Saturday 24 March 2018

'I don't hold with blood being thicker than water'

Artist Joby Hickey is the son of renowned painter Patrick Hickey and as a child, his image appeared in the background of the old £50 note, he tells Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

'I haven't spoken to anyone in days, so it'll take me a while to wake my brain up." So says artist Joby Hickey as we sit across from each other in his top-floor Leeson Street apartment, surrounded by paintings, sketches, photographs and bits of camera equipment, much of it homemade, or at least home-adapted. We're also surrounded by some pretty toxic chemicals, but I don't discover this until later.

"Really," I ask. "No one?"

"Well, I spoke to the person in Lidl yesterday, but other than that, I've just been here working."

Work, for Joby, takes place in the flat, where he has converted one room into a studio/darkroom. "I like to try and pretend I work in a bank," he says, "so I like to get up about 7.30am, work on painting until about 5pm and then, if I still have the energy, start in the dark room". That's probably harder than most bank officials work, but as Joby says, "I don't sign on the dole. I make money selling my paintings and photographs. I'm totally self-supporting and I'm proud of myself for that, but it has made me quite a stressed-out person. I would love to make huge pieces, but they take longer, of course, and you have to meet deadlines for painting exhibitions, and pay your rent!"

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the photography would be quicker, easier, than painting, but given that Joby makes his own film and negatives, often his own cameras, and develops his own photos, with the aforementioned chemicals ("this stuff is like Mars dust, a type of iron with cyanide in it; I'm very 'if I die, I die', but you can get some creepy liver thing with this…"), that isn't how it works out.

And, of course, there's the switching around. "The studio turns into a darkroom, but it's like speaking two different languages, going from French to Italian, or English to Irish," he says.

His latest exhibition is part of the Solomon Gallery Easter Group Show, where he has two pieces. He has shown in Berlin at the G11 Galerie, at the Sebastian Guinness Gallery and regularly at the RHA. His work has been collected by JP Donleavy, Ken Loach, Leonard Cohen and the OPW. At the last opening of his work that I attended, organised by Sarah Owens, among those there to admire and support were Mundy, Simon Walker, Valerie Ringrose Fitzsimons and Alexandra McGuinness.

And yet, respected and collected though Joby is, it is still, he says, an up-and-down kind of life. "I've had some really freaky moments where I didn't know if I could make my rent, and other times I have more than I need. You go to the gallery to collect a cheque and you have no idea how much it's going to be - it's like going to the shop and doing a scratch card," he says.

Joby is the son of artist Patrick Hickey, of whom the UK Independent said after his death in 1998, that he had "perhaps more influence on the direction of art and design in Ireland than any of his contemporaries". Patrick was born in what is now Pakistan, where his father was a Colonel in the Indian Army, and went to Ampleforth College in Yorkshire (as did painter Roderic O'Conor and sculptor Antony Gormley, as well as Rupert Everett) and later founded the Graphic Studio in Dublin, was head of painting at NCAD, and designed the beautiful 1972 bank notes - Joby, as a child, appears in the background of the £50 note, behind Turlough O'Carolan, the blind harper. "I never knew it was me until someone said it when I was older," Joby says now. "I asked my dad and he said 'yes'."

Patrick, Joby says, "taught me since I was really young. He taught me everything really". So much so, that when the time came for Joby to go to college - he chose Dun Laoghaire Art College, because Patrick at the time was head of NCAD, "and we were living together; I was 19 or 20, it was too intense" - he found that some of his teachers, who had themselves been taught by Patrick, were repeating things Joby had already heard. "It was really weird," he says now with a laugh, "hearing them tell me stuff he told me already".

There is a curious quality of light in Joby's art, both painting and photography, that is instantly noticeable; something diffuse but powerful. I wonder does it come from the Greek Islands where he spent much of his childhood, in what sounds like a curious but magical time.

Joby was adopted, "when I was 18 months old, I think. I was conceived in London but my birth mother came back to Dublin and I was born in Holles Street, and then adopted by my parents. We lived in Sandymount but after about a year, my mother took me and my two older sisters off to the Greek islands. My dad came over after us and rented an island".

This sounds terrifically grandiose, except that, of course, this was the 1970s, and you could do that then. "So he had his own island, and I kind of remember him painting and drawing, goats and old villagers. We drank goat's milk and explored." And, by the sounds of it, had wonderful freedom.

