Saturday 24 March 2018

The milky way: peek inside the family home of artist John Kelly

Despite showing a stunning flight attendant a feckless side to his character, Australian artist John Kelly is delighted she pursued him, and thrilled they now live in west Cork.

John and Christina in the living room, which is furnished in old pine and many examples of John's different painting periods. There are several butcher's blocks around the house. 'They remind me of the Australian landscape,' John notes. Photo: Tony Gavin
John and Christina in the living room, which is furnished in old pine and many examples of John's different painting periods. There are several butcher's blocks around the house. 'They remind me of the Australian landscape,' John notes. Photo: Tony Gavin
John and Christina Kelly's house in west Cork, which dates from 1870. The couple renovated it; the building on the right is now John's studio. Photo: Tony Gavin
The range in the dining area also dates from the 1870s. 'Apparently it came down on the first train, and they had to wait for the train line to be finished from Bandon to Skibbereen before it could be delivered. It's a beautiful old thing, and we still use it,' John says. Photo: Tony Gavin
The master bedroom features beams from an old shipwreck off the west coast of Ireland
A view of the sea through a series of man-made arches on John's land
The sculpture is an homage to a painting 'Boy And The Moon' by fellow Australian artist Sidney Nolan. This artwork is created by John in a fabric he uses a lot, called Corten Steel.

The cow has played a big part in artist John Kelly's creative output, and this won't be missed by visitors to the spectacular farmhouse in west Cork, which he shares with his wife, Christina, and teenage son, Oscar.

In the extensive grounds surrounding his home on the edge of the wild Atlantic ocean, there are paintings of cows, cow figures and, most noticeable of all, a life-size cow up a tree.

John, whose father was Irish and whose mother was English, was born in England and brought up in Australia, and it transpires he became fascinated by cows in art college in Melbourne, when he studied the work of a famous Australian artist, William Dobell. However, in a curious way, cows go back even further for him; he says he didn't make the connection when he first started making cows, yet John may never have become the celebrated artist he is were it not for the produce of the cow - milk - or, more specifically, the milk carton.

John, an engaging talker, who still has a broad Australian accent, explains that, in his youth, his family weren't well off, and he had no hope of studying art. "My father worked in a quarry all his life, and my mother was a home-maker. I was the middle of seven children," he recalls. "I attended a technical school, which had no Leaving Certificate, or its equivalent, so it was hard to go on to third-level education."

However, John was lucky enough to be chosen to go on to do a course in art which bridged that gap, and from a qualification point of view, enabled him to go to art college, but then his mother said there was no way he could continue, as there were three more kids at school, and the family just couldn't afford it.

Needless to mention, John was gutted. "What she hadn't told me is that she had put my name down on a 'win a wish' competition on the side of a milk carton," he says, adding, "It was called Pure Milk, and she won the wish. I still remember the day. It was very soon after she told me I couldn't go to art college; the shopkeeper came over and knocked on our door and said there was a phone call for us. It was 1982, we didn't have a phone. So that was the beginning."

All John's mother had to do was to state her wish - that John would be able to go to art college - on the back of the carton, but John notes that it was around Christmas, and so she wrapped her entry in Christmas paper, which must have drawn attention to it.

"You were supposed to cut the coupon out after using the milk, but what she did was wrap the empty carton in Christmas paper, so it must have caught their eye. And such a beautiful wish. It shows her creative ability," John notes, still proud, 34 years later, of the ingenuity of his mother.

He was on his way. The competition paid for the first year of his education, he did part-time work to continue his studies, and he finished his degree in 1985. Afterwards, John painted full-time, but to support himself, he worked part-time in the college library, and later, he also taught life drawing at the college.

In 1991, he went back to college to do his master's, and did his thesis on Australian artist William Dobell and his cows. Apparently, during World War II, Dobell had been asked by the Australian government to camouflage grass airfields, and he did so by making them appear to be farms by dotting papier-mache cows around them. There is no photographic evidence of Dobell's cows, but John's are skinny with small heads - a nod to an infamous portrait that Dobell had done of his former lover Joshua Smith, giving him a small head and an elongated neck. In his sculptures and paintings, as in his personality and way of talking, John expresses an unusual take on life.

John's work, which at this stage started to become recognised all over Australia, indirectly led him to meeting his wife Christina, though the beginning of their relationship was inauspicious, to put it mildly. "I met her at 37,000 feet, on a flight from Bangkok to Sydney. She was based in London, working for British Airways. I had my card with me, and I invited her to go to my exhibition in Sydney. Unfortunately, when she contacted me in Sydney to go to this exhibition, I was so hung-over from the flight - I had been celebrating the fact that I'd just been offered my first show in London - I couldn't get out of bed, and I thought that was the end of her," John recalls with a rueful laugh, adding that strangely enough, he met her three days later on another flight, but they only spoke briefly. "Having stood her up, I felt terrible," John says.

