Sunday 16 December 2018

What Lies Beneath: Orla & Sparkey Kelly in the New Home by Blaise Smith

Orla & Sparkey Kelly in the New Home by Blaise Smith, RHA Oil on gesso, panel Courtesy of the artist

'Orla and Sparkey Kelly in the New Home' by Blaise Smith RHA
'Orla and Sparkey Kelly in the New Home' by Blaise Smith RHA

Niall MacMonagle

Blaise Smith, from Rathmines "painted myself into a corner at school, was more or less expelled for constantly drawing". He never sat the Leaving Cert. At 17, Smith won "the overall prize in the Texaco", and prize money paid for his first year NCAD fees. Thrown out, 10 lost years followed: he got "really nerdy about computers, worked in multimedia systems and interface design". Computers are brilliant but Smith believes that a painting is "a wonderful piece of information technology. You hang it on the wall, it gives back information for several hundred years and it works perfectly EVERY DAY. Show me another piece of IT that will do that..."

Now based in Kilkenny, Blaise Smith paints still lifes, landscapes, farm machinery, Waterford's cityscape, portraits - Bernard Farrell, Lord James Blythe, Professor Paddy Lynch, Women on Walls: Eight Women Scientists - and this one, from 2003, of his wife Orla and their dog Sparkey.

It's an oil on gesso panel and preparation is "a pain in the ass". The board must be "degreased with meths, then sized with warm rabbit skin glue, then six coats of gesso which is hot rabbit skin glue and whiting". Then sanding, then a layer of "alkyd or gelatine".

And why?

"Because this is essentially the same as Holbein's system and his paintings from Henry VIII's time are holding up rather well."

Orla & Sparkey Kelly in the New Home, is one of 25 portraits by 25 Irish artists at Ranelagh Arts Centre. Curated by its director, Caroline Canning, Family, Friends & Lovers explores if close-up and personal portraiture differs from a commissioned work.

For this portrait, Orla took a week off work - a friend minded their small children.

His wife "would have to be standing - she does not generally enjoy sitting around, she likes to be doing, and man, she loved that dog.

"Sparkey died aged 15 so this is a nice painting to have. The animal in this painting was in some ways more biddable than the adult. I only had to promise Sparkey a treat."

He's also painted children but younger than eight it doesn't really work. "Degas used to nail lace up boots into the floor and lace the child into them."

Body language is crucial. Orla stands in the light-filled extension - which his children called the new home. For Smith, "everything in a painting is deliberate". Is that a stern pose? "I would say strong, firm. The pose is a statement but I suppose having the dog stand in the same way undermines the seriousness of that stance; they are both ready to go - tense with a kind of anticipation."

Through the window, the countryside; on the walls a Lars Nyberg print, a painting by Claire Kerr.

Not a fan of big head portraits, "Holbein's Ambassadors", says Smith, "is first and foremost a document of how they dressed and presented themselves. No one in 500 years time will be interested in an isolated head".

His ideal viewer for his own paintings is a social historian in 400 years time. And Blaise, patron saint of wild animals and sore throats? "There are eight million John Smiths and my mother is a French teacher." And he has since blazed his own distinctive trail.

Family, Friends & Lovers A Celebration of Contemporary Irish Portraiture is at Ranelagh Arts Centre until October 20.

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