Thursday 22 February 2018

Looking at life from the outside

Dublin-born Eithne Jordan has lived in Berlin, London and France, each time relishing being in a different place. Our  hears how this was the making of her and her work

Juggling the studio with her baby: 'Timmy had put the paintbrushes in his mouth. I thought he'd swallowed turpentine,' recalls Eithne Jordan. Photo: Frank McGrath
Juggling the studio with her baby: 'Timmy had put the paintbrushes in his mouth. I thought he'd swallowed turpentine,' recalls Eithne Jordan. Photo: Frank McGrath

Ciara Dwyer

Moments before I meet the artist Eithne Jordan, I wander around the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny Castle to look at the paintings in her latest exhibition, When Walking. They are the culmination of her year-long Tony O'Malley residency in Callan. She found inspiration during her walks about the town.

I am intrigued.

There are grey buildings, a boarded-up housing estate, a deserted GAA pitch and a graveyard. In one painting you can see a convent which is surrounded by walls. Another is of a cottage half hidden behind a bush. Although the skies are grey, they are somehow luminous. Their compelling gloom is reminiscent of a scene from Jane Eyre - buildings behind strange railings and bare crooked trees. There is a warm glow of light from inside the buildings, but not one person. Human life is hidden. They are not unlike the American artist Edward Hopper's paintings except that he had figures in his work. I'm curious about what is going on inside those buildings. And what sort of person would be drawn to creating something which is devoid of human life? I am apprehensive about meeting her. Will our time be full of silences and shoulder shrugs?

I needn't have worried.

She greets me with a warm smile. Like so many artists, colour is crucial to her. You can see it in her clothes. She is clad in lilac and wears a chunky orange ring. Her hazel eyes light up when I suggest that we sit outside, in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle. It is a glorious day, and after heavy morning rain the sun is beaming down. The OPW workers take their coffee break in the sun, lapping up the rare rays. But we sit on a bench in the shade, under some trees. This, as I discover later on, is in keeping with her work. Jordan is drawn to darkness on the canvas, yet she herself is far from dour. She laughs about this tendency in her work. It has been a lifelong habit. As a child, one of her favourite paintings in the National Gallery was of a black sky with a flash of lightning. To quell my curiosity, she explains that she has taken the figures out of her pictures, as she feels they dramatise things and end up a distraction. Many years ago, she decided that she was drawn to painting urban landscapes. But her work has taken many turns down through the years. In the beginning, there were bright orange Van Gogh-style paintings of trees and then motherhood made her introduce figures for a spell. But even then, it was dark stuff.

"I get restless and I want to try new things," she explains.

Although an Irish resident, Eithne flits in and out of France a lot. Many years ago, she bought a house in Montpeyroux in the Languedoc region. Initially the purchase was made with a friend.

"She said that the houses were next to nothing, that I should buy one. I said that it was ridiculous; where on earth would I get the money? But when we saw them, they really were next to nothing and in the end, we bought one. The idea was to do some work there."

She laughs at the naive notion they had; that a ramshackle house could be renovated with a lick of paint. It was to be an expensive lesson. Twenty-seven years later, she is still doing repairs. (She ended up buying her friend out of her share.) "I was ignorant about what was involved," she says with a rueful smile. "I didn't realise that it was a lifetime's work. I'm still struggling with it. But it has shaped my life because it has been an amazing place to work. I've also done a lot of work about the house in the early years.

"Initially, I was drawn to the landscape," she says. "I thought it was incredibly beautiful and kind of rugged. Parts of it reminded me of the west of Ireland. There are a lot of stone walls and, when you get away from the vineyards, not too many trees. I felt that I could work there and get something out of this place."

When there in the summer, she enjoys French village life and thrives on it. She swims daily in the river. And they are always throwing street parties. Everybody gets involved. Wine-making is the main industry there. The food is fresh from the market. She will always be considered a blow-in, even though she participates and speaks French. She tells me that her friends there have become like family. She cherishes that. When she lived there with her son Timmy, they were very welcoming, especially when he was a young boy. A few years after she bought the house, she split up with Timmy's father, fellow artist Michael Cullen. They never married but after they parted, Michael continued to have an active parenting role, spending long summers with his son. Timmy is now 33 and a talented pianist. He lives in Toulouse and enjoys composing music. By day, he teaches English to pay his bills but the piano is his passion.

As she talks about Montpeyroux, it is clear that the thriving village has enriched Eithne, and her work.

"I did a series of paintings about the place but when the locals saw them, they were mystified. 'What happened to the blue skies?' they asked. They couldn't understand it at all."

Far from being offended, she was amused by their reaction. This was simply Eithne being true to her vision. She enjoys the way the locals loathe bad weather.

"When there are grey skies, they are always complaining," she says. "They say that it is 'an ugly day'. Whereas I would think that it is a grand, nice, soft day."