One of Joby's earliest memories from that time is falling off a pier, into the sea. "I was about four or five, and I was walking along the edge of a pier, and I fell in. I remember taking a really deep breath. I've always had this thing about black, and the bubbles of air from my nose going up around me. I blacked out and came to with all these people standing around me. My sister was in a canoe, and just by chance, she looked over and saw me going down, and not coming back up, so she pulled me out," he says.

He seems far more interested in the memory of the black water and rising air bubbles - a kind of background motif that still appears in much of his work - than in the fact that he very nearly died.

The family moved back to Sandymount when Joby was around six - "me and my mum hitch-hiked back from Greece. We got as far as Holland", he recalls - but the feeling of freedom continued. "I would take time off school and watch old black-and-white movies with my mum. I still do that. I've got a huge side of me that's incredibly introverted - I think sometimes I'm one step away from tin-foiling up my windows! I still watch a lot of silent movies."

His mother, he says with a laugh, "speaks like the Queen. She was raised in England; her ancestors left Ireland, went to Sheffield and started a steel company". He tells a story about his grandmother taking a trip by ocean liner to New York, where she was invited on-shore by "a thug", who said, "'hey lady, you want to come on some dry land for a wet drink?'" She turned him down, and apparently then discovered that the "thug" was Al Capone who, as Joby points out, may have run his empire in Chicago, but was from Brooklyn. It may, or may not, be true, but, we agree, it's a great story.

So given that Joby learned and painted from a young age, did he always want to be an artist? "Actually, me and my dad would both like to have been musicians," he says. "He put musical instruments on all the banknotes he designed. And I am the worst musician in the world, I'm no good at it, but I would have loved to be one."

Film also appealed to him - "I wanted to make films, so I got my union card as a clapper-loader, which is where you start, and learnt all about film stock, but then I worked on a film, in 1996, and they were trying to backlight a girl in a car. I made a suggestion for how they might do it, and I kind of got scolded, by the producer, as in, 'you should know your place'. I found that really depressing."

In the end, art was something that happened almost by accident, despite his years in Dun Laoghaire art college. "I was down in the mouth about working on that film, and I went home, and I saw an old canvas I'd done when I was about 15, and I painted over it and brought it into a gallery in town, and they rang about three hours later and said it had sold. So I did another. I continued doing that, and then over the course of the next 10 years, developed into this."

He made his first camera, a simple pinhole, when he was 12, adding: "I made my own little cameras from matchboxes and old film boxes, and became really obsessed with that." Later, during the 1990s, "digital came in and everyone was patting themselves on the back saying 'oh so-and-so is still using film…' And I was thinking 'wow, big deal!' I thought what would be much more interesting would be to make my own film, on gelatine strips. So I did". One day, he hopes, "people won't know the difference between my painting and my photography, or care; it will just be one of my pieces".

Joby made contact with his birth mother, Deirdre, who died in 2006, and has a half-sister who lives in London, with whom he is in touch - the story of how they found each other is one of bizarre and unexpected coincidences, involving Joby's ex-girlfriend, actor Aisling O'Neill, the phone book and a great deal of luck - but he never found his birth father. "I think it's a male thing; I really wanted to meet my dad, but I never had any luck. I know he was Islamic, I know he was devout, that he prayed to the East five times a day. He was 19, a doctor who came from Calcutta and owned properties in London apparently. But nothing else. The adoption records didn't give me any more information. But," he says, "I don't go for blood being thicker than water - if I thought that way, my parents whom I grew up with wouldn't be my parents, and they so were and are".

So what's next? "I've been offered to teach in a school in Cambodia next winter. I'm leaving straight after the clocks go back. I've got a phobia about the clocks going back - suddenly everything smells like turf, there's screaming rockets and bangers and it's all really dark, within a day. It's my nightmare."

Leaving Ireland will, he says, "be like exhaling for the first time in a long time; I've been working so hard". He has a plan to photograph the great archaeo-astronomy sites of the world - Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng in Cambodia, Uxmal in Mexico, Stonehenge and Newgrange, - finding the precise place where the sun goes down, the vanishing point, then using long exposure and printing the results on to steel.

This is a long-held desire of his. "Me and my mother were really into astronomy when I was young. We'd get deckchairs, binoculars and flasks and sit out at night. Slugs would crawl up the flasks. So it's always been really personal to me. It'll take two years, at least, but that's OK. I have time."

The Solomon Gallery Easter Group Show, including works by Patrick O'Reilly, Tom Climent, Leah Beggs, Margaret Egan, John Short, Anthony Scott, Joby Hickey and Frances Ryan, runs until March 29.

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