My favourite room: A differnt perspective
Artist Pauline Bewick, eternally young despite her 75 years, tells Mary O'Sullivan of her novel ways of looking at the world from her Kerry home. Photography by Tony Gavin
As artist Pauline Bewick strides through a ditch and up a lane near her home in the mountains in south-west Kerry, it's impossible not to be struck by how young everything about her is: her face, her figure, her fashion, her gait, her conversation. While her much younger companions struggle over the ditches and rough paths, Pauline forges ahead, leading the way; an elegant, tanned blonde in floaty white linen. She's 75 now -- as the invitation to her September exhibition at Taylor Galleries proudly announced -- but she hardly shows any sign of her years, and certainly doesn't appear to be slowing down at all workwise. If anything, she's almost more prolific. She's even invented a new way of preserving paint on her larger canvases, removing the need for huge expanses of glass. It involves a vacuum cleaner that cost her a fortune and a particular type of paint, but it's a way of doing things that really suits her, and it was all her own idea. "I have masses of ideas all the time, non-stop. I wake in the night and jot down ideas," she explains.
The new ideas don't just stop at technique -- she's constantly exploring new themes in her work. Women have always absorbed her -- how they interact with men, nature, society; but she's forever finding new twists -- a trip to China two years ago with her daughter, Poppy, was a big source of inspiration. A chance encounter, something someone said -- anything can spark a new painting. Some things, though, will never change -- like her obsession with tidiness.
"Tidy is major for me. If someone came looking for a book on, say, Freud, I'd know where it is. If the house is untidy, I'm upset, even if it's untidy inside the drawers. If I shove something away in a drawer to get it out of the way, I'll have to straighten it later. I can cope with problems if things are in order," Pauline maintains, telling me that she couldn't have kept the place in order if she didn't have Betty, a Kerrywoman who has been with her for more than 30 years. The flip side of this, of course, is that Betty wouldn't have stayed if Pauline wasn't so much fun. Though the artist does have her foibles; one of which is the way she uses mirrors. There are plenty around her studios, but they're mainly to do with her perfectionism. "The mirrors are there for a purpose as well as vanity," she explains, taking a painting of a couple making love, leaning it against her body and looking at it in the mirror. "When I think, 'is a painting finished or not?' I do this. I judge it and I look at the composition. And I ask myself, is it a bit unbalanced? But I'm now perfectly happy with this one. I have to look at it through the mirror because otherwise you're just jaded by looking at it on the easel for too long." She puts the painting down and leans it against a chair. Then suddenly, legs akimbo, she bends her body in two, her long hair dangling, her face between her legs. "Another way of looking at a picture is to look at it between the legs, upside down, that works too," she says, straightening up. And there isn't a creak.
There are only a few paintings to look at, even though Pauline has two studios; she gave most of her collection to the State some years ago, and any current paintings are immediately sent to the gallery to be put on sale. But she works in both studios. One is a stand-alone glass building, while the other is part of the cottage she shares with her husband, psychiatrist Pat Melia, a Welshman whom she met when she was at art school in Dublin and he was studying at Trinity. At the time she was with someone else, but she warmed to Pat when she had flu and he came and read to her. "Throughout our whole marriage Pat has read aloud to me. I'm dyslexic and can't read, and our marriage was fed by Pat reading aloud to me," she muses. The couple started married life in Dublin but, after Poppy was born, Pauline, who was born in England but reared in Kerry, told Pat she couldn't bear Dublin any longer. "One day I started to cry in the cinema with Pat. I told him I really feel I'm a country person; I'm not a city person."
He immediately sought work in the Kerry area and, when a job was secured for him, they bought a two-acre site. "We wanted an old house, but there weren't any to be found, so we bought a site and decided to build on it," recalls Pauline. That was in the early Seventies. "We found this spot and I said to one of the neighbours, 'Is it very windy here?' 'No,' he answered, 'it's always grand like this.' And it was so windy his two ears were flapping in the wind," Pauline relates with a laugh, adopting a strong Kerry accent when she takes the part of the Kerryman but reverting to her natural, accentless tones when it's her own voice.
