Wednesday 20 November 2019

What Lies Beneath: Sheep's Head by Paul McKenna

Sheep's Head by Paul McKenna, Acrylic and molding paste on paper; courtesy of the artist

Sheep's Head by Paul McKenna
Sheep's Head by Paul McKenna

Niall MacMonagle

The heatwave summer of 2018 is one to remember and artist Paul McKenna's memories of those sun-drenched weeks are beautiful, vivid ones. On June 20, he set out to paint a stretch of coastline, beginning at the Old Head of Kinsale.

Over five weeks, the way that he went took him along "every back road that hugged the coast" and along the way McKenna painted Glandore Pier, Dunworley Beach, Toe Head, Lackenakea Bay, Crookhaven, Sheep's Head, the Copper Mines at Allihies, Calf Island, Lamb's Head and Bolus Head in Co Kerry where he spent a week at Cill Rialaig Arts Centre.

Being an art teacher, McKenna planned his summer holidays and originally intended to cycle the route, but having viewed the tools of his trade, opted for bike, car, tent and fishing rod.

Working en plein air, "horse flies, midges, wind direction and tourists proved challenging, but it made me think more quickly about why and what I liked about a scene" but the most challenging thing was finding somewhere to pitch his tent.

Camping in 20 places in all, highlights included "a spot on Toe Head next to a castle with Stag Rock to my left, a view of Sherkin, Cape Clear and Fastnet and a full moon overhead, or sunset on Sheep's Head".

This work took him three hours. Using a slow-drying acrylic, McKenna captures a scene aglow in warm, soft, evening light. The automated lighthouse "about the size of a garden shed" dates from 1968 and was built because of the oil terminal at Whiddy Island. "Suffice to say, there was nobody there except the sheep."

So remote and inaccessible its location, the building materials and lighthouse equipment were transported from Kilcrohane, nine kilometres away, by helicopter, a helicopter journey that had to be made 250 times.

McKenna worked in daylight, and from his perspective, shows the seven-metre high lighthouse standing tall. Its light, at night, 83 metres above sea level, flashes three times every 15 seconds. The lumpy, lichened rocks and steep steps with red railings contrast with the broad expanse of pale-blue sea and pale-yellow sky divided by the distant Beara Peninsula.

Growing up in Rochestown, Cork, one of seven children, McKenna spent "a lot of time by myself drawing and doodling". After school he did "a great portfolio course at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa", headed to London, where he studied graphic design at St Martin's and majored in illustration, animation and print. He then worked as a runner in a post-production house where "I was chewed up, spat out. The company went bust and the boss did a legger with my pay." He ended up packing pigment for C Roberson and Co, who have been supplying artists' materials since 1810 and there his fascination with paint began.

He's painted colonial buildings in New Zealand where he's lived for a while and was "fascinated at how different the light was over there". He's painted Cork cityscapes and his latest exhibition, An Turas, an Irish journey through rural Ireland is only the beginning of a plan to map the entire coastline in paintings. That's summer 2019 sorted.

[An Turas is currently on show at Scrypt Cafe, Triskel Arts Centre, Tobin St, Cork until November 11, but like the artist himself, it's on the move. It's at On the Pig's Back, in Douglas in January.]

Facebook: Paul McKenna artist

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