Tuesday 24 October 2017

living art of drama

Artist John Keating and theatre director Miriam O'Meara have happily lived for decades on the south Dublin coast, says Mary O'Sullivan. She has the study, while he has a studio in their organic garden. Photography by Tony Gavin

Artists are known for their chat-up lines, so much so that 'Why don't you come up and see my etchings?' has become a big fat cliche, but John Keating was too clever to use that one. When wooing his wife Miriam O'Meara, he came up with the novel, 'I'd like to paint your dress.' The line was a good one; by her own admission she was wearing an interesting black-and-white Eighties number. But the problem was, while John may be visual, Miriam's world is all words and she took him literally, so coolly answered: "'That's fine, I'll leave it in an envelope at the stage door', which I did," she recalls.

Thirty years later, they're still using their respective languages to communicate -- but as they laugh and joke and contradict each other's versions of events, it's probably safe to say they now do so more effectively. Their twin passions define their cosy, eclectically furnished home on the south Dublin coast. Miriam is a drama director, lecturer and writer, so the house is full of books and scripts and tomes of work by her other great love, Shakespeare.

Then there are the exuberant paintings by John, which decorate many of the walls, including even the downstairs loo. He's obviously not precious, though he has a right to be; he has exhibited internationally, been invited to take part in many prestigious shows worldwide -- he has a show opening in Beijing this month -- and he was awarded a gold medal of honour at the London 'Art Olympics'.

The couple have created a real nest for themselves and their twin daughters, Ruth and Rebecca, with their books, paintings and a collection of simple-yet-attractive pieces of country furniture made by John's father, who was well known in his home county of Tipperary for his woodcarving skills. "My father and his father -- they did a lot of work, a lot of grandiose carved staircases," John recalls.

John, who grew up in Clonmel, was good with his hands, too, and it was thought that he'd follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps, but he had other plans; he knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. "In national school, I had a very enlightened teacher who set up her classroom like an atelier; one part of the room had percussion instruments, another part a puppet theatre and we used to make the papier-mache puppets. She was very creative, very inventive. She had a great love of the work of Yeats and Kokoschka. Anyway, she took an interest in me. I remember one weekend when she took me off for a weekend's drawing," he reminisces, adding with a chuckle, "she wouldn't be able to do it now."

He had a good art teacher in secondary school, too -- a man called Barry Moloney, who went on to become the head of the Crawford College of Art in Cork, where John studied for three years before becoming an art teacher himself in Bothar Bui.

"That's what you did after art college in the mid-Seventies," John explains. "Bothar Bui was on the Cork-Kerry border; I had visions of myself becoming a country squire, hunting and fishing. I enjoyed it for about four years, then I got itchy feet and came to Dublin. I had a place on North Great George's Street and taught in Beaumont."

He also started studying art history in Trinity and spent a summer in New York with the Art Students League of New York, which opened his eyes to how an artist could experiment with techniques and styles and develop his/her own individuality. Following that summer stint, he got a scholarship to spend a year at the League and, since then, he's been a full-time artist, though he has done some guest lecturing over the years.

It was just after that first summer in the States that he met Miriam, who had been immersed in the theatre from a very early age. "My mother died when I was seven. When Mummy died, a person in the family who was in theatre said to Dad that he should consider drama school for myself and my sister. What it did was allow me to escape from the awful inner world that was the death of my mother. I escaped into drama," she notes, her huge eyes momentarily losing their sparkle as she recalls the devastation she felt.

Acting classes led to the theatre. Over the years she's taught drama -- "I worked for the Brendan Smith Academy, teaching acting and stagecraft classes" -- and she also directs. It was while chatting to her cast after a performance at the Grapevine theatre that she met John and said she would leave the dress at the stage door the following night. When he turned up to collect it, John told Miriam he really wanted to paint her, although she saw through that one.

"The following day, I went to his studio and we immediately got on. Mind you, it was a freaky situation. He was making gestures as if he was painting, but two days later I asked to see and there was nothing on it," Miriam recalls with a laugh. "The day I met John, I had said earlier to a friend of mine 'I'm never going to get married'. I think life looked at me and laughed."

Because marry they did and, quite soon after, moved into the house in south Dublin, which is still their home. Dating from the Twenties, it's what Miriam calls a three-up, three-down and while they haven't changed it drastically, they did add a small extension and reconfigured some of the spaces. Even though it's not a big house, there is space enough for each of them to do their own thing -- Ruth and Rebecca, who celebrate their 21st birthday this month, are both studying law at Trinity.

Miriam tends to hog the study to the front of the house, where her drama books fill the shelves and spill over every surface, while John has his studio at the end of the garden. He works in several media -- oils, watercolours, charcoals and mixed media -- and his work is mainly figurative. "Different media have different temperaments," he says. "There's something more bristling and immediate about charcoal, so the subject matter would be different, say, than oils. The work I'm doing now is almost like 3D painting, building up texture and colour."

He exhibits all over the world and is just back from Como in Italy, where he was involved with an Italian sculptor in a two-person exhibition titled Mani.

But the highlight of the summer was his Olympic gold, which was the result of a series of events.

"I was picked to be in the first Beijing International Art Biennale. One of the curators was appointed as a curator for London and he invited me to submit a work for London. When you think things are not going to happen, that's exactly when they do," John says.

"A year ago, I had no clue I'd be in the Olympics, then, on the night of the opening in London, I got an invitation to take part in a forthcoming show -- 100 works by 50 artists which starts in Turin, and finishes in Rome in the New Year. One thing leads to another."

That's obvious -- look what led on from a black and white dress.

See www.johnkeating-art.com, or email jkkeating@eircom.net

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