Sure enough, it proved to be so windy that the prefab-type hut they lived in while building their cottage blew away one day and broke into smithereens.
When it came to deciding the design of the house, artist friend Maria Simonds Gooding suggested they look at the Rent An Irish Cottage Schemes which were springing up in coastal areas such as Clare. And they liked them so much that they asked the architect of these schemes if they could use his design. "We know it sounds corny to be looking at pretend old Irish cottages and making a fake 'old' cottage ourselves, but we liked the atmosphere," Pauline explains, adding that they also put in Kerry features like the chimney and the outside steps to the second floor. At the time, they didn't have much money and couldn't finish the floors, leaving the bare cement. "Our neighbour said when you throw your party, the floor will settle from all the set dancing. Apparently, in the old days, they used padded sods and they tamped them down with the dancing, but cement floors just throw up lots of dust," Pauline says with a laugh.
Soon the cottage was ready, although there was no electricity. "I painted by lamplight, which I loved; we were the first to get electricity," she notes.
Originally, the house was just a kitchen/living room with two bedrooms and a studio. It was Pauline's first studio and, justifying the expense of it, she immediately got work drawing the pictures for RTE children's programme Cyril The Squirrel, written by Eugene McCabe. "That broke the ice of using the new studio," she recalls, and the money from RTE meant they were able to cover the cement floor. These days she also sleeps in the studio. "When I can't sleep I get up and work without disturbing anyone. When you can't sleep, I always advise people to get up and enjoy it. I paint, and when I'm done I fall asleep."
Just as Pauline's artistic output expanded, so too did the house; it has greatly increased in size since they first built it in the mid-Seventies. They have added bedrooms and bathrooms, and skylights for more light. And, of course, the decor has changed, although Pauline has always stayed true to the cottage style, favouring lots of pine and simple mattress-ticking-style fabrics.
Over the years, she and Pat developed the site around the house; this has necessitated huge landscaping and gardening. "I saw a Polish fellow on the bus into Dublin from the airport, he was reading a gardening manual and when I asked him about it, he said he'd come to Ireland to look for a job. I told him to ring me if he couldn't get any work. Sure enough, he rang me a week later and came down to work for four weeks."
The Pole's ultimate intention was to get work in Australia and, through a friend there, Pauline helped him to relocate. This encounter is typical of Pauline; a very open, warm-hearted person, she develops all sorts of relationships as a result of chance encounters, both personal and work-related. Take the case of the recent revamping of her garden. She needed hundreds of slabs, found out that the owner of the salvage yard where she wanted to buy the slabs happened to be a huge art lover and he happily took an enormous painting in exchange for the masses of slabs. The wonderful walls of the garden were built by Dan O'Connor, her neighbour, whom she considers an artist in his own field.
A recent addition to the buildings that make up Pauline's home include an enormous glass studio where she sometimes works -- she also uses it for framing and showing guests her work. And, as she says herself, for swinging! She designed both the structure and the interior, including blinds on the roof to keep the heat down and two doors to maintain a through-draft.
And she's recently done up an old cottage which she originally built 30 years ago for her mother, Harry, who was something of an eccentric and rarely came to the house. "Harry told me going back to Kerry was like stepping backwards in life," she laughs. Pauline has often left Kerry, usually for short trips -- sometimes to exotic locations, most usually to her holiday home in Tuscany where Holly, also a successful artist, lives with her Italian husband Luca and their two daughters. She doesn't have to travel far to see her other daughter, Poppy, who is fast making a name for herself as a wildlife artist. Poppy is married to Kerryman Conor Mulvihill and, along with their two sons, they live a stone's throw away. Pauline and the two girls are very close and they once enjoyed a year in the South Seas in the Eighties -- at the time, Pauline and Pat had split up. The couple reunited on her return and wild horses wouldn't get her out of Kerry permanently now.
If Harry could see her now, she'd admit that stepping backwards is one thing Pauline has never done.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine