Portrait of acontented man
Artist Mick O'Dea grew up among story-tellers, and it's something he sees as essential to his work, he tells Ciara Dwyer, whether that be a portrait of Brian Friel or a landscape painted in his beloved Mayo countryside
One bright morning Mick O'Dea was on the quays in Dublin, out with his easel doing a landscape painting. It was a normal working day for the Ennis-born artist. He spotted a young couple walking along and asked them if they would stand at a certain spot, just in the light. They happily obliged. When he was finished, they came over to look at the painting. "The fella said, 'Jesus, that's very good. You could almost be a professional if you wanted to'." Mick laughs as he tells me this.
"I said, 'Thanks very much. I do my best'."
This story is typical of Mick O'Dea. There is no sign of offence taken at the couple not knowing who he is and the part where he is told that he could almost be a professional really makes him laugh. A member of Aosdana and the RHA, where he was also the principal for many years, O'Dea is one of Ireland's best known contemporary artists. His paintings currently hang in Dublin in the RHA's annual summer exhibition and his latest solo exhibition Paintings runs in the Norman Villa Gallery in Salthill until July 29.
There are many strands to the 54-year-old's work. He is well known for his portraits; some are of well-known people like the playwright Brian Friel, (which is hanging in the National Gallery and captures him perfectly with his head down and his fingers forming a pensive pyramid) and writer Sebastian Barry, which will soon be revealed in the Abbey Theatre; and then he likes to go off and paint people who simply appeal to him in some way.
He does still life, nudes, and also landscapes, which are wild, often capturing the dramatic skies in North Mayo, where he has a house.
A few years ago, he started a series of exhibitions based on Irish history. The first group was about the Black and Tans, the second was about The War of Independence and the third will be about the Civil War. These paintings were all done from photographs that he had seen and enlarged.
He wanted to capture what the men looked like, their stance and their character. Some of them looked like something out of the Al Capone era in their three-piece suits and trilby hats and peak caps.
Others, O'Dea thinks, looked like contemporary rock groups, but instead of holding guitars they were holding rifles.
O'Dea tells me he grew up in a pub, always listening to stories. "Everyone had a Black and Tans story," he says, and so, his paintings always end up telling a story. He tells me that 20th-Century art tried to move away from story but being Irish and growing up surrounded by a storytelling tradition, of course it seeps out into his art.
"Narrative and story are of paramount importance to me in my paintings," he says.
That is very evident as he shows me his work. He shows me one of two men standing tall in great jackets. He tells me that when they broke for lunch, they took off their jackets and showed him the new shirts that they had bought especially for the painting session, but Mick had instructed them to keep on their jackets.
It is quite normal for him to be out in all sorts of weather, capturing the landscape with great urgency, before the sky changes. This is how he lives his life too. "I'm very aware that life is short," he says. "I've always felt that."
O'Dea has a cheerful nature. When he tells stories, he acts them out, doing all the accents and facial expressions and there is much laughter in my time with him. He is a man who is content with his lot.
That is not to say that becoming an artist was an easy route for him. For many years he taught art -- this was his day job, as he had a wife and family to support. He had two daughters -- Sarah and Helen -- with his wife Elizabeth Rackard, a fellow artist whom he met in NCAD. (They have since divorced but they are still good friends.) In the evenings, when his various part-time teaching jobs were over, he would paint. Some people find that they are drained from teaching, but not O'Dea.
He felt energised by it, but also he had a plan and he was following it.
The idea was that he would teach art and then he would paint. He would earn his living by his teaching and then, as a result of that, he was free to experiment with his painting. This took the pressure off him and it meant that he wasn't dependent on the marketplace.
"I saw it as a laboratory where I experimented," he says. "The plan was that I would do less and less teaching and finally I would give it up altogether, which I did in 1999."
"When I am not painting, I love listening to yarns. I like a good story and I like somebody who is able to entertain," he says.
When he did a painting of the writer Gerry Stembridge, which will be shown in his current exhibition in Galway, both of them spent a lot of time laughing. And that laughter ends up in the picture.
"I start off trying to get the geography of the face correct and then the personality will reveal itself," he says.
