Sunday 18 February 2018

Art of following a dream

Painter Janet Pierce and son Rory have bonded through a passion for the arts, says Andrea Smith

Andrea Byrne

'I THOUGHT to myself, 'Goodness me, I have a rare character here,'" says Edinburgh-born artist Janet Pierce, describing the moment that she came upon her then three-year-old son Rory, listening to The Messiah on her headphones, with tears rolling down his face. "To be sensitive enough to pick up the emotion in the music at that age was something else, but he also had, and still has, a bit of a wild streak, which he channels into his music."

Highly artistic from an early age, Janet studied at Edinburgh College of Art and Moray House, and it was while at art college that she met Richard, her first husband, a well-known architect with a musical streak. They went to live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is where Janet had her first exhibition in 1973, and also where Rory, now in his mid-30s, was born.

After four years, the family returned to Richard's hometown of Enniskillen for a few years, which Janet says was difficult, as it was during the Troubles.

"Enniskillen is very beautiful, but I found it to be extremely oppressive, because there was a curfew where we lived in Lisbellaw, and the whole town closed at six," she says. "Being a Scottish Presbyterian, I was very much out of it, and didn't really understand it, to be honest. It was a lonely time."

Back then, Janet was painting and exhibiting in Enniskillen and Belfast, and was a regular visitor to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annamakerrig. She subsequently divorced her husband, and moved back to Edinburgh for four years with 13-year-old Rory and younger daughters, Rachel and Marion.

"There seemed to be a permanent grey cloud over the North, so I was delighted to move to Edinburgh," says Rory, who by this stage had started playing cello. "I went from going to school in a prefabricated hut with a moody teacher, to an open, liberal school, with 2,000 pupils and an enormous music department. I used to skive classes just to spend time there, and completely poured my energies into music."

After school, Rory couldn't decide between music and architecture, but chose the latter initially, thinking it was a safer option. He realised eventually that his heart wasn't truly in it, and left after two years to do a music degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London, winning the only composition place available on the entire course.

After college, multi-instrumentalist Rory formed an ensemble in which he played uilleann pipes and flutes, and a theatre director heard the music and wanted to use it for his own production. This led to Rory receiving offers to compose theatre music in London and Edinburgh, which snowballed into doing music for dance and TV productions.

"Rory and I get on brilliantly and we laugh all the time," says Janet. "He's a lovely boy, and there's a very strong spiritual and romantic dimension to his music, although it's contemporary, multicultural and cutting-edge at the same time. To make paintings as I do, or music as Rory does, you have to have a huge inner life, and we both love life, people and culture."

Meanwhile, Janet married again, this time to fellow artist, Felim Egan, and she moved to Dublin 17 years ago. She's a member of Aosdana , worked as a college lecturer at NCAD and Dun Laoghaire College, and was Education Officer at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin.

When Rory moved to Dublin, he joined Neil Hannon to form The Divine Comedy Trio, a stripped-down version of The Divine Comedy, and they toured Europe. He then decided to focus on composition full-time, composing scores for contemporary dance companies such as CoisCeim and Dance Theatre of Ireland. He does a lot of work for film and TV, and his most recent theatre work is for the Storytellers Theatre Company's production of The Turn of the Screw, Liam Halligan's adaptation of Henry James' part-psychological thriller, part-gothic horror tale, which is currently on tour around the country.

Janet's second marriage sadly ended recently. She also recently purchased the Gate Lodge in her beloved Annamakerrig, which is in ruins, and was entranced to find the names of Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier on the title deeds. She's in the process of having it made into a three-bedroom house and studio, and plans to divide her time between there and India, where she recently spent five months.

The Indian connection started six years ago, when Janet won an award to spend two months at the Sanskriti Foundation. Apart from a forthcoming exhibition in Portugal in June, she currently has one in New Delhi, where her paintings sell very well, and recently spent three months living in a creative centre in Kerala, where she collaborated with artists who were making tapestries of four of her paintings.

"India is very poor and dirty in places, but I love it because a smile is the Indian currency, not how stylish or rich you are," she says. "Indians relate to the heart, and if you've a bright smile, you can relate to anybody there."

Rory says that his most exciting commission to date was when he was commissioned by the British Council to tour Burkina Faso in west Africa on a motorbike, seeking out and recording its hidden musicians. And another exciting challenge awaits this summer when he will be heading to South Korea with Dance Theatre of Ireland to collaborate with Seoul's NOW Dance Theatre.

"Mum has been a real liberating influence on me, because she fought her way through for her art," he says. "She's great crack, pretty bossy, and provides fantastic emotional support, and it's so inspirational that one of my role models took a chance and followed her passion."

'The Turn of the Screw' continues its tour to Hawks Well Theatre, Sligo, on April 25-26; Backstage Theatre, Longford, on April 29; Iontas, Monaghan, on May 1; Ramor Theatre, Cavan, on May 3; An Grianan, Donegal, on May 7; and Mermaid Arts Centre, Wicklow, on May 9-10. Log on to Janet's website at and to Rory's at rorypiercemusic

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