The search for happiness by a different set of rules
An encounter with Sufi Muslims led to artist John Kingerlee and his wife Mo changing their beliefs on life and love, writes Emily Hourican
'I tried having a job or two here and there," says John Kingerlee (82) "I've sold cigarettes, been a waiter, a chef, a gardener. Then I got drawn into the art thing, by older men who were artists who made friends with me, and I discovered that by vocation, I'm an artist. I get very distressed if I can't practice art of some sort. Once I found that, I could take a step towards being happy. It became like a weapon of survival."
For a man who has actively sought happiness throughout his life - in travel, in drugs, in religion, in escape - this was something of a revelation. "Art is something I do that I can forget about myself, and then at the end of working, I come back to me. I realised that one of the best things you can do is to get away from yourself."
John - who has a joint exhibition with his protege, Longford artist Gary Robinson, at the Origin Gallery, - grew up mainly in Devonshire. His mother's family were Hogans from Cork, but a few generations back, and John never visited as a child. His father was a waiter - "He ailed a lot physically and the rest of my family said he was a lazy man but I've got an affection for him," John recalls. John was an only child, "I was carrying the whole burden. That's not easy," and of his parents, he says: "I won't talk about them. They weren't that happy. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more and more sympathy with them. As you grow older, you grow in compassion."
He describes himself as a "problem child", who was sent to a Catholic boarding school, run by Marist Fathers, when he was 12. "I would sneak out at night and sit with the gypsies," he recalls. He left home and school as soon as he could, finding his education in the world around him rather than in college or university, and met Mo, his wife, when he was 19 and she was 16, at a Methodist youth club. "It was attraction at first sight," he says. "Love grew later. I love her now more than ever. We've had some hard times, very hard times, but it's great."
John and Mo came to West Cork in 1982, initially for "a couple of years", and have stayed for 36. What was it that brought them here? "My chief connection to Ireland began in boarding school," John says. "By literature, I was drawn to Ireland, by some of the Irish priests, and by a feeling of a whole other culture I'd stepped in to. As a boy at school, I had some very deep intuitions. When I read the history of the Troubles in Ireland, suddenly I was reading another version of history, and it was an eye-opener. It let me know how propagandised I'd been, how taken over by a version."
He had, he says, "a very similar experience when I went to Morocco first, in 1969, as a 33-year-old. I suddenly realised, these people were different, put together in a different way. I loved it immediately." Then he laughs and adds: "It was somewhat complicated by the fact that I was with a young guide who had given me a pot of honey to dip my finger in and suck, and that was five times more powerful than LSD." It would, he says "have been interesting to know what would have happened if I'd been totally straight. But at that point I hadn't been straight in a long time."
So he was tripping, the first time he saw Morocco? "Yes. And I was there for 10 days; it completely changed my life. It seemed like a year. Morocco was a much wilder place than it is now. The nearest thing I've ever encountered to it was the playground when I was very young: the options were plentiful and the danger was great." When he talks about that first trip to Morocco, the places he went, the people he met - including a couple of policemen who set out to arrest him for possession of hashish but ended up deciding to "leave him alone, he's a nice boy, he loves us and he loves our country" - he is visibly moved. "I get overwhelmed with the memory of it all," he says, with tears in his eyes.
He and Mo had been living in Ibiza, with their five children, for a few months by the time John took that trip to Morocco, and "at that time, in Ibiza, it was all about 'open your mind, man, expand your consciousness'." The island attracted many young Americans, "they came over with the whole aheadness in their culture - bringing to us what was happening in California, and it was quite wonderful."
They moved there "because it was cheap," John says. "Britain was poor and gloomy and still coming out of the war. I was selling pictures in London, and I met someone who'd been out in Ibiza and told me you could live well for about a fiver a week. Suddenly I was making a bit of money, selling paintings, coming out of the poverty we'd been in, and if you can live twice as cheaply, why wouldn't you? So we went to Ibiza. The kids loved it. We had a finca in the countryside with terraces. They went to school, but they played truant and ran semi-wild. Mo educated them - she taught them maths and made a pretty good job of it."
When I ask Mo about that time, she says "they were the only children in our group of blow-ins, so everyone took them out and off. If we went into Ibiza town to shop, they knew everybody and we knew nobody."
It sounds like paradise, and yet it ended. "We came back to England, but I couldn't make any money in England," John says. "I went insane for a while. It's very difficult for her and the kids when dad goes insane. I was very destructive for a while. Angry, frustrated. All complicated by drugs. A lot of drugs in Ibiza. That took a year or two to get over."
For a time, John moved out of home and went to live in a squat in London while the family stayed behind in Cornwall. "I had to get out of there," he says. "It was too destructive. So I went off on my own and lived in a squat." While there, he began to notice people around him who were very different. "I saw these people in the street who were consistently high but they didn't use drugs. They were always clean, dignified. I got to know some of them. They had a shop in the street, the Poor Man's Trading Company.
"I'd hitch up with a sack of pottery I'd made in Cornwall. I couldn't paint at that time so we'd started making pots," - Mo would throw the shapes and John would paint them - "I was selling pots to a man there, and I looked into his eyes, and realised he was out of his brains. He was hanging on, pretending to be very sober and dignified, but inside he was going nuts from joy. People around me were going insane from grief, sorrow, frustration. That was a revelation.
"I entered their house, and they were all so joyful. I liked the way they prayed, with their hands open like beggars. High on pure spirituality. So joyful, so removed from the obvious drug corruption and sprawling, meaningless sexuality of the rest of the street. They had integrity.
