Thursday 19 April 2018

A picture of togetherness

Despite building successful careers together as artists, Eileen Ferguson and Neal Greig have shown that their children will always come first, says Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

FROM erratic driving to snoring, failing to help around the house and watching too much sport, most wives can easily come up with a litany of things that drive them mad about their husbands.

Scottish artist Eileen Ferguson is no exception, although what she finds most irritating about her husband and fellow artist Neal Greig isn't the kind of complaint you hear too regularly.

"He's always pinching my paints," she says. "I'm thinking of getting a locker with a padlock to keep him away from them. With three children, finding the precious time to paint can be hard, so when I go to the studio and find Neal has used up all my white paint, it drives me mental."

Neal and Eileen live in an old farmhouse near Glaslough in Co Monaghan, although neither is from the area. Neal grew up in south Belfast, while Eileen is from Portobello, a seaside suburb of Edinburgh. In an interesting twist, Eileen did her MA in Fine Art at the University of Ulster, while Neal completed his BA and post-graduate diploma at Edinburgh College of Art.

While they were studying in each other's home towns, there was little chance of them meeting. But fate smiled on them in 1990 when they both had residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan.

"There were lots of artists around the place, and we used to be invited up for dinner at the Big House every Sunday," says Eileen. "I think they took pity on us, starving in our garrets. One day, I saw Neal out painting in the little woodland as I was heading up to the house, and I wondered who he was. I thought he was a good-looking lad, and his jacket caught my attention as it was made from Harris Tweed," -- which, of course, comes from Scotland.

At the time, Eileen had a broken shoulder, having slipped on ice a couple of weeks earlier. Luckily, her paintings for a forthcoming exhibition at Temple Bar were completed, and the artistic community at Annaghmakerrig rallied to help her with the framing. And then, after making eye contact at the local pub, she and Neal got to know each other better and started dating.

Six months later, Eileen went on a pre-arranged two-month stay with a friend on a ranch in Tucson, Arizona, while Neal took care of her dog, Wally.

"I realised then that we had a close bond because I was always thinking about Eileen," says Neal.

Eileen then returned, and later she and Neal would go to live in Otters' Bog, a 17th-Century coach-house cottage in the grounds of Castle Leslie. This was arranged through their friend Tarka King, a cousin of Sammy and Antonia Leslie. They stayed there for 15 years, only leaving when the cottage was being redeveloped, which they admit was a "massive wrench".

And, of course, it gave them a unique vantage point for the comings and goings surrounding Paul McCartney's marriage to Heather Mills.

Neal and Eileen's own marriage took place some years earlier, in Edinburgh in 1992, and it was a simple ceremony for which Eileen wore a white suit.

Their painting careers flourished over the next few years, with many high-profile residencies, exhibitions, public commissions and awards that have taken them both all over the world.

However, with the arrival of their children, Shona, now 14, Rowan, 11, and Rosa, 7, Eileen in particular has had additional claims on her time, especially as the two younger children are hearing impaired.

It was a huge shock for the couple when Rowan was first diagnosed with sensory neural loss at five years of age. At the time, Neal had a residency at Cill Rialaig Artists' retreat in Kerry but he immediately dropped everything to be with his family.

He and Eileen found the lack of services dealing with Rowan's hearing problems to be frustrating, and the early days were very stressful for the whole family. Then, they heard about the great work being done at the John Tracy Clinic in LA, which was established by the actor Spencer Tracy, whose son was hearing impaired (

Neal and Eileen decided to hold an art sale and sell off as many of their paintings as possible, to raise the funds to bring their son to LA. They found the people of Glaslough to be amazingly supportive, and they successfully raised enough to bring Rowan to the centre for six weeks.

It was a great experience, says Eileen, and when she and Rowan returned to Ireland, she felt much better equipped to deal with the challenges of his condition. This included replacing his analogue hearing aids with digital ones, which made a great difference.

Rowan recently received cochlear implants, and once they are switched on this week, it is hoped that his hearing will improve even further. The same procedure has already helped his younger sister Rosa, who has the same condition.

And naturally enough, all of Eileen and Neal's children are artistic, with Rowan a special merit prizewinner at the 2009 Texaco Children's Art Competition, while Shona came second in the same competition in 2005.

Eileen and Neal are currently holding a joint exhibition at Origin Gallery, which was opened last week by their old friend Sammy Leslie.

Their work is influenced by their mutual love of the sea, and Neal describes Eileen's work as very feminine, delicate and sensitive. She in turn says that while Neal's work has become more refined over the years, it still contains an inherent rawness that she adores.

While the drawback of having two artists in the family is an unsteady income stream, the advantages are having someone who understands you and your work to bounce ideas off. In addition, Eileen is a great organiser, says Neal, and they are closely bonded and still enjoy each other's company.

"Neal is more laid-back, of the two of us," says Eileen, "while sometimes I need to take a chill pill."

Particularly, one presumes, when she discovers her white paint is missing.

Eileen Ferguson and Neal Greig's exhibition, The Cook, The Artist, The Wife, The Lover, is running until March 26 at Origin Gallery, 83 Harcourt Street, Dublin 2. Tel: 01 478 5159

Sunday Independent

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