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Balbriggan's new art work

Artist Thomas Brezing talks to Ken Phelan about the unveiling of his latest art work which will take pride of place in his adopted town, Balbriggan


Thomas Brezing and ‘Leaving Ninevah’

Thomas Brezing and ‘Leaving Ninevah’

Thomas Brezing and ‘Leaving Ninevah’


Culture Night in Balbriggan was a somewhat different affair last week due to COVID-19 restrictions, and saw the virtual unveiling of a major new piece of artwork by local German-born artist, Thomas Brezing.

The painting, a 2016 piece entitled 'Leaving Ninevah', was set to be formally unveiled at its permanent residence at the new Our Balbriggan offices in George's square, but was instead unveiled online accompanied by the eponymous poem, 'Leaving Ninevah.'

The video of the poem played at the Irish Academy of Music and Song in Balbriggan on Culture Night, Friday September 18, with the painting now open for viewing at the Our Balbriggan office where it can be viewed by appointment.

Thomas spoke to The Fingal Independent about where the idea for 'Leaving Ninevah' came from: 'I was working towards a solo show for the Molesworth Gallery, Dublin in 2016 entitled Jonah And The Whale. I developed an interest in the biblical character Jonah. 'Leaving Nineveh' refers to the Book Of Jonah.

'According to the bible, Jonah was ordered to faraway Nineveh to tell the sinful people that their days were numbered. Jonah played the truant, fleeing in the opposite direction and boarding a ship in Tarshish. I could identify with him and his decision. So everything I made for the show centred around that idea of Jonah leaving/fleeing, not wanting to do what was expected from him.'

'There is the painting Leaving Nineveh and there is the poem by the same name, read out in front of the painting. Someone said about the painting, all that's in there is you, it sums you up. That was a couple of years ago, and it's true it summed me up then.'

Working in installation, painting, performance, sound and video, Brezing claims he does not 'really need specific ideas or inspiration', just to 'get to work and things happen to fall into place, working through the ups and downs.'

He says: 'The first few weeks can be frustrating and the hardest, then it gets a little easier as things start emerging. The biggest obstacle would be the lack of studio space. I have a small studio in Balbriggan in my back garden, but I have to manage with the limited means available. Even though I am longing for a bigger space I am grateful, many artists don't have their own space to work in.'

Brezing describes a feverish, almost obsessive way of working with his art, with many pieces taking several years to complete as they ferment in his mind. Like all true artists though, obsession forms part of the creative process, without which no work would flow.

'A large painting usually takes years. When I work towards an exhibition I work on many pieces at the same time. The small paintings are done within a few weeks or month, but the large paintings need a lot of looking, putting away, looking again.

'After a period of intense painting I can't see the wood for the trees, so I have to put the painting away for a period of time, let it go stone cold, distance myself, then take it out again, see it with fresh eyes. But I never stop painting, even when I am not in the studio I would think about it, paint in my head, be woken up by it in the middle of the night, like in the poem with the same name, there is a line that says 'later you wake me at 3am with cries.'

Speaking of the painting process, he says: 'Every painting starts with a white canvas, to me it's an awful sight and I get rid of the white at the very beginning as quickly as possible, it can be any colour just not white. I might paint the first layer blue, the next layer could be red etc. and so I build up the layers until I might see something, a shape, a face, a body, anything.

'I build something around this thing that I found and it develops from there. If I find something too soon it most likely will be gone again later. Whatever it is that is kept needs to be hard-fought and can only come out of a struggle between the painter and the painting. It's in the word, painting: 'pain thing'. Painting is both a pain thing and joyful pleasure. You make it and it makes you.'

Brezing paints mainly oil on canvas, he says, though recently he has begun using ink on paper. His art, he says, captures 'life and death'; all his work, he explains, is in some way about life and mortality, as 'the two to me are entwined, no one without the other.'

Speaking once again of 'Leaving Ninevah', he says: 'The painting is probably in line with other work I have done, perhaps it's a little more colourful than others. The recording of the video of the poem is uncharted territory for me. It was a challenge to step in front of a camera, I had to jump over my own shadow.

'In terms of the poem, I have had an intense period of writing poetry in the past eighteen months and would like to get to a point where I feel somewhat comfortable reading in front of an audience, but I have a long way to go still.'

Born in Germany in 1969, Brezing emigrated to Ireland 23 years ago, where he has lived ever Balbriggan since. He moved to Ireland, he says, 'to get away from Germany', and to follow a direction which perhaps he could not have followed in his homeland.

A self-taught artist, he attended Grennan Mill Graft School in Thomastown when he came to Ireland in 1992, and for a year 'toyed with the idea of becoming an artist.'

In 2001, he had his first solo exhibition at the Basement Gallery in Dundalk, from which Louth County Council bought a painting for their collection, giving him the confidence to pursue art as a profession. Since then, he has exhibited widely in Ireland, Finland, Germany and Belgium.

On why he decided to pursue a profession in art, he says: 'I came to art in a roundabout way, trained in metal work before coming to Ireland, but knew it wasn't for me. Making art seemed an exciting and interesting way to express myself and to comment on the state of the world around me.

'Very few artists in Ireland can make a living from art, most work in various jobs in order to support their art practice. It's hard to become an established artist, there is a lot of competition, a lot of good artists competing for the same galleries, bursaries, opportunities. Only the few at the very top, the tip of the iceberg who have reached critical and financial success have a decent income from their art- I am not one of them.'

Brezing, in the past, has cited his childhood in Germany as having a major influence on his work. Despite having lived in Ireland for so long, there is still a degree of 'German Angst' within him in relation to Germany's troubled past:

'My parents were born in 1932 and 1933 respectively (they are no longer alive), and were children during the war years. Once a year the same siren they used during the war years would ring out and I would see my mother rattle and shake and cry. I could see how badly affected she was by those years. That 'German Angst' is in me too, perhaps it's in the genes.

'I think it's an underlying feature in my work. My show next year in Limerick will have the title 'The Loneliness Of Being German', where I will delve deeper into issues of identity, place and belonging.'

Speaking of the Irish art scene, he says: 'It was vibrant before COVID put a halt to it, many events have been postponed or cancelled. I think there are plenty of opportunities out there. There is always room for improvement. I think there are many more opportunities for young artists now compared to 20 years ago, which is great. It would be good to have more prospects specifically for artists over 50 so they are not forgotten.

'Fingal Arts Office run by Fingal County Council have been a great support in recent years. Rory O'Byrne, Sarah O'Neill, Caroline Crowley and Denise Reddy are doing a fantastic job in supporting Fingal based artists. I admire and love what they do. Fingal Arts Office is among the most pro-active and hard-working arts offices in the country and is held in very high regard nationwide. A big thank you is due to what Rory O'Byrne has established during his tenure as arts officer.'