Hot property: an artist's home revived from the ashes of a fire
The Dublin home of artist Eva O'Donovan had to be rebuilt after a fire. The result - with help from designer Suzie Mc Adam - is itself a work of art. Mary O'Sullivan pays a visit
When the unthinkable happened and artist Eva O'Donovan's beloved period home went up in flames, she watched the turmoil and felt numb. A kindly fireman asked, in the midst of handling the blaze, "What do you want to save?" She didn't hesitate: "The portraits," she said, "save the portraits."
She was not referring to her own work - and portraiture is her speciality - but rather a series of old family portraits, given to her by an uncle.
The engaging Eva is not the type to value her own work - superb and all as it is - above everything else. In any case, at the time of the fire in 2016, she was a fledging artist studying as a mature student at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).
She has come a long way since then and her stunning distinctive portraits on fabric are in big demand. She has featured in several prestigious exhibitions here and abroad, and just last week an exhibition of new work entitled 'Chrysalis' opened at the Rotunda Room, Dublin City Hall.
"I was in Paris last year for two weeks and I came across a photographic exhibition of transgender people and I realised I never knowingly painted trans people," says Eva. "I felt it was a discrepancy in my work. When I came home, I contacted a friend of mine whose daughter is transgender, she put me in touch with Teni - Transgender Equality Network Ireland. I had a lot of discussions with the CEO. I had to show my intentions were good. They put out a call and the first 14 trans feminine people who responded, I took. I got to know them, to get a sense of their personalities."
Eva found a stylist and photographer and set up a photoshoot over a number of days. She worked from those photos to create her portraits. "Each person selected the fabrics I would work with for their portrait, it was an act of collaboration the whole way through," Eva says. "I feel how people feel now about trans people is kind of where everyone was 10, 15 years ago with gay rights, it's really all about exposure, openness, discussion."
She got a lot out of the collaboration and hopes her subjects did too. "I found them all very inspiring. Originally it was about diversity in femininity but then it became about all these wonderful people. I became really good friends with them, I feel like I'm one of the gang. We set up a WhatsApp group and where they may have been isolated in their towns, they now have a forum, and there are friendships which have been made outside of me. It's about visibility and connections. So it became more than about the paintings."
The portraits are so glamorous, provocative, evocative - so polished it's difficult to believe that Eva only took up the study of art so recently. However, the desire to create has been bubbling away under the surface throughout her adult life.
She didn't do Art in school and after her Leaving Cert worked in various careers, including the HSE and the beauty, health and fitness worlds.
She married at 21, her husband John is a pharmacist and they have three children, Lucy, 22, a cellist who is doing music therapy in London; Karen, 19, who plays the violin and harp and presents a Saturday radio show on RTEJr; and Ewan, 15, who plays the drums and piano. "I didn't do art in school, but I've always been artistic, creative. When Ewan was two, I started painting night classes and I loved them," says Eva. "After that I did a portfolio course in GMIT and I got into NCAD as a mature student. I got great encouragement from everybody, if I hadn't, I would not have got as far."
While portraiture has been her focus, her work is constantly evolving to include new strands; as well as art she loves fashion and interiors and they come together in her paintings.
All three passions are also evident in the interiors of her stunning home in Dublin 6 which she created in collaboration with interior designer Suzie Mc Adam after the fateful fire.
The family had only been living in the house for three years at the time, having moved from Tullamore. They had tons of good reasons to move. "What happened was we really fancied a move. It was the bottom of the bust so property prices were good in Dublin," says Eva. "John had reduced his hours at the pharmacy [in Tullamore] so he could commute easily and he would be going in the opposite direction to most people, and it would be good for the children as they would be near universities."
They had viewed the next-door house, and then saw this property come to market. "Even though it was the bottom of the market, it was still very expensive and I tried to get it out of my system. I viewed 10 other houses but they weren't right," Eva volunteers, "I don't know how many times I viewed this house, and anyway we finally went for it and we loved it."
Then came the terrifying fire on January 4, 2016. "We thought it was Christmas lights but what happened was the low winter sun shone through a pair of reading glasses on the top floor," Eva recalls. "It was 11 o'clock. John had left for work, we were all in our pyjamas. Karen was the first to hear the alarm. We had to get out. The smoke filled the attic first, then the roof was on fire and then the ceilings all collapsed."
