Friday 20 September 2019

Artist and musician David Hedderman on the major upheaval that forced him to reassess everything

Artist and musician David Hedderman was hit by a major upheaval a decade ago which forced him to reassess everything

David Hedderman at Hang Tough Gallery with 'You be the Fire and I'll be the Wood'. Photo: Steve Humphreys
David Hedderman at Hang Tough Gallery with 'You be the Fire and I'll be the Wood'. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The Intermediate: Conor O'Brien and David Hedderman in 2006. Photo: Niall Carson

Hilary A White

In April, David Hedderman came back to Ireland for a holiday. Very little was planned apart from a journey along the west coast, stopping here and there to paint landscapes and portraits.

"Something happened," he says of that trip along the Atlantic seaboard. "Just being home in the landscape. It opened up something about my connection with Ireland."

Back in Berlin, his home for the past decade, there had been turbulence in the 35-year-old's life. A relationship had come to an end after seven years. The insecurity of being an artist, the constant self-nudging required when things go quiet, was also beginning to chew on his resolve. Berlin, a sanctuary for so many art exiles from this island who can only laugh at the soaring cost of living here, still has its expenses, its landlords and its pressures.

The western seaboard of his homeland had filled his lungs with something that couldn't be found in landlocked east Germany. A renewal had begun.

The Intermediate: Conor O'Brien and David Hedderman in 2006. Photo: Niall Carson
The Intermediate: Conor O'Brien and David Hedderman in 2006. Photo: Niall Carson

Other stars were aligning in the Dubliner's sky. The life-drawing classes he'd been running in Berlin no longer just felt about paying the bills between sales. They were helping him too, offering distraction by making him focus on a process he could impart to students. Connection and concentration led to his own drawings - charged, kinetic, layered works that were coming together without the "crazy" demands painting work tends to exact on him.

A regular at the RHA Annual Exhibition for the last five years, Hedderman also appeared in a group show in September in Portobello's new Hang Tough Gallery. Not only did the owners offer him his own solo show on the back of it, but also a space for him to bring his highly subscribed drawing classes to his hometown. If all this didn't sound serendipitous enough, Conor O'Brien, his old bandmate from The Immediate, would be away touring Villagers' acclaimed new LP The Art of Pretending to Swim and needed someone to house-sit.

It's in O'Brien's city centre apartment that Hedderman and I sit sipping coffee surrounded by guitars, books, and some fermenting kombucha that he prepares for his students. Ambient noise from the alleyway outside seeps in through the window, meeting fag smoke on the way out.

Hedderman is cool, collected and an open book. A few months ago he was struggling to pay the rent. Today, we're a couple of weeks away from the opening night of his solo show. Work is moving, his life- drawing classes have sold out and he is excited to be bringing over avant-garde Japanese model and regular collaborator Yuka Tanaka from Berlin for his students to draw.

The slump he found himself in back in April has subsided and things are suddenly happening quicker than he imagined. He remains serene and philosophical about it all, however. After all, it's not the first time he's been rebuilt at the crossroads.

Ten years ago, Hedderman had found a flow. The Immediate, the band he formed with O'Brien, were critical darlings and being hailed as a white-hot hope that could make a splash beyond these shores. He was in a long-term relationship, and also maintaining a parallel gig as a bankable gallery artist while still a student at St Conleth's College.

Once a prosperous business owner, Hedderman's father had lost everything during the late 1990s and now worked seven days a week as a taxi driver.

"He called me one day asking would I like to go to Florence with him," Hedderman recalls. "The Immediate was going strong and we gigs lined up in France, but I told him if he booked it, I'd tell the lads and we'd go. My mum and dad were not in the best way at the time, living together but in different time zones because my dad was working through nights and sleeping during the day. But she and my little sister came along for the four days. He was limping a bit then, a bit slow."

Shortly after, Hedderman was in a tour van driving down from Belfast to Dublin one night. All four young band members were feeling the pressure of the music industry and Hedderman was not in the mood to talk when the driver struck up conversation. It turned out the two had a bizarre amount in common - fathers forced to drive cabs after the collapse of their businesses, private educations, even the same birthday.

As he disembarked, the driver looked at him and said: "Tell your dad to take it easy because taxi drivers have a tendency to burn out."

A week later, Hedderman is in France playing shows and suffering industry schmoozers when he receives a phone call. His father has had a heart attack and he needs to come home right away.

"Like a lot of kids, I feared that moment my whole life," he says. "It's not easy, but I still take his death as a gift, this experience of not holding on to things. I know my boundaries, and I learned that from watching my dad burn himself into the ground. I still have his camera and when I use it I'm talking to him."

More letting go followed when his relationship ended. The headspace to function as a touring musician was hard to salvage, and The Immediate announced their split in May 2007.

"We were so young and it was all so intense," he says. "Conor and I were the main songwriters, and when it ended he said, 'come on, you and me, let's keep going'. But I needed a break. And it was difficult. I've known Conor since I was 12. He's special. I've never met anyone who can touch him musically. So I knew it was going to go great for him and I didn't want to hold him back. After the band split up, the art was all I wanted to do."

In 2008 he relocated to Berlin to concentrate on art. Music still hovers about him, from the special playlists he tailors for each of his classes to plans he has to record an album in the new year. Like everything he does, it's about sharing, the very thing the artist needs after the solitude of the studio.

"The people in my class," he says, "it's not about how well they can draw, it's about them feeling good there because that's when the magic can happen. If I make a portrait of someone, they sit for me for five hours. It's very rare today that people have five hours here or in London. But these are the important things, to unwind and really connect with other people. I know 'the system'. I've seen it, and there's other ways."

'Shaking Still', a solo show by David Hedderman, Nov 23 to Dec 8 at the Hang Tough Gallery, Portobello, Dublin. More info at or at

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