Mick O'Dea grew up in Ennis, Co Clare, the second youngest of five children. His father, Mick had lived in Boston with his brother Tom for a spell. They both returned to Ennis with a few bob in their pockets and set up a grocery store and bar which was known as O'Dea Brothers. The bar is still there, run by Mick's brother, and now is known simply as O'Dea's. His mother, Margaret, died last November of old age at 92 and she was waked in their shop which she loved dearly.
Margaret and Mick were both returned emigrants. Margaret was a midwife and while Mick's father had the bar and grocery store, he also had a farm -- beef cattle.
"He always had good stock and even though it didn't bring him much money, he didn't have to depend on that, in much the same way that I wasn't dependent on the market place with my art when I was starting out."
As a young boy, Mick was forever drawing. In school, the boys would say, "He's deadly at heads," meaning that he was great at drawing heads. B-movies and comics were a huge influence on him. He'd rush back from the cinema, and try to draw Kirk Douglas as a Viking with horns jutting out of a helmet. And swashbuckling figures, like Errol Flynn were much enjoyed by the young boy. As O' Dea talks about his childhood, it is clear that they are full of happy memories.
He remembers the first piece of art he made -- a graveyard full of headstones from lumps of mala on his blackboard slate. He still laughs when he remembers Sr Malachy's face when he told her what he had created. "Nowadays they'd probably send for the child psychologist," he says.
In secondary school, he has fond memories of his art teacher, Jim Hennessy, a Dungarvan man, who would play classical music to create the right environment in class.
He was the first art teacher in that secondary school and five boys then went on to study art full-time. Mick found some of his sixth-class copies, full of history and beautiful multi-coloured drawings of historical figures to accompany them.
His friend had brought back markers from England and he bought them off him. "I drew incessantly," he says.
When Mick finally made it to NCAD, he had a ball. He felt that he belonged. As he talks of his time there, he shows me photos. There he is dressed up as a woman complete with a beard -- he used to hold transvestite parties. And then there are sweet photos of ex-wife Elizabeth with their young girls.
"Marriage focused me," he says. "I worked hard to save for a house. I had to provide for the family and I wasn't afraid of hard work. "
"We started off with the best of intentions -- doesn't everybody? -- but my marriage ran into difficulties. Then I went to Barcelona for a year to do a masters."
He shows me photos of his ex-wife and daughters, who are now beautiful young women. Helen has just finished a degree in Fine Art in NCAD, which is the same as his degree, and Sarah, having completed an arts degree, is now in charge of PR for the RHA. Everyone is smiling in the photos.
"There we are having the craic," he says. "We meet up regularly and we have Christmas dinner together. Liz cooks it and her boyfriend is there and Amelia comes up," he says, referring to his partner of six years, the photographer and optician Amelia Stein.
Mick knew of Amelia, but at a dinner for the RHA six years ago, they ended up sitting beside each other. They talked a lot about many things, including family. She had looked after both her parents before they died and family is precious to Mick too.
"I thought about her afterwards and then we met again at the closing of a graphic studio. She was wearing a very nice pair of black tights with a floral pattern and the legs were good too. Something clicked and we decided to give it a lash after that. "
"I dated her for a while and one thing led to another. All our friends were laughing, saying Mick and you, I'll give it three weeks max. because we were such an unlikely couple. I was rougher around the edges, Mick culchie painter and she was Amelia, prim, tidy, careful organised girl."
Three years into the relationship, they decided to live together in Dublin.
"Everything seemed to happen organically. I think being with a creative person who isn't a painter is easier, but both of us happen to be visual artists and that's what makes our relationship work as well. I was very impressed that she knew so much about hurling. Who would have thought, a nice Jewish girl?"
Occasionally Mick has joined Amelia in the synagogue and she happily joins him in his house in Mayo.
"I've always been attracted to women who have strong minds and who can do their own thing and are independent. I think that's because my mother was like that. Amelia is very supportive of my work but more than that, she knows what I'm doing. She's very good on feedback and not afraid to say it if she feels I'm not doing my best."
And how does he take it?
"I find that great. But I have to because I've dished out enough of it over the years."
Mick O'Dea's exhibition -- 'Paintings' -- takes place in the Norman Villa Gallery, Salthill, Galway, as part of the Absolut Visual Arts programme in the Galway Arts Festival until July 29. Galway Arts Festival runs until July 29. www.galwayartsfestival.com
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