Orla Walsh has created some highly distinctive works of art, and, as Mary O'Sullivan discovered, she's stamped her style all over her family home too.
As people amble down a certain fashionable road in south County Dublin, many of them, especially women, do a bit of a double take as they eye a particular house. The houses, in the main, are uniform -- all good, solid, Seventies, detached properties -- but Orla Walsh's stands out. Hers has a distinct look of the residences in a certain American drama series: the shape of the house, the white shutters, the little glass panels over the extra-large front door. And yes, Orla did get ideas from the houses of Wisteria Lane. "I was watching Desperate Housewives one night and I noticed all the doors had glass panels at the top. I liked them and copied them," she says with a laugh.
Orla herself, it has to be emphasised, is no desperate housewife, although she is married -- to Kieran, a banker. "A nice one," she insists. They met 13 years ago. "I saw him crossing Baggot Street. I was with a friend who knew him and introduced us -- I thought he was lovely. We met shortly afterwards at a hat party. He always said I stalked him," she laughs. "Two years later, we were married."
Orla is also the mother of three gorgeous girls and a successful artist, and, when it came to inspiration for her artworks, she found it in another element of American popular culture. For Andy Warhol, it was Campbell's Soup, while Orla's current success as an artist started with the iconic Heinz tomato ketchup bottle, a motif she seized upon 11 years ago when she was pregnant with her first child, Ali, and taking up painting again after a long hiatus. "I actually went to NCAD and did painting," she explains. "But, after two years, I decided graphic design was the thing for me and I went off and did it in Ballyfermot; it was a brilliant course."
Orla followed that with a job in production at Dynamo in Dublin, where she worked for five years on projects such as logos for TV3 and MTV, as well as album covers for top bands such as Boyzone. But with the arrival of Ali, who is now 10, Orla decided to stay at home with the baby and paint. "I started with the basics: peppers, chillis, garlic," she says. "The hardest thing for an artist is to find a subject matter that's your own. I didn't want to do still lifes and landscapes."
The chilli paintings were doing great, when, in a bar one night, six years ago, Orla was given an unusual commission. "This person told me that a friend of his was getting married and would I paint a ketchup bottle -- the groom was mad about ketchup." As it happened, the commission never came through, but it set Orla thinking. Soon she was on a roll, painting a whole series based on the bottle, which she proudly hung on the railings at Merrion Square one weekend. Orla was delighted with herself, but there was a hitch. "This woman came over, looked at the paintings and said: 'What do you think you're doing? I'm a corporate lawyer with Heinz, take them down'." Orla was devastated and removed the pictures, but shortly afterwards, the woman returned. "She was lovely. She said she was sorry, that there was no problem and she herself bought six small pictures," Orla recalls as she recounts the beginning of her relationship with Heinz.
The woman, Richelle McCarthy, who did indeed work for Heinz, went on to buy more of Orla's paintings for the giant corporation. She also sorted out all the copyright issues and said Orla could paint any of their products. Sadly, Richelle has since died, but Orla is forever grateful to her. "The ketchup bottle gave me the chance to paint anything I so desired," she asserts.
Since then Orla has committed other much-loved brands to canvas in water-based acrylics, including Guinness, Tayto, and Jacob's Kimberley, Mikado and Coconut Creams -- the makers in all cases are more than happy with her portrayal of their brands. As are her clients -- apparently she has a loyal following, always eagerly awaiting her next series. "It's mostly word of mouth, or the website, and I also sell in The Bad Art Gallery," Orla says. "Families, in particular, like them. I think they remind people of great days they had when they were young."
Orla's own family has grown to include Charlie, eight, Tess, three, and the most recent addition, Bubbles, a baby beagle. With the arrival of Tess, the couple went in search of a larger house and found their current home, but it wasn't at all as Orla would have liked. "It was a five-bedroom house, about 1,800sq ft, with two extensions," she recalls. "The front was half red-brick and half a grey, mottled effect, and it had old lead criss-cross windows, which made it very dark."
She had an image of what she wanted -- lots of light, big, bright spaces -- but any architects she spoke to were pessimistic. "They said the first thing I'd have to do was move the stairs and fireplace. I knew that would involve way too much money before I started on any of the things I wanted, so I decided to do it myself," she says. Orla drew everything herself and came up with her designs, making everything exactly as she wanted it. For example, she was adamant she wanted the studio in the same area as the kitchen. "The girls are used to me painting. I want to be part of the family at all times -- I'm nosy, I want to see what's going on," she laughs. She also wanted lots of light in the kitchen so she introduced peaks in the kitchen roof -- and they work.
The kitchen, which is mainly made up of the new extension, is the heart of the house. It includes a dining area, a living area and the studio, separated by a divider of see-through shelves. Floored in cream stone slabs it has solid-wood units, painted in white. Features include a high island worktop covered in black granite and old reconditioned tractor seats for the girls to eat breakfast at the island. "I got them in an antique shop in Wexford," Orla notes. There's also her beloved Aga. "My mother had one, and I watched her using it for years. You tend to bake an awful lot more. It's easy -- I had this banana bread baking in the oven. I was going out, so I put it in the simmering oven," she says, slicing into the delicious mound of steaming moistness.
Off the kitchen, there are two sets of glass doors to the garden, and a third set which leads to the living room, which has windows to the front of the house. Across the spacious hall, in the front of the house, is the girls' playroom.
Orla also had the attic converted -- this houses her bedroom, which includes a walk-in wardrobe and an en suite. Two of the bedrooms on the middle floor also have en suites, while the two bedrooms in which the girls sleep -- Charlie and Tess have a twin room -- share a bathroom. The floor is covered in pink sparkly tiles, which the long-suffering Kieran carted home from London in his hand luggage. That was his second foray into the world of sweating with heavy hand luggage. Orla explains: "It's Amtico flooring, which I found on the internet. He came back first with blue sparkly, and tried to say 'they'll do'. I said: 'You have three girls, you have to go back.'" He went back -- he obviously is a nice banker. And, let's face it, if he was anything like the husbands in Desperate Housewives, he'd kill her first.