By Vincent Hanley
I have known Ciaran since he came to teach Art in SMI nearly seven years ago now. As time has passed we have come to treasure him as a teacher and as the distinguished artist that he has become. He has that rare quality of being both an artist and a teacher who inspires his students. Not only can he talk the talk but, as we see here tonight, he can also walk the walk! I have also witnessed the quiet, serene way he uses Art as therapy – he has the ability to reach out to the most troubled and difficult student.
This is a red letter day for The Red Door Gallery. This exhibition, I’m sure you’ll agree, would grace any gallery with its depth and quality. This beautiful space is indeed a fitting addition to the cultural life of our town and is indeed a tribute to David and Clare Geary and their visionary project here at The Red Door.
The title of the exhibition is Enlightened and it is a fitting title for the weekend of celebrations here in NCW as we honour and celebrate the life and work of Michael Hartnett. The title was chosen for a number of reasons but chiefly as a compliment to Hartnett by his fellow artist, Ciaran. Both men fit the bill as enlightened artists – open minded, imaginative, questioning, insightful, philosophical.
Just a few words about Ciaran’s artistic process. It is ironic, in this day and age, when many say that photography will eventually replace painting as an art form, that many of these paintings are derived from photographs. From simple photographs taken in his back garden in Co. Louth or at other family occasions, these works of art have developed and taken on a life of their own.
Like Heaney, Ciaran adds layer after layer of emotion, of colour, tone and texture to create something unique and intimate and personal. He, like Heaney, “digs down and down for the good turf”. In another of Heaney’s poems, The Forge, he describes the creative process as “the unpredictable fantail of sparks”. It is obvious that in Ciaran’s lonely, artistic attic/forge the sparks have been flying in recent times!
This exhibition follows on seamlessly from Ciaran’s earlier work. I’m sure you have been amazed and mesmerised with the richness of colour, texture and tone in these paintings – and then we do a double take and we begin to notice the people, the images within. The paintings evoke a mood and here tonight the artist finally, nervously hands his work over to us the viewer.
Like Hartnett, Ciaran’s work immortalises ordinary people, people close to him, family members. Sometimes there is realism, sometimes we’re shown things as through a glass darkly. I’m reminded here again of Hartnett’s description of childhood in Maiden Street during the bad old days of the Fifties and despite the poverty he was still able to say of his childhood that – “We were such golden children never to be dust, singing in the street alive and loud…”
There have been two great seismic changes in Ciaran’s life since his last exhibition – marriage and fatherhood. Setting up home with Carol and the arrival of Paddy have taken precedence but now, as you can see, we are surrounded here this evening with the results of his labours – in particular, the beautiful family portrait behind you. His paintings, I feel, have been enriched and exhibit a new vibrancy because of these life changing events.
We need artists like Ciaran and Hartnett in our lives and we shouldn’t wait until they’re dead to celebrate their genius. Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal and great friend to this Eigse Festival, uses a lovely analogy to describe artists – he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters.
I hope that tonight and over the coming days hordes of people will come and in quietness and silence be uplifted by this exhibition. In his poem ‘Secular Prayers’, Hartnett longs to be able “to look at lovely things and not be dumb”. It is the same with us this evening. Go from here and spread the word. The exhibition will remain open until the 26th of April here in The Red Door Gallery, Newcastle West.