The couple went their separate ways and though they lived thousands of miles apart, neither forgot the other. Clever Christina, in particular, was proactive about meeting up again, and found the perfect excuse to contact John. Nine months after that first meeting, she wrote John a card saying she loved his work, and asked if his exhibition in London was still on and, if so, could she go and see it. "That's where we met again. That was in 1995, and in 1996, I came back to London on a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art; we really got together then, and we married in 1998 in London, in Mosimann's restaurant," John notes happily, adding, "We've been together ever since. We've shared many great adventures, and one of the things Christina said early in our marriage was something along the lines of 'I'd like to walk up in the morning and look out at the garden and see sculptures in the garden', which is what we've done at the farm."

Coming to the farm in west Cork was another serendipitous accident. After their marriage, the couple lived for several years between Brighton in the UK, and Nice in France; then, in 2001, John ran into difficulties with a French dealer. "I was really riding high. I had exhibited my Cow Up A Tree on the Champs-Elysees; I had La Parade des Animaux in Monte Carlo, which was opened by Princess Caroline," John says. "Then a French art dealer delivered a lawsuit claiming he was my agent, and was looking for a million euro. It took five years to resolve, and was a really difficult time. It was during that time, to escape the stress, we came to Ireland. We came for a year in 2003; 13 years later, we're still here," John notes, adding, "I'd be lying if I didn't say the tax incentive was attractive. I was being a bit mercenary in coming to Ireland, but you know what? We never thought of leaving; we love it here."

Fortunately, too, the French case was resolved. The first case, John won 100pc, but the dealer appealed. On appeal, the judge awarded the dealer €20,000. "It was based on the idea I'd been parasitical in accepting the invitation in Monte Carlo. I like to say that I might be the first artist in history to be found guilty of being parasitical of an art dealer," John notes with a laugh, adding he did establish ownership of his sculptures, which was the important thing.

And so he's able to exhibit his sculptures wherever he likes, including his own home. John, of course, doesn't only do cows; he's had several phases throughout his career, starting with the cows in Australia; a phase involving horses and zebras, during his time in the Slade in England; and since he's come to Ireland, he's been painting wonderful landscapes, inspired by his wild coastal surroundings. He's also done a kangaroo series, and worked with an Australian entrepreneur on his iconic beer label. John has travelled extensively, and has done a series based on his travels to the Antarctic. "I'm always working. I paint, I make sculptures, I write," he explains.

His first show in Ireland was at the Fenton Gallery in Cork, titled, 'There was an Englishman, an Australian and an Irishman' and it was a sell-out. Of course he suffered during the crash, but he credits Christina for keeping the family afloat by making valuable art contacts and managing his career. He has had several exhibitions in west Cork during the summer, and just recently, John was shortlisted for the prestigious Australian Fleurieu Art Prize. He is the first living artist to be represented by Sotheby's in Australia, so Christina is obviously very successful in getting his name out there.

She also decorated the house and created the gorgeous gardens around it.

The farmhouse dates from 1870, Famine times, and its story is particularly poignant for John, whose father was the son of small farmers in nearby north Cork. The family had a small farm in a townland called Lismire, near Kanturk, and in John's father's case, he was the youngest son; there was no room for him, so he had to emigrate - so it's not hard for John to empathise with the dreadful conditions 100 years earlier.

"In 1846, NM Cummins, a justice-of-the-peace in Cork, visited the area where we live. He wrote a letter, which was published in The Times of London on Christmas Eve, 1846, and he described the misery and the Famine - or An Gorta Mor, I prefer to call it - on our property, and it was the most harrowing letter you could imagine," John explains. "He talks about all the people dying, of a woman giving him a newborn baby, and another woman burying her 12-year-old daughter. It's the most poignant account you could possibly read about the property you live on, yet it makes it for us an incredibly significant letter. That, for me, is part of the inspiration for the artworks on the peninsula," John explains.

When the couple originally bought their farmhouse, it was in good condition, but they've added many extras, including the conservatory and the studio. It was landlocked, but after some years, that changed, too. "When our beautiful neighbours, Philip and Marian O'Callaghan retired, they came to us and very generously offered us a slice of the land to the coast. If people ask us what do we grow, we say we grow sculpture," John notes with a laugh. He's also made changes to the land leading to the sea by having a series of man-made tunnels built, which also give a unique perspective on the sky. "A while back, Christina asked for a window to the sea. We call it 'the gutter'. You lie on a rock and you look at the stars; it's reference to the Oscar Wilde quote," John explains.

He doesn't do many cow sculptures any more, but he's currently in Australia overseeing the installation of a very important one. "My parents still live in Melbourne in the house in which I grew up, and the local council has commissioned a monumental sculpture of a man lifting a cow. It's very nice of the council; it's an acknowledgment to my parents. The man is wearing overalls - my father wore overalls all his life - and the cow is a very distinct shape, which is not dissimilar to a milk carton," John notes with a smile.

A future sculpture could well be a cow lifting a man - after all, in a way, it's what happened in reality.

An exhibition titled Recent Etchings By John Kelly continues at Mary Ann's Bar and Restaurant, Castletownsend, Co Cork.

See, or see

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Sunday Independent

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