Reporter David Medcalf took a trip to Baltinglass to meet rising artist Nigel Cullen, who, as he approaches 50, has re-discovered his painting talent and is already attracting admirers.
It may be an exaggeration, but only a slight over-statement, to declare that Nigel Cullen has become a sensation on the Irish art scene. It would certainly be over-egging it to suggest that the Baltinglass resident has become a painter of international renown. However, the West Wicklow man hints that he has at least had offers which may yet spread his reputation to Britain, if not further afield.
The explosion of interest in his talent has left no one more surprised and delighted than Nigel himself.
Only a few months ago, his principal pre-
occupation – in common with most of the nation – was keeping sane in a time of lockdown.
Art was just one of the things the father of two did to maintain morale, along with regular exercise and making furniture.
Then he emerged from the apartment where he observed the Covid restrictions ready to present his work in a Dublin exhibition.
Not only were his paintings admired by the critics, they were also snapped up by the buying public.
He has won immediate admirers for the way in which he combines images of reality with a really thoughtful selection of subject matter.
Attitudes to young people and the climate crisis are among the themes that he has explored in paint, always with a delightedly light touch.
Who knows but perhaps in time to come, it may be a badge of the discriminating connoisseur to have a genuine Cullen hanging on the wall.
Of course, the art world is a fickle environment and there are no guarantees of continuing fame and success.
Yet Nigel has already clocked up more achievements than he expected and certainly more than his boyhood teachers could ever have anticipated.
As he approaches his 50th birthday, he recalls that the school authorities simply did not believe him when he said he wanted to study art.
His first claim to fame – for which he can take none of the credit – was being the first baby born in Ireland in 1972.
Parents John and Colette Cullen were living at Narraghmore, Nurney, County Kildare at the time.
But the family moved a year or two later across the border to Dunlavin, bringing up their children at Number 11, Church Terrace in the village.
There were six children, five brothers and a sister, in the house, Nigel being second youngest of the brood.
Not so interested in team games, he recalls days spent with siblings and friends roving the fields of the nearby countryside.
One particularly popular pastime during the summer holidays was damming a local stream, to the bemusement of the tolerant landholder who farmed the land.
Primary school was generally good but moving up to secondary brought a threat of bullying and exposure to the ill temper of three teachers who handed out routine beatings.
It did not help that he was dyslexic, a condition which made him very reluctant to read out loud in front of a class.
The school also had an arbitrary approach to assigning subjects which left young Nigel excluded from his favourite topic.
Entering first year, he declared that he wished to study art – his father painted and he too wished to paint.
“At the age of eight or nine I attempted to paint a bird so my dad got me the oil paints,” he says, the memory remaining vivid.
The young Cullen painted a blackbird as he had seen it in the yard at the back of the house and the end result was submitted to RTE.
Presenter Don Conroy was running a competition and there was excitement in Dunlavin when the painting came up on the television screen.
But the ever-genial Don was not convinced of the merit of the piece as he suspected an adult had connived in the artwork.
Don’s words remain with Nigel to this day as he concluded that the blackbird “was obviously not done by an eight year old.”
But it was! “I was so insulted.” The experience was a real turn-off but by the time he graduated to big school, he was prepared to give it another shot.
Faced with a choice between art and French, he declared that he wanted to do the art, not the French. Art, yes. French, no.
The way he remembers the conversation close to four decades later is that he said: “I want to be an artist,” only for the person in charge to remark “I’ve never met an artist yet from a council house.”
He was put in the French class where he sulked rebelliously, whiling the time away by drawing.
Nigel reckons that he filled thousands of pages with his adolescent sketches, honing a self-taught skill which is only now coming to fruition.
More immediately, he was able to charge lads in his class three quid for book cover illustrations in the style of Iron Maiden.
Heavy metal made way for serious study as he passed his exams and set out into the world of real work.
“I forgot about art for 14 years,” he says simply, though he adds that he used to buy old prints and the like at car boot sales.
At the age of 17, he escaped to Dublin where Monday to Friday was devoted to his job at Costello Doors in Ballyfermot.
A countryman among the Dubs, he proved a successful salesman and rose the rank of manager with the company before resigning.
The plan then was to buy the local supermarket at Gowran in nearby Kilkenny, an enterprise which ticked over nicely until the crash of 2008.
Recession meant long hours for no pay just to keep the business open in the teeth of growing competition from the likes of Lidl and Aldi.
“The amount of smiling you have to do when you are crying inside’”– that’s his summary of hard times on the shop front.
The father of two finally bailed out of retail in 2016 as he ended up in Baltinglass, where art began to creep back into his life.
Perhaps the death of his brother Sean, the casualty of a fatal road accident in 1997, was in some way a sub-conscious stimulus to pick up the brush.
He wondered whether it was possible to re-kindle what school had killed.
Walks by the Slaney in Baltinglass, seeing the water and the ruins and the trees, inspired him to try once more.
He found himself painting at home in the kitchen of his apartment until five o’clock some mornings.
“It opened up the mind of that child who was told he could not do it.” He found he could do it – so he did.
Friends who saw what he was up to made encouraging noises and in 2018 he joined Cruthú, the West Wicklow art group.
The organisation has recently vacated the studio space in Russborough House but not before giving the new boy valuable exposure.
He also made a satisfying homecoming, as a picture he called ‘Struggle’ was snapped up by a local resident at the Dunlavin Arts Festival.
One thing led to another as, while on holiday in 2019, he received an email from the Copperhouse gallery in Dublin.
They tested the waters by putting three of Nigel’s works on display and this brought him to the attention of Tony Strickland – one of Ireland’s top exhibition curators.
Tony made contact, arranging to meet the artist, the unknown artist, over coffee in Ranelagh.
The next time they met was at the flat in Baltinglass where 77 paintings were waiting for professional assessment.
They clearly passed the test as, before long, the two men were plotting a show at the Ireland Institute in Pearse Street.
And then disaster, or so it seemed at the time. Covid called a halt to the plans, a mere fortnight before the scheduled opening.
Others might have let the setback fester, but Nigel put his head down and simply kept on painting, so that he now confides guiltily: “I loved lockdown.”
After several false starts, the one-man show was eventually back on the road, running at the institute for a week at the end of July, the first such event in the city for a year and a half.
The only change was that social distancing required that he bring 14 pictures rather than the 16.
“I remember the drive up – my palms were sweating,” he admits. “I said if can sell three wouldn’t that be lovely for an unknown artist.”
Seven had the red ‘sold’ stickers by the end of the first night and all 14 had found takers before the week had run its course.
“The word is out,” he concludes, confirming that he has had preliminary offers to come and exhibit in London and Belfast in the years ahead.
Maybe those who purchase his work recognise an honesty in the canvases coming of the kitchen production line.
“Every painting has a story,” he ponders. “I don’t paint for the sake of painting. I have only found out now, on the cusp of 50, what I want to do. And when you love it, it’s not work.”