"I met their sheik. That was like being hit on the head with a hammer. I had to see the sort of person I'd become. And I didn't like what I saw. I saw the darkness in myself. It took me a year or two to recover from that."
What kind of darkness did he see? "Just the darkness that comes with trying to negotiate having a life within this structure." By which he means our society, a set-up he describes thus: "If anyone thinks they can find happiness by the rules of this society, they are very foolish."
These people he met and was so impressed by were, he discovered, Sufi Muslims. "Sufism is like the lifeblood in the body of Islam," he says. And so began a new and vital phase in John's life. "I tried the Hindu thing, Buddhism, but there was always a pull towards Islam." And so he studied, and learned, and converted. Does he call himself a Sufi now? "My friends are Sufis. I hesitate to call myself one but sometimes I have the privilege and honour of being in their company, and it's the highest company you can ever be in."
By this time, John and Mo's children had left home, and they had moved to West Cork. Was it hard to practise in West Cork? "There are two mosques in Cork but I don't go to them because we are more than two hours' away, so I just pray at the house. Five times a day."
Did he find the joy he was looking for? "Yes. It's gone down now. I'm struggling with darker stuff in myself, but I did have a period of ecstasy that was nice. But ecstasy is not an end in itself, it leads to knowledge."
Soon Mo also converted. Why? "I was very impressed by the change in him," she says, "and the people he met. I was basically doing it already - I was eating the same as John, praying when I was at home, although not when I was away, so I thought, why not make that commitment?"
And has she been happy with the commitment? "There are limits to what you can do and not do. They aren't onerous, but it gives you a rulebook." And that can be comforting? "Yes, if they are rules [that] you can understand and feel sympathy for." She doesn't, for example, wear a headscarf, "unless I'm with Muslims. I find it itchy and uncomfortable. But we're very reclusive here. We don't go out often."
Does she think Islam is a fair religion for women? "It is a good religion for women. It's men who put limits on that. According to the teachings of The Prophet, women could always inherit money, whereas they couldn't in the West until quite late. And if they earned money, they could do whatever they wanted with it. Education is very important too - it's men who try to stop that. It's the men who impose limits. With all religions, it's power, and men have historically been in powerful positions, so it is men trying to keep women under their power. But at the same time, they are very protective of them."
Converting to Islam changed the way John saw the world, and also the way he paints. Muslims do not depict sentient beings in their art, and so his work has become more abstract, layer upon layer of oil paint, laid down sometimes over years, to create haunting pieces full of different meanings.
It has also brought changes to his domestic life. Since 2001 he has had a second family in Morocco - "two adopted children and a child of my own. The situation is you can have four wives. Which is terrific. It's great. It affords everybody so much more freedom. You're to treat your wives equally: a gift here, a gift there. So many people here are trapped. Men, certainly: 'God, I've got to live with her for the rest of my life…' There's always desirable women out there and it grinds them down, makes them more unhappy. If they could make love with some of these gorgeous women out there on a contract, a basis of decency, a marriage. Not everyone just screwing around, because that's a disaster - but on an actual contract so that everybody knows where they are. And the children are protected. If there's a proper, upfront contract, then they are protected. And if the woman doesn't like the situation, she can ask for a divorce and get a divorce. It has a sanity and a decency about it. It's totally honest. And it works."
He goes to Morocco for three months of the year: "I still love it but it's not like it was in 1969. There's a big move to Europeanise it. If anything, I'd move down to Senegal. Or Sudan."
Does Mo also go? "Occasionally," she tells me, "but for short visits. Usually, when John is in Morocco, I will go to England and visit my daughter. Or get the house and garden in order."
And does she have contact with the family in Morocco? "I do have contact with them. I don't like the situation but I put up with it." What is it she doesn't like? "The threat to me is me," she says. "It's how I behave about it. It is hard. But it's a learning thing. The only times we learn is when something is hard."
What is it that she feels she is learning? "Tolerance. Lack of possessiveness, I suppose. Learning to see things in a different way. It's harder for us. If we had grown up in a situation where it's the norm, it would probably have been easier. But," she says, "I haven't come across anyone, anywhere, for whom it is easy. It's not easy. But it's better than loads of affairs on the side - the cheating and lying that goes on."
What about the children she has with John, how do they feel about it? "One has been over and met them. The others haven't, but they accept the principle. It's easier now than it was. It gets easier as time passes."
John's paintings have been collected by Larry Mullen, Bill Clinton, Richard Harris and Seamus Heaney. The American art critic Ted Pillsbury described him as "the greatest artist since Turner". There have been several documentaries about his life and work, and in 2006, a painting sold at Sotheby's for nearly £82,500 (€93,500). Yet John is not an 'establishment' artist. His work does not, so far, appear in public collections or national galleries. "I think if some of my works were in public collections, they would be turning a lot of people on," he says, "and I would like giving a lot of pleasure and hope to people. But that is not afforded me now because I guess I've been sidelined by the official structures. But it doesn't trouble me. I just feel... great that there's people who like my work and I can make a living selling it."
John Kingerlee is showing with Gary Robinson at The Origin Gallery, December 7-21; theorigingallery.com
Who is Gary Robinson?
Gary Robinson is a Longford-based artist with an intense local focus; he can paint a particular field or tree over and over again for years, and has used slabs of concrete from Longford pavements in his work. "If I go anywhere else, I can feel the difference. The work would not be the same," he has said. Sometimes, his work begins with words accumulated in what he describes as "a random, haphazard fashion using grocery lists, handwritten notes, my own mutterings and overheard conversations…"
Of meeting him, Kingerlee says "Gary came to find me. Which is always an honour. So we chummed up together. A new friend, someone younger - we can learn from each other."
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