Monday 10 December 2018

The art of letting go

When he went down to the sea to learn to paint, Brendan O'Connor didn't quite have a breakdown, but he certainly had some class of a breakthrough

Brendan tries his hand at sketching after Mick shows him how to pick out a picture and frame it in his head
Brendan tries his hand at sketching after Mick shows him how to pick out a picture and frame it in his head
Brendan pictured with his finished painting, and artist Mick Mulcahy, who delivered the Artform course in Dunmore East
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

I don't like group activities, I don't have a creative bone in my body, and I haven't picked up a paintbrush since I was a child. So obviously I jumped at the chance to go on a painting course for the weekend. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, as we will see.

In fairness, this wasn't just any painting course. The course was being delivered by Mick Mulcahy, a ferocious elemental force of the subconscious, whose company I always enjoy, and I felt if anyone could help to me unleash my inner artist, Mick could. I was also drawn by the fact that the course was being held at the Strand Inn in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. The Foyles, who own the hotel, are all avid painters and art fans going back a few generations, so now, they have, hugely ambitiously, set up Artform, which will be a proper art school by the sea, with various well-known artists delivering various courses.

So I knew there'd be a nice dinner, nice views, a few pints, and a few dips in the little harbour that's nestled between the cliffs and right in front of the hotel. I quite liked the idea of alternating dips in the sea with dips into the subconscious. So off I went.

Though I only did 24 hours of the course, I think I emerged from it a changed man. As we left, the others on the course were discussing doing a full week-long course, and Mick was saying how it really takes until day three to loosen up completely. My view on it at that point was that if I did a full week of it, I would probably end up questioning everything I know, having a nervous breakdown and changing my life completely.

Brendan pictured with his finished painting, and artist Mick Mulcahy, who delivered the Artform course in Dunmore East
Brendan pictured with his finished painting, and artist Mick Mulcahy, who delivered the Artform course in Dunmore East

I'm not saying it wasn't fun, but I am probably a bit too intense to get involved in anything creative without taking it way too seriously. I had fun, yes, but something much richer and more rewarding happened to me over the two days as well. I think I learnt a little bit about myself. I found, for example, that facing up to an empty canvas is something that requires a certain amount of courage and it's something that forces you to ask certain questions of yourself. It also involves a bit of letting go, of loosening up, of relinquishing control. And that, let me tell you, is not easy.

Below the cliffs

We started with some sketching. Which sounds like a nice, laid-back activity. We went and sat on the rocks below the cliffs and Mick showed me how to pick out a picture, and frame it in your head, and then, apparently, it was simple. You just look at it, and you draw it. Which is probably easy when you're a kid, or maybe if you're a more relaxed person than me. For me, it was revelatory and hugely challenging.

So you think it's easy to just look? Think again. Because as you start to look, really look, you slowly realise that we never really look at things. We see things, sure. But we don't really see them. Looking at something with a view to sketching it requires you to look hard at the details and the essence of things, to really try and see them. And when you do this, suddenly everything becomes infinitely more complex and vivid. You wonder how we manage to walk around at all, there's so much going on everywhere. You understand then, how, in order to function, our minds kind of zone out most things into background noise or scenery.

I also understood, possibly properly for the first time, how my daughter, who doesn't have the same ability to screen out things that most of us do, gets overwhelmed by the senses sometimes. You realise, too, why artists and poets are all half mad. If you start really looking at things, and seeing all the detail and poetry in them, it's almost too much. And the more you look, the more you start picking up the moods and textures of places, the vibes that you might otherwise miss, until it all becomes a seething mass of reality.

Of course, you could argue that I'm focusing on all this because I wasn't very good at the drawing. If we were to be charitable about my drawing, we might say it was some form of naive folk art. Perhaps I would be hailed in the art world as a great outsider artist, famed for my ability to bring a childlike quality to my drawing. But the funny thing is, after a few goes, you do get better and more confident. And brave. It's all about bravery really, the bravery to attack this blank sheet, to commit to putting charcoal to it, to spoil the perfect white, to make mistakes, to attempt to convey onto the paper what you see in your head, and to inevitably fail at it. The bravery to let go and to make mistakes.

We went inside then to start making paintings of some of our etchings. And this was a whole new stage. This was where you realised that as much as this is an intellectual process, it is also a physical one. This is making, using natural materials, and you have to respect those materials, be patient with them, and accept that they have, in a sense, a mind of their own. So you have to fix your charcoal drawing first with hairspray, then you have to wait, before you apply, maybe, a wash of colour, which doesn't do exactly what you want it to do. And then you have to wait, while each wash dries. This was a slightly chaotic few hours, where we all wandered around wondering what to do next as much as we painted.

