, he once showed his drawings to a man in the art world who told him they were infantile. ("They probably were," he says, in hindsight.) So he took the sensible route suggested by his father and did a business degree in Trinity. After that, he worked with Ford Motor Cars in England and later in the family motor business -- Gorman Brothers in Rathmines -- when his uncle, who co-owned it with his father, had died. He stayed there for six years. Then he made an enormous change.
"When I worked in the garage, I made a pact with myself that I'd stay until I was 30 and then I'd do something else," he says.
"I stayed until I was 31. I had been in an intense relationship and that broke up. There was a lot of emotional turbulence and it made me re-evaluate my life. I also realised that when you're 30, you'll be 60 in a flash. It was frightening." He is now 65. "I knew that if I wanted to be doing something I needed to get it going."
He had been taking art classes in Dun Laoghaire College of Art in the evenings and at weekends but then he took the plunge and decided to follow his passion seriously. By that stage, he was used to a certain standard of living. No longer would he dine in fine restaurants or enjoy skiing holidays. But none of that mattered anymore. The pull to pursue his dream was too strong. He would do art full time.
Becoming an artist wasn't an easy route and success was far from instant but that decision was the making of him. It made him a happier soul too. Also, a trip to America a few years prior to that had left a lasting impression on him. With a giant shamrock on the cover of his atlas, he stuck out his thumb and hitch-hiked happily from Phoenix, Arizona to LA.
"There was a wildness and a freedom there.
"I was brought up in a safe middle class way and being a Protestant, you're in an enclave in Ireland but suddenly in America everything was possible and nothing mattered. You didn't come with your family history. You could be who you wanted to be. It opened up that possibility and that's still a reality."
Although he was a late starter, Gorman has squeezed the most out of his days, working at his art. Since he made the switch, that zest has stayed.
The minute I meet him in his studio in Dalkey, where he also lives, it's clear that he is all about his work. It is his great passion.
"I like working hard and my work doesn't feel like work," he says. "I don't seek out holidays because I prefer to be working. It keeps me happy."
It is my first time meeting Richard and immediately I notice that he walks with a limp in his left leg and his left hand has less power than the right one. Later on he tells me that he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in May 2010 and that the experts think he's got a mild form. He is not on medication yet.
He laughs when he tells me the bizarre fact that when he runs the limp disappears. (Not that he is into running.) He can still make it to the top of Killiney Hill and he cycles around. The Parkinson's slows him down a little as he moves around but he is happy to report that it's not interfering with the art work. His touch typing isn't as good these days so he is going to learn to type with one hand and perhaps he will look into a voice recognition programme. The main thing is that he is full steam ahead. And he would prefer to be talking about his art than his illness.
"I don't make a secret of it," he says.
"People ask me straight out because of the limp. I don't see it as a fight or a journey or any of those silly euphemisms. It's just a new aspect of me that I've got to adjust to. I want to define myself as much as I can by what I do rather than what has happened to me with this. It's just a new situation and so far, so good."
As he says, "I'm a working artist and I want to keep it that way."
Gorman's artwork is now all over the world. Since the mid-Eighties, he has exhibited regularly in Dublin, Paris, Milan and Tokyo. His latest show, Kozo, which opens on January 20 at the Kerlin Gallery, is full of abstract paintings of bright blocks of colour on kozo washi paper which he made himself in Japan.
"Just buying the paper doesn't seem to be enough. I like to give value to the object I'm going to paint."
Colour is an intrinsic part of Gorman's work.
"In the beginning, some were sour but recently I've found that as I've got older, the colours in my paintings are brighter."
Thank God for an artist who isn't afraid of colour.
I meet him on a crisp morning in his studio in Dalkey where he is now based but it wasn't always so.
After his first exhibition in Dublin, he received a bad review which made him reassess the situation. He decided to recede and so he went to live in Paris, where he did lithographs.
Renting a tiny flat with a wash hand basin but no shower was far from the romantic image of an artist in the city of lights. But each morning, as he walked to work, he was energised with the prospect of getting stuck into the complex printing process. Then he moved to Milan because it was close to the rest of Europe and he thought that it wasn't too Italian.
"I was only in Milan a few weeks when I met a Japanese girl called Mika Sato. I met her at a party given by an architect. She didn't speak English and I spoke very little Italian. We fell in love and lived together for a good few years. We used to go to the opera a lot. She was a very smart woman and very beautiful."
He shows me two enchanting video images of Mika on his iPhone, taken not so long ago. In one she is blinking, as if she is breathing and present. With her perfect skin, she certainly doesn't look 53.
"We communicated in Italian and eventually in English, as she said I was corrupting her Italian. Apparently, I learned to speak Italian with a Japanese accent. We were together for a long time and then we split up. That was the big relationship of my life. Eventually she went back to Japan. We're still very close but now it's more like brother and sister. I go to see her in Japan."
For the past 10 years, Richard has been based in Dublin. He lives in the studio in the grounds of the house of his good friends Robert and Michi Maharry. They have three children and one of them, Hannah, is his god-daughter.
"Robert has always been a great friend and a supporter of my life and work in an almost renaissance sense of being a patron and of collecting my paintings down through the years."
These days Richard happily spends his time working on his art. Did he always know he had this talent?
"Talent is a silly word," he says. "It's what you do with the ability you have that makes it into something."
As for the Parkinson's, he tells me that in the beginning he looked it up on Google but that wasn't a good idea. He trusts Professor Tubridy (Ryan's brother) to tell him what he needs to know.
"I've got to adjust to it, that's all I can do. But I've become a bit like a theatre critic. If I'm talking to somebody and I tell them I have this and they behave in a way that I don't feel is appropriate, I let them know."
This doesn't sound like the gentle man I have met.
"I have to protect myself," he explains. "You know something? A nice person annoyed is much more dangerous than a nasty person annoyed."
It takes an awful lot to annoy a nice person and Richard Gorman is nice. Besides, he is busy carrying on with his art, as he shuffles the cards he was dealt.
Kozo -- an exhibition of new work by Richard Gorman from January 20-February 25 at the Kerlin Gallery, Anne's Lane, South Anne Street, Dublin 2. Tel: 01-6709093
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