Sunday 18 August 2019

What lies beneath: Eden by Mary West

Eden by Mary West

Oil on Fabriano paper Courtesy of artist

Eden by Mary West
Eden by Mary West

Niall MacMonagle

The hills of Donegal are sung about, but Donegal's roads are rarely celebrated. Artist Mary West knows that while "Donegal can be glorious, it can also have 'a terrible beauty', dumped cars in boggy ditches" (which she's also painted), but recent work like Eden captures a sun-drenched, pristine, blindingly-bright, beautiful stretch.

For as long as West can remember, "drawing was special". Her father, an ESB engineer, supplied paper, indelible pencils, her arts-loving mother took her to galleries, the theatre, and "thought everything I did was wonderful". Inspired by Cezanne, Degas, Bonnard, West's younger self drew princesses, ballerinas, still lifes. Later, a widening appreciation: David Hockney, the Americans Wayne Thiebaud, Audrey Flack, Edward Hopper. "I stood up for Hockney at DLSAD when all the world was abstract, though I was very well taught there." Charlie Brady, a neighbour, was an important influence: "he told me of Morandi, his sensual work taught me the importance of paint".

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Having trained as a draughtswoman, West worked in the civil service in those dark ages when getting married meant she had to leave. While living in Singapore, she painted rubber trees. Those works became her first solo exhibition, Lincoln Gallery, 1984. And remembering Trevor Scott and Bob Kelly's enlightening teaching in Dun Laoghaire, she went on to teach art at second level.

"Sometimes the Leaving Cert depressed me a bit. I was lucky enough to teach the very high standard International Baccalaureate as well, it showed up the inadequacies of the Leaving Cert. IB students were asked to do a lot of research but art at Leaving Cert is improving, there is still The history of art though. Not enough time allowed or depth sought."

This painting, Eden, takes its name from "the big house in the area of Rossbeg, Co Donegal, owned by the Barton family" but the Portnoo Peninsula where West lives, "some of the time, in retreat from the city", also seems like paradise.

Where the outhouses back on to the Rossbeg road is "a favourite stretch of mine. Most of the road from our house to Rossbeg meanders through open boggy countryside, beautiful as that is, and it is beautiful, this particular part of the road has been planted, probably when the house was built. The walls hide a wonderful garden and the whole aspect is venerable. Painted exactly one year ago, during an extremely hot period, gave an air of times gone by. A sullen heat, but quite wonderful."

In 2018, Mary West, with her photographer Berlin-based son, produced a 2019 calendar, with a launch in Howbert & Mays in Monkstown. Paintings were hung on a washing line unframed and almost everything sold.

Highways and byways of Donegal will be her 2020 Calendar and this silent work, Eden, this high-summer image with its heat, its blue sky, its blue shadows from last July will, even on rainy days, brighten and delight.

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