There was a certain atmosphere developing at this point among the small gang. While I thought this kind of thing would be best done alone, I started to understand the power of the group. There was an easy camaraderie there as we all struggled through; at times, admitting to each other that we were lost and didn't know what to do, borrowing various paints off each other and offering encouragement.

One of the ladies, a fairly accomplished painter, told me that she actually preferred painting in groups.

At this point, I was still struggling with letting go. I'm a pretty uptight individual, and while I can sometimes get into some kind of zone while doing a task, I was having trouble going with the flow of the art. I could see how it could become a meditative, indeed, an addictive, space, but I only saw flashes. For a few moments of the drawing, I managed to get out of my head and into just looking and drawing, but it was no more than tantalising glimpses.

That evening, I abandoned the work, dissatisfied and antsy. I dove into the sea to wash it away and get benediction; afterwards, then, a pint with Mick discussing Haile Selassie's state visit to Jamaica, and, later, delicious crab claws and lamb, and a bottle of wine.

White canvas

The next morning, I was not quite looking forward to trying to finish my pictures, but I figured I'd give them an hour and then make an excuse and blow the joint. But then I arrived in class to be told that we would all be attacking a big, perfectly clean, white canvas. To which my initial reaction was 'no way'. But I was told that's what we were doing, no exceptions.

Start, he told me, with some wash of a colour. So I picked a therapeutic sky-blue, took my courage in my hands, and dirtied the lovely canvas with it. Then, Mick suggested some nice red, which was exactly what I'd been thinking. I started applying the red in straight lines, and it was pleasing to me. I made squared-off shapes with it. And I realised that's what I wanted to do. I did not have to give into the chaos. I did not have to free myself. I could do this art thing, but impose order and structure on it. I could control it.

Except, of course, you can't. Because the materials have a mind of their own, and they are your collaborator on the picture. So that's what I ended up with. I ended up with a really simple canvas that represents my need to put order on the chaos, and the futility of trying to do that.

But you know what happened to me in the doing of it? I relaxed a bit. I let go slightly. I relinquished control just a small bit.

The thing is, I actually have no great desire to control. What I'm mainly about is a fierce resistance to anyone else trying to control me. So I think what happened was, aided by the previous night's bottle of wine still in me somewhere, and aided by the realisation that no one here, from the art to the teacher to the canvas, was trying to control me, I learnt to stop resisting.

I don't mean to make it sound like what's going on down at Artform is a kind of art therapy for stressed-out city folk. The others there were all there for various reasons, from a bit of enjoyment to maybe trying to achieve a breakthrough in their style. But equally, I think everyone goes through a sort of a process here, where you step out of reality slightly, and hang out in this nice, supportive, non-judgmental environment, and try something that for some people will be new, and challenging, and that for other people will be about perfecting skills.

I'd really recommend trying painting, and I'd really recommend Artform as a great environment in which to do it. And if you're a painter already, I think you'd get a lot out of it. And if you're not, you'll find a lovely, supportive atmosphere, from everyone from Martina, the director of the school, who is, you'd have to say, a beautiful soul; to the other painters. I suppose this kind of thing attracts nice people. If you got nothing else out of it, it was nice being around the energy of creative, slightly boho people. I think, in another life, I would have been one, so they kind of fascinate me.

For me, I'm tending to think that it would be good for me to have something like painting in my life. But, equally, I don't have time for it. But since I went to Artform, a little voice in my head has been reminding me that 10 years or so ago, I went to The Park Hotel in Kenmare for a weekend to learn something I thought I'd never be able to do, and that I didn't have time for, which was to swim. And looking back now, I realise that weekend changed my life in so many ways. So who knows? Maybe this latest lost weekend will, too.

Artform at The Strand Inn in Dunmore East allows guests to sit, breathe and appreciate a view, as they learn to paint the contrasting landscapes, where the sky meets the sea, in perfect light, with leading Irish and international artists, including Mick Mulcahy, Tony Robinson, Sean Molloy and Catherine Barron

Artform Artists will be exhibiting at the Artform Annual Contemporary Art Fair at 44 The Quay, Waterford, from November 30 until December 16

See artform.ie for details of the spring artists programme

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