Friday 24 May 2019

Comforting creatures

For more than 20 years Patrick O'Reilly led a secret life as an artist, making sculptures in his spare time and rarely daring to show them to anyone. Then, as he tells Ciara Dwyer, he met a woman who persuaded him to take his work out into the world, even if it meant hearing that people didn't like it

Ciara Dwyer

'BUT for Geraldine ... " says sculptor Patrick O'Reilly. The woman he speaks of is his wife Geraldine Connolly, a senior counsel. Were it not for her, O'Reilly would still be leading a secret life, one which was draining him.

When he graduated from the Belfast College of Art in 1975, he set up a furniture business in Kilkenny. All the while he was quietly painting and sculpting away in his studio.

"I left college and, like everybody, you're qualified for nothing. I knew nothing about anything, and I thought maybe I should try life and getting a proper job. I had a little money because I'd been selling work in college and I started a furniture business in Kilkenny. I decided that I would devote my life to doing the art. I worked away at the furniture, but I was happy continuing doing the art, so long as I could support the habit. I wasn't a burden to society and I wasn't taking money from anybody."

Then, one night while out on the town with friends in Dublin, he met Geraldine. This was a blessing which turned out to be the making of him as a professional artist. They married in 1995.

"She said, 'It's a very strange life you have. Nobody knows what you do. You spend all your time in your studio working and this double life will kill you eventually.'''

She asked O'Reilly to do one show, just one, anywhere and after that she would never mention it again.

"I suppose I felt that if the work was exposed and people didn't like it they'd say, 'We don't like it, so you'd better stop.' But then I'd have to say, 'I can't stop, even if nobody likes it because I love doing it.' Then I would have the added guilt of that. It's more of a compulsion than a desire. You have to do it."

That first show was in 1996 in Galway. Even on the morning of the show, O'Reilly was so full of anxiety that he wanted to call it off. The exhibition was a huge success, and then luck started to come his way. Barbara Dawson of the Hugh Lane Gallery visited his studio in Sandymount and offered him his own show. After that, he was given a show in London and then Paris. He never looked back.

"I went from nowhere to a very established position overnight. I'm sure people at the time, who didn't know me, must have thought, 'That fella has come from nowhere and he must have fierce connections.' I hadn't but I'd been working all my life."

O'Reilly wants to pay homage to the women who have helped him become the established artist that he now is. They took risks on his raw talent and believed in him. As he says himself, without Geraldine, he would never have summoned up the courage to show his work. Barbara Dawson took a huge gamble by giving this unknown artist his own show. And similarly Suzanne McDougall of the Solomon Gallery saw that O'Reilly's work had that divine spark. Some of his sculptures can currently be seen in the Solomon's Secret Garden exhibition at the Iveagh Gardens, alongside works by Barry Flanagan and Dorothy Cross.

Although a full-time artist now, Patrick O'Reilly still lives a secret life. He will stay in Dublin for 10 days, working away and then he will head off to his studio beside a foundry in a remote region in the Auvergne, which he calls "the Leitrim of France". There is no phone and no television. While there, he leads a monk-like existence, dedicating himself completely to his work. He says he couldn't be happier doing this, but then too much solitude does not agree with him. That's when he comes back to his other, real, life in Dublin.

But who is Patrick O'Reilly?

The 50-year-old is as exotic and unusual as his giant multi-coloured bird sculpture which stood in the centre of O'Connell Street in Dublin some years ago. He hails from Ballyragget, a small village in Kilkenny, but he might as well have come from the moon, because many of his works are out of this world, literally. Drive past the Point Theatre in the capital and you will see a giant rocket, looking as if it is about to launch into outer space. This is Liberties Rocket, Patrick's creation. The multi-coloured heads outside Vicar Street in the city -- The Boundary Kings -- are O'Reilly's too. (He tells me that he chose the colours from Celtic illuminated manuscripts, "when we were supreme in the art world".) Many of you will remember the bronze teddy bear which was at the Stephen's Green end of Grafton Street last year. It was called Heading into Town. With its determined stride, it was a very pleasing sculpture.

"With outdoor sculpture in particular, I think you should try to brighten up even a small amount of someone's day," says O'Reilly. "I'm not keen on morbid sculptures. I think people have enough pain in their lives; they don't need any more of it. I like to create something that can bring a certain joy."

