Wednesday 24 May 2017

Sculptor's creative life shaped his works of art

Niall Harkin has finally reached his major milestone after a storied career, says Lucinda O'Sullivan

'I gave myself five years from the date of my retirement to have my own one-man show devoted to sculpture, and in this ambition I have succeeded," says artist and sculptor Niall Harkin.

Niall's solo exhibition 'Votive Offerings' opens today in the Berkley Gallery in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, which hosts its own arts festival in conjunction with the Kilkenny Arts Festival which runs until August 16.

Born in Dublin in 1941 into a very individualistic republican and artistic family, with roots in Donegal and Tyrone, Harkin's is a life that has been devoted to art. Niall's grandfather, Mick McGinley, was a Fenian who wrote ballads, many of which are still sung today, including Glen Swilly, written when he embarked on a three-month voyage to Australia thinking he would never see his beloved Donegal again.

Happily he did, and his daughter, Nora, grew up to be Niall, and older brother Mick's mother. Nora Harkin, who will be 101 next month is a woman of very strong convictions.

Nora met her future husband, Charlie Harkin, from Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone, in 1932 at a ceili for the republican prisoners fund at the Mansion House. "Charlie had just come back from America, she fancied him and the rest happened!" Niall laughs. "Charlie was a republican left- wing socialist in his time and they were both always involved in left-wing politics in the Thirties and Forties." In the Fifties, Nora was a well-known founder member of the Ireland Soviet Friendship Society. "In those days anybody who opposed the status quo -- the church, the State -- it was 'Reds under the beds' to scare people. What they really wanted was to open an embassy here, that was the big ambition along with other founder members Frank Edwards, John Swift and others. It was very difficult in those days but we were kids growing up. We grew up in Monkstown in an old gate lodge. The house was always full of Russian journalists, doctors, intellectuals, and on one day we even had a busload of the Bolshoi Ballet people. They were mad nights altogether."

Nora visited what was the former Soviet Union on 18 occasions over the course of her involvement. But ultimately when the Soviet empire fell apart things changed. "In many respects I felt afterwards that she and people like herself had been used by the system they believed so much in. But, she wasn't disillusioned and still believed in a Socialist society. However, now going on 101,and living in a nursing home, Nora's memory of her colourful life is totally gone."

It can't have been easy for Niall, and his elder brother Mick, going to school in those days with parents who were regarded as 'Reds under the beds'.

Was it not a lot to lay this on your kids? "We went to the Christian Brothers School in Monkstown. My brother was kind of strong and tough and played the games, but I was weak and windy," he laughed.

"I remember in 1956, the year of the Hungarian uprising, being down in the basement, where the tuck shop was, and being roughed up a bit by some of the older boys, and being told to go home and live in Moscow.

"They used to come up and paint hammers and sickles on the walls of the house. I remember also when my brother got a scholarship to go to agricultural college. He had to go to the parish priest to get a reference and was told to come back the next day. However, the next day there was no reference forthcoming and he was frozen out by the priest's housekeeper."

In 1959-60 Niall went to the National College of Art in Kildare Street, where he graduated after five years studying fine art painting under one of Ireland's most distinguished artists, Maurice MacGonigle. In those days students used to go to England during the summer and worked in Bird's Eye and Smedley's canning factories where after six or eight weeks they finished up with a pile of money and would take off and travel. "I had the ambition to live in Naples and I hitch-hiked down but after three days I hated the place, it was mean, ugly and awful. I met some Egyptian students who had been working in canning factories in Germany who were heading home to Egypt.

"They said there was a boat leaving in the morning so for £9.50 I had four days on the deck and eventually arrived. I travelled around Egypt down to Luxor and Aswan, the Valley of the Kings. I then set off from Alexandria through Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and back up through Spain and France. It was an amazing experience, the Arabs are very friendly. I was then back in London but my brother was out in Sacramento, California, doing a Masters degree. Out of the blue, he sent me a ticket to come over. This was 1966 and San Francisco, 'flowers in your hair' and all that and I was off like a rat. It was Christmas and I was travelling cross country on a Greyhound bus to California."

Having gone out for three months Harkin ended up staying for 15 months. "Within a few weeks of arriving I had fallen in with a psychedelic rock band called Oxford Circle and I got work with them as a roadie," he says.

"They used to play in the Avalon and Fillmore in San Francisco with psychedelic bands Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company, of which Janis Joplin was the lead singer -- all the major bands.

"There was, of course, the whole 'acid' thing and I just got stuck in straight away. They called me the 'leprechaun with acid indigestion'! We travelled all over California and then the time came, a couple of months later, when we got busted for possession of marijuana up in a town called Davis because the local sheriff didn't want those hippies from San Francisco polluting their children.

There was a benefit concert I put on at the university and a number of bands came up from the Bay area to support us. I was hanging out in the cafeteria beforehand, and Janis Joplin was there, she was going to perform but she was getting very nervous because she was running out of red wine. Davis, being a dry town, only sold beer and myself and a couple of the Big Brother band went down the freeway a few miles to a liquor store and got a pile of red wine. She wasn't too fussy what it was, and she got stuck in but when she went out to perform, she went out in her bare feet. She was incredible, she brought the place down." Joplin unfortunately died when she was just 27.

"They were heady days! My brother went back home and I stayed but eventually had to leg it out of it."

Niall returned to London where he lived for seven years, and where he had a son Damien by his then partner Karen. He talks proudly of his three lovely grandchildren Charlie aged nine, Felix aged five, and Jake aged one.

"I did a number of things when in London, including working on the oil rigs. I had a stall on the Portobello Road and I made bags and sandals, but eventually I came back to Dublin and I got a job teaching art in the King's Hospital School, where I was for a number of years during the Eighties. At that same time I was painting and had a number of exhibitions in group shows, and two one-man shows in the Peacock Theatre and the United Arts Club.

In 1984 I got a post teaching art in Willow Park, which became a full- time job, and from where I retired in 2006." Harkin stopped painting in 1990 but his lust for adventure didn't stop. At the age of 50, he went to Nepal on a trek to Everest Base Camp. Flying from Kathmandu to the landing strip at Lukla, he made it to Gorak Shep, within two hours of base camp, before turning back due to altitude sickness.

He then started making sculptures and has shown three times in the Sculpture in Context Show at the Botanic Gardens in 2003, 2005 and 2010. Having explored different forms of sculpture from modelling with clay to casting, Harkin's method now is to use sheet bronze, cut it, shape it, weld it and make forms. "I find it a really good way to work, inspired by animal and natural forms, the trees in the forest, wildlife."

Whilst he may have retired in 2006, his life started a new phase for he also married his partner of nine years, Swissborn Ursula Mattenberger, a graphic artist who retired recently from the Department of Archaeology in UCD. The couple moved to an old farmhouse in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, which he absolutely adores. "People are lovely down here, it is a hotbed of creativity, everything is no bother, they are a very warm people, and I am blessed with good neighbours."

'Votive Offerings' Exhibition is being officially opened today by poet and Aosdana member Theo Dorgan at The Berkeley Gallery in The Mill in Thomastown at 3pm and runs until August 16. Prices range from €400 to €2,000

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