kingdom of heaven
Artist Poppy Melia is so intent on getting things right that she can work on a painting for a year. The same goes for her home, as Mary O'Sullivan discovered, where even the taps have been customised. Photography by Tony Gavin
There's a portrait of Poppy Melia as a small child in the living room of her Kerry home -- that's not too remarkable, given that her mother is an artist. What is noteworthy is that, in the painting, the young Poppy is flanked by paper and pencils and paints. Thirtysomething years later, she still spends her day surrounded by them. A superb painter, she has developed her own style and spends her days painstakingly putting on canvas her unique take on the flora and fauna that abound around the beautiful mountainside home she shares with her husband, Conor, and their two sons Aaron, 13, and Adam, nine.
Despite having Pauline Bewick for a mother, it wasn't always a given that Poppy would become an artist -- after she finished school in Killorglin, she studied textile design at the National College of Art and Design, and fully intended making a career out of that discipline. "I loved textile design, and it's still a huge influence on me," Poppy says. "However, after the course in NCAD, Mummy, my sister, Holly, and I went on a trip for a year to the South Seas, and a friend from school, Josephine Kelleher, said to Holly and me that she was going to mount exhibitions promoting young artists and that she would give us an exhibition. That was the start of it -- Josephine telling me to paint. I never turned back."
Painting the exotic vegetation, wild animals and birdlife in the South Seas, Poppy began to develop her signature style which now extends to the ducks and swans and other wildlife around her home. When Josephine took over a gallery, the Rubicon -- which she still runs -- her first exhibition was the work Poppy and Holly brought back from their travels. It was a sell-out, and both girls have gone on to enjoy successful painting careers: Holly in Italy, where she lives with her Italian husband and two daughters, while Poppy decided to base herself near her parents' home in Kerry. She's married to a Kerry man, Conor Mulvihill; rather romantically, they were teenage sweethearts. "I remember in fourth year he used to stand and wait to carry my books to school, but I fell in love with him in Leaving Cert. He seemed a little bit different; intriguing, I suppose," she says. "We parted twice for short whiles, but I always knew we'd get back together."
Conor studied environmental science and computer technology in Scotland, but there were no jobs in those areas in Kerry, and so he works at local company Fexco -- the couple consciously opted for quality of life over material gain and have never regretted it. "We have the sea which is 10 minutes away and two beaches, Dooks and Rossbeigh, and the mountains. The weather doesn't get me down -- you always know it's going to end," Poppy says.
That exhibition in the early Nineties was one of the few Poppy has ever had -- her paintings are snapped up before she gets a chance to build up a collection to exhibit. "I work slowly and seem to sell as I paint. If someone wants a piece, I work with them in mind and, if they don't like it, that's fine, I don't hold them to it, but that's only happened twice in 20 years and both times I sold the painting within weeks," she explains. A painting can take up to a year, such are Poppy's exacting standards. "I'm a perfectionist," she explains almost apologetically. "I have to actively philosophise to stop myself from getting too much into detail. It goes through everything -- the house as well. I don't like fabrics that are not natural, I don't like facades that are pretty but with horrible interiors; I love patterns and balance."
The result is a home that is a joy to enter, full of light, quirky details and natural materials, as well as being very subtly stylish and extremely comfortable. Built in 2001, the house is only a stone's throw from Poppy's parents, Pat Melia and Pauline. "We nearly had a site by Caragh Lake and totally lamented when we lost it. Mummy said, 'Why don't you build on the acre behind our house?' and we very reluctantly decided it was the only option. But we've realised how lucky we are," Poppy says. "We get the benefit of Mum's unusual guests, the boys love running down there -- Aaron paints with her. It's great for their young age, and great for Mum and Dad's old age." Architect Harry Wallace designed the house with input from Conor and Poppy. It's built over four levels with Poppy's studio, the master bedroom, the boys' room and the living area all on different levels. The builder was David O'Connor, and the kitchen maker was local man, John O'Connor. The kitchen is made up of built-in units but, instead of the units being made of wood, their basic structure is made of blocks and plasterwork. "Mum started that idea in her house in Italy," Poppy explains. "I love that solid feeling and nothing pretend inside." The units are finished off with stained-wood doors made by Paul Evans, enormous brass hinges and Valentia-stone worktops. "We chose Valentia stone because it's a local stone. We actually chose the big rock the stone came from, right down in the cave; there was something very exciting about that," Poppy remembers.
Portuguese limestone covers the floors, and the walls are painted in soft, neutral tones; an ideal backdrop for the interesting furniture, the cushions covered in ethnic fabric -- all made by Poppy's friend Bernie Willis -- the colourful pottery, including some pieces by Holly, and the many paintings.
Most of the furniture in the house is old, including the wooden settles in the living room. "Mum and Dad had them. We cut them down and extended them rather than throw them out," Poppy notes. It was the same story with the living-room sideboard. "We limewashed it and put new knobs on it and we're delighted," she says. In the boys' room can be found other old things: Poppy and Holly's old beds. "Nothing is wasted, but I don't take ownership until I transform each thing a little bit," Poppy says.
She's even felt the need to transform the new things in the house, including the floor in the studio. "I don't like click-together floors, and I wanted the limed-oak look. I found a shop called Out of the Wood and the lady there, Kathy Moriarty, and I together chipped the corners off every single plank. She did the chiselling and I did the sanding, then she and I spent a day liming it." Poppy went through a similar process with all the taps in the house. "I don't like chrome taps, so I got the taps stripped back to the brass underneath. They were very cheap taps, but they look a million dollars," she marvels.
It's all part of her search for perfection, but she's trying to ease off. "You know the way you remember the odd thing someone says? One day I was fussing over a spot on my face and Mum said, 'It's not the individual little thing, it's the overall look'," Poppy laughs. Nonetheless, whether it's a painting or the house, with all the individual little things, Poppy creates a marvellous overall look.