There are more of his teddy bears in the Iveagh Gardens. What is it with him and teddy bears?

"All my figures, even if they are teddy bears, take the form of humans. A teddy bear is a very non-threatening animal but a bear is very vicious, so it's that combination. He's got enormous power. He could eat you but he is very gentle. Teddy bears are very universal."

But do not for one minute be fooled into thinking that O'Reilly is boxing clever with some cute candy-floss art along the lines of a greetings card. This is an artist who dreams up strange seeds of ideas and is daring enough to follow them through, however way out they may seem. This is the man who proposed lighting up the Poolbeg chimneys like the Eiffel Tower. And he is convinced that people would be more excited by sculptures if they were moved around.

"The problem with sculpture is that, no matter how brilliant it is, if people are looking at something everyday it becomes grey. You get bored looking at the same thing all the time. You could have pedestals all around the city -- the same size -- and you could have sculptures on them and then move them around every two years."

THE minute I walk through the doors of his home on Fitzwilliam Street, it is like entering the Willie Wonka emporium of the art world. The house is teaming with paintings, sculptures and works in progress. He is interested in three-dimensional paintings, so rather than work on shading he creates paintings which protrude and lets the natural light create the shadows. One of these works consists of white pointed cones with spikes pointing in different directions. Beside the window there is a pile of hardened canvases, which are crumpled and piled one on top of each other -- glued together -- until they almost touch the ceiling. He touches it and it leans like the tower of Pisa. The Royal Hibernian Academy gave its sculptural prize to one of these works last year.

"I do a lot of pillars," he says. "I call them empires. You build them up and eventually like any empire, they fall over."

The son of a creamery manager and the youngest of seven, O'Reilly felt drawn to art from a young age; but this was more of a burden than something to boast about.

"When I was growing up, it was something that you'd try to hide because I didn't want the desire. It'd have been much easier to do something else, like carpentry."

"The Department of Education used to give out blue leaflets for careers and there was one with 'artist' on it. I was in primary school at the time and I remember taking that leaflet and putting it in my pocket. Imagine somebody being an artist." He whispers this, as if he is still pinching himself that he has got there. "It was like saying you could be an astronaut. I probably had a better chance of being the Pope, it was so beyond comprehension. I had that artist leaflet for a long number of years."

He may not have been brought up going to art galleries but there were local art competitions and neighbours would show him art catalogues. The hunger was there, and then, in 1975, he went to the Belfast College of Art.

"My father wasn't keen on the idea and looking back, he would have come from an Ireland that was very poor. My parents were very 'anti' it, but my way was to go without any approval. I don't blame my father and I think it's a parent's way of subconsciously saying, 'Unless he jumps over me, he'll never make it.' You need that determination because it's a hard life. You need to be very focused to make a go of it."

As we wander around his house, I am bursting with logical questions about his work, but O'Reilly tells me that there are no answers. Either I connect with something or I don't. But I am so keen to understand his art that at one stage I mistake a doorstopper on the ground for one of his pieces. He laughs at my innocence.

"Any artist aspires to something that is like music, whether it's a narrative piece, like some of those sculptures, or an abstract piece. It should speak like a great piece of music and nobody tells you what it is about. All I know, from my little experience, is that when I am clear in my head doing something, people relate to it on a subconscious level."

He remembers coming home from art college after a year. The Troubles were at their height in the North and his family was worried he'd get killed.

Luckily, their fears proved groundless and O'Reilly was able to carry on with his art.

"My whole life is devoted to it. I love doing the work and it's the least I can do, if society is good enough to allow me to do it full time. Mozart was constantly going back over his work if it didn't flow. Michelangelo was always honing his work. It doesn't flow out of anybody. It's the desire to do it, the compulsion to do it every day, to continue on doing it, even against the disappointment of making mistakes, to keep on tomorrow and the next day. That's an illness. I suppose it's why I feel a certain compassion for drug addicts because they are after that hit. It's the same with me and the work. All you can do is get the next fix."

The Solomon Gallery's 'Secret Garden' Exhibition at The Iveagh Gardens runs until May 27

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