Monday 16 September 2019

Noel uses needles to bring his art to life

Reporter David Medcalf watched fascinated as Avoca resident Noel Fallon showed how he has conquered trembling hands to create attractive paintings using syringes and sponges instead of conventional brushes

Artist Noel Fallon in his studio
Artist Noel Fallon in his studio

Noel Fallon has never been to art college. He has never staged glitzy exhibitions in snazzy galleries or hob-nobbed with critics and well-heeled collectors.

But just at the moment, the 68 year old seems to have paint or paintings just about everywhere in his home at the heart of Avoca village.

Though he may come lately to the business, he has not quite given up hope that a hobby he enjoys every day could become a bit of an earner into old age. A couple of his works - one of them a brightly coloured parrot - have recently been on display in a shop window in Arklow.

And he has been busy mass-producing images of flowers for a special client, reeling off the canvases with gusto and a smile. While he paints, the air is filled with the sound of Paul Simon singing 'Me and Julio' at high volume as the reporter from the 'People' knocks on the green door of his terraced house.

Neighbours know that Noel is busy at work producing new pieces whenever the walls shake with the best of old-style pop music. He may have a catalogue of health problems - the list includes angina, diabetes and a rare bladder condition called pseudomonas - but here is a man who does not believe in being idle.

This morning he is examining a couple of his latest works with a view to maybe making a few finishing improvements in the upstairs room which has become his studio. They both show a kingfisher in full flight in a style which bristles with speed and intensity, paintings which suggest a well disciplined talent.

As we look at the birds hurtling like exocets, he reveals that these conventional yet individual pictures are the product of a variety of very unconventional methods.

'I use syringes because I cannot use brushes to save my life,' he reveals. I can't even butter a piece of toast.' Old age pensioner Noel has the shakes. He knows not why. Unless he rests them on the arms of his chair, his hands tremble incessantly.

So he has to manoeuvre his life around this disability with ingenuity, inventing devices to help him cut bread, eat dinner - or paint kingfishers.

It was not always so. Noel was born in Dublin's Pearse Street, the youngest in a large family of ten who moved to Crumlin when he was a chap.

Family life provided plenty of happy memories, like expeditions to Bray under the command of their mother with a mound of home-made sandwiches to feed her teeming brood.

Money was scarce, with nothing in her purse for toy windmills or the like, so the baby of the group worked out how to repair any discarded whirligigs they came across.

'I said to myself, I can fix that - and I have been doing it ever since,' he smiles at the memory. 'If there isn't a tool out there, then I will invent one.'

Schooling, however, proved a trial. He hints at abuse and says he was badly beaten at the hands of Christian Brothers: 'I passed no examinations.'

He married young and moved with his wife to the burgeoning suburb of Tallaght, where the couple resided with their two adopted children.

He had work as a crane driver for Dockrell's the hardware merchants and he was happy in that role, despite a couple of accidents.

The worst mishap was when a steel joist fell on him and he underwent back surgery while still a young man.

Then, in the eighties, a Green Card dropped through the letter-box in Tallaght and the Fallons were all of a sudden bound for the United States.

'We sold up and went to America,' he remembers. 'Then after three months my wife went home to Ireland and left me struggling with two children.'

He coped as a single dad for a while, with one in play school and one in primary education, but eventually gave up the struggle and also returned to Dublin.

As soon as he arrived, he lost the children to his estranged spouse and life degenerated into a shambles of homelessness and a separation which was eventually formalised as a divorce.

More than 30 years later, he remains grateful to Focus for picking him up off the streets and also to his mother for assistance during some very dark days.

Salvation came in the form of an offer from one of his brothers asking him to come to Scunthorpe in England and assist in converting an old schoolhouse to make a home.

Noel stayed in a caravan on site and nursed his wounds: 'I had to phone the Samaritans and I did a lot of crying.'

As he recovered his morale, the lure of the US was re-kindled and he set off once more on the emigrant trail across the Atlantic, settling in Detroit. All told, he adds up 17 years spent Stateside and, though he never acquired the accent, he became an American citizen.

Living in Motor City, he found work for a spell driving automobiles and buses around the vast General Motors complex for Pitney Bowes.

He was employed by a glazing company and mister I-can-fix-that came up with a neat way of tailoring their products for the Alaskan market.

He had a stint with an outfit which installed high security windows and devised a means of adjusting frames in the company van without having to return to base.

Noel's American dream had its painful side, including injuries sustained in an accident while driving a bus and kidney trouble.

He also began piling on weight. A photo from his days in Michigan shows a 30 stone mountain of a man, unrecognisable from the current slim version. He used to run an Irish pub in Detroit but this was not conducive to a healthy lifestyle -and he knew it was doing him harm.

'Many a night I fell out of the pub. That was not the way to go.'

As he contemplated the impossibility of tackling the kidney problem with scant American health insurance cover, he got word that his daughter was pregnant and needed her father.

He landed back in Dublin in the year 2000 with enough money to make a single phone call and availed of an offer from a sibling to come and stay in Aughrim.

He has been in County Wicklow ever since, along the way becoming a regular in the surgery of Doctor Nick Buggle in Arklow. He was referred from there to consultant Donal O'Shea and the weight management clinic at Loughlinstown for life-saving surgery to reduce the size of his stomach.

Never one to sit on his hands, Noel has been active over the years in the running of Avoca's community hall and he has acquired a reputation as a bingo caller.

So where did painting enter his life? It was an accident.

Having reached middle age with no qualifications to speak of, he decided it was time to learn how to use a computer.

He went to the adult education centre in Arklow and said 'sign me up for everything' - so sign him up they did.

As well as grappling with the new technology, the student found himself one Monday more or less by accident as the only pupil in an arts class.

The teacher handed him canvas and paint, telling him to attempt a still life of the jug on the table.

For two years he balanced art and computing, even selling a couple of paintings before he his energies were diverted into jewellery making.

Then came the shakes. At first, it was assumed that they must be caused by Parkinson's Disease.

Five different doctors told him so but an X-ray ordered by a sixth medic showed this was not the case, without offering an alternative diagnosis.

Noel speculates that the problem may be the legacy of an industrial or road accident but no one knows for sure.

He confesses that it was beginning to put him down in the dumps before friend and fellow artist Sheila Busher suggested he take up painting again.

He was immediately confronted with the inability to take firm hold of a brush, obliging him to come up with an alternative.

'I have always had needles,' says the diabetic, 'because I have injected for years.'

A visit to the chemist shop allowed him stock up for free with out of date syringes, perfect for making lines or dots once loaded up with acrylic paint.

He makes a virtue of his trembling hands: 'With art, it cannot happen straight' And it is true. 'Life is an experiment - let's see if this works.'

He cranks up the rock and roll as he works his magic, not only with the needle but also using the top of the syringe plunger to adjust his blobs and dots.

The best music for painting by is The B52's or Bruce Springsteen, he reckons as he dabbles with a sponge and then a spray bottle which maybe once held a domestic cleaner.

It looks like fun and the results are certainly not shabby, though most of them have not yet been on public display.

Life, it seems, is indeed an experiment.

Bray People