Eithne relishes the differing viewpoints. She has lived in London, Berlin and then, on and off, in France. This nomadic lifestyle has been a huge part of her work. She believes that being away from Ireland for spells has formed her. This was never a case of hating Dublin but simply her way of working as an artist - imposing exile on herself in order to enrich her work.

"I love Ireland and Dublin. It is irreplaceable," she says. "But there is something about being in a country where you are not totally part of the culture. It's interesting. It makes you look at things in a different way. I like being an outsider. I always wanted to have one foot outside of Ireland. It is an island, you know. I like being in other countries and really being there and living there, rather than being a tourist."

Eithne Jordan has worked all her life as an artist. She grew up in Clontarf, one of five children. "I think it's easier when you're in the middle. You're kind of forgotten. The first two had it much harder."

Her brother is the writer and filmmaker Neil Jordan. (You can see the resemblance in the full lips.) He has always been supportive of her work and they frequently bounce off each other for advice. He will give her manuscripts and ask her opinion and she will always tell him, honestly. Some of her siblings went into the arts, while others opted for teaching. None of that is surprising when she tells me about her parents. Her father lectured at St Patrick's teacher training college. At home, he proved equally inspirational. He would bring them for hikes and give them prizes if they could tell him the names of the wild flowers that they had picked.

They were steeped in culture from their mother too. Angela Jordan had gone to art school and even though she never went on to be a professional artist, she painted all the time. Her easel and paints were in the dining room, part of their daily life. She also gave art classes in their garage.

"I always wanted to be an artist," Eithne says. "I don't think that I ever wanted to do anything else."

She signed up for Dun Laoghaire School of Art and her parents were happy with her choice. They believed that their children should follow their passions.

"In my first year in art college, I couldn't wait to get out of bed and go to art school. It was an amazing feeling. I was doing something that I really enjoyed all day long and learning with other people. I was an abstract expressionist back then. My work has gone on quite a journey down through the years. Around the time I was pregnant with Timmy, I started to introduce the figure back into the work. It was something to do with painting about myself. I did a whole series of paintings about mother and child.

"It was based on the idea of beauty and the beast. There was the female figure and the beast is like this other, this dark creature and sometimes the beast turns into this little child. A lot of it was about this interdependence of mother and child. The child devouring the mother and the mother devouring the child. There was nothing sentimental in there at all. It was quite dark. It was interesting talking about mother and child, and turning it inside out... It's not this serene Madonna with your child at your breast."

Far from blunting her ambition, motherhood spurred her on.

"I think initially it made me more determined because I think I was so terrified that the painting would stop. And in the end, it didn't. I've always been in situations where children learned that I was working. Timmy and his friends knew not to come barging into my studio. In the early days, it was another matter."

When Timmy was less than a year old, Eithne was awarded a scholarship to study in Berlin. She and Michael and their baby headed off. The plan was to be there for a year but they ended up staying on. How did she do this with a baby ?

"Pure ignorance," she says with a laugh. "I kind of thought that this was normal. He was only a baby. It was very cold and the first winter we didn't have the heating sorted. But then we got it fixed. It was great being in Berlin. The childcare was incredible - a kindergarten around the corner where you paid hardly anything and the parents had to be a bit involved; you had to cook once every two weeks. We were living in our studio and there were about six artists. Timmy was like a mascot and everybody loved him. He was always extremely dirty, crawling around studio floors. I remember coming in to the studio and my paintbrushes had been sitting in a can. Timmy had taken the paintbrushes out and had them in his mouth. I thought he had swallowed turpentine. I rang up every emergency number and they told me to give him lots of milk. He was fine and nothing had happened. It was just one of those things."

Timmy's first word was in German but later he forgot it all, as French took over as his second language. This was thanks to his summers there. This swap was a little like his changing passions. As a kid, he was forever drawing. Eithne explains that he entertained himself in that way that only children often do. He'd sit with them in cafes with his colouring pencils. And then when he moved on to the piano, his love for it was all consuming. He stopped sketching and focused entirely on the piano. Eithne laughs as she tells me that she had this notion that she would re-discover the piano and learn with him. He passed her out in no time.

As she tells the story of her life, and her art, and how they are both so intertwined, there is a gentle charm to Eithne Jordan. She looks back in laughter a lot, but beneath this quiet demeanour, there is great strength. In London, she set up artists' studios and then later in Dublin, she did the same co-op thing with like-minded artists. Even though she tells me that she had other jobs to pay the bills, including teaching art, she always tried to save her seed for the canvas. Becoming a member of Aosdana gave her some stability. It eased the anxiety of paying her bills.

"I've been at it for a long time," she says. "You get to the point where you don't know how to do anything else."

But that's not to say that it gets easier. Some days she gets stuck but she keeps going. "The key is to be persistent with the work. You have to be regular and stubborn. That's how you make progress in the end."

And with that, she gets up out of the shade and heads straight back to her studio. The sun is scorching but there is work to be done.

When Walking runs at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny Castle until July 30.

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