For a few days, they were shell shocked but then something amazing happened. They began to feel ready for the new challenge. "We were all fine, no one was hurt. We never wallowed in self pity. You become brazen and more resilient."
Virtually all their possessions were gone - they had to buy everything from underwear to make-up to towels - but they just got on with life and the complete renovation of the house, which meant moving out for two years. The property is listed which made reconstruction even more of a challenge.
Fortunately they had a great architect - Suzanne MacDonald Vagge. The three-storey house, which dates from 1860, is red bricked, double fronted and has five bedrooms as well as two reception rooms, a piano nobile on the first floor and a cinema room.
They restored it to its original state, apart from the flow of the ground floor and the kitchen. "I didn't want to change the integrity of the house too much. We took the back off part of the kitchen and added the dining area," Eva explains.
However, they completely changed the interior - the walls, the floors, the lighting and all the furnishings - and Eva and Suzie Mc Adam worked together on the project. Eva's daughter spent an Erasmus year in Paris and she visited her there several times and was inspired by so much that she saw, including Art Deco touches and brasserie interiors and wanted to recreate some of that. She also had images of apartments in New York and a more industrial vibe.
"Pinterest is a great man," she says with a laugh. "I had a very good idea of what I wanted, but I didn't know where to find it and, remember I was in college, so I didn't have time. Suzie's knowledge of everything international is astounding," she says, adding "before the fire I would have been safe, after the fire, I had more of a sense of freedom, less set in stone. Everything is transient so why not decorate and enjoy it.
"Suzie's design is superb, she is so confident in her ideas and everything worked out as she said. The great thing was we were egging each other on."
Many find renovations stressful but not Eva. "John was very involved and we really enjoyed the process. We chose everything together - every chair, every lamp, every handle. It was a lovely time."
The result is bold, dramatic, theatrical, spectacular and yet it's still a warm and welcoming family home. And yes, the firemen did save the 19th-century portraits of the ancestors. And quite wonderfully they work very well on the walls as do Eva's own portraits.
Eva's exhibition 'Chrysalis' transfers to the CHQ Gallery 1, May 31-June 10; and moves to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, June 29-July 4; Evaodonovan.com
Interior designer Suzie Mc Adam is an Ambassador for house 2019 and appears on the Inspiration Stage, 24 May, 4-5pm; 25 and 26 May, 3.30-4.30pm; tickets on house-event.ie
Suzie Mc Adam on getting the look
1 Understanding a client's look is a big feature of my approach. Eva loves vintage and mid-century design, and it is a strong theme in her house - 80pc of the pieces are vintage. We found mid-centuryonline.com and Michael Mortell on Francis Street great places to look. It will take more time and energy to source vintage, but you will find pieces that reflect your style and are unique.
2 Eva has very interesting art work and likes vivid colours, so we worked with that. Each piece stands on its own but is balanced by a softer palette. In the sitting room, which is huge, we split the room up by using varying shades (from Little Greene) to create a different atmosphere in each area.
3 Work with your natural light - Eva's sitting room has three windows so is very bright and could have looked harsh. We didn't want to use heavy curtains so used sheer voiles instead to soften the light - I was thinking of Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby, where the mansion has rooms that float with sheer fabrics.
4 Be playful - the shower tiles in the bathroom, pictured over, are not your normal go-to option but they give it loads of character. The image is an oil painting from the V&A's archive collection digitally printed on the tiles. Playfulness stops a room becoming too formal - in the dining room, right, for example, the handprinted wallpaper gives it more texture and character than plain joinery or paint.
5 Be brave and work with your style and preferences, especially in the kitchen, to avoid it looking very standard and repetitive. Eva adores Paris and brasserie-type restaurants and so we used key elements, such as bistro wall lights and high-gloss shelving, pictured over. But avoid overkill and don't reproduce the look slavishly, a touch here and there is enough.
6 Use pattern wisely. Maximalism is a design trend at the moment and it can be very effective to create a contrast, pictured above, in one of the bedrooms. But it is important to use it with some restraint, and give it room to breathe - it will have more impact.
Photography: Ruth Maria Murphy
Sunday Indo Life Magazine