Atlantic Arias- Coastal Connections- Ireland and Maine
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Atlantic Arias- Coastal Connections
Reflections on Ireland and Maine by Brian Keeler
This October I had the privilege of returning to both coastal Maine and to Ireland for painting, plein air mostly but of course to tour and visit museums as well.
I have been to Ireland once before, and to Scotland on another year and to Maine numerous times starting way back in 1976 when I was with a group of other Artists, called the Artists Touring Association- that did mall shows.
I have been thinking of these paintings in Ireland and Maine as corollary motifs as they show the facing coastlines on both sides of the Atlantic. The rugged coastlines share many aspects in common, visual, tectonic, geological, cultural to some extent and historical too. So the idea of paring these oil paintings into a single show seemed like a natural choice. Hence my current show at the Laura Craig Gallery in Scranton, PA is called “Atlantic Arias.” The exhibit will come in part to my studio in Ithaca, The North Star Art Gallery in the spring or 2019.
The word aria, from Latin, of course means air or atmosphere, which is the context that I am using it here. Aria however, is most often used in its operatic context to denote a musical performance as in Mozart’s arias. So, I like the musical associations and parallels the term brings to viewing paintings as works of constructed rhythms and perhaps even with melodic and harmonic aspects.
This show however presents work done on location and some large-scale studio paintings where the air, atmosphere and clouds are a defining aspect. As I painted these small studies in oil, the meteorological elements came into play along with the light of the oceans. Painting the light has long been a focus of my work and I often think of other painters who blazed the trails portraying luminosity before me. Turner comes to mind but many others too, including William Haseletine. The elements often came into play during these painting experiences but I embraced them as much as possible. The wind was there, on occasion buffeting dramatic cumulous clouds over the craggy coast of County Donegal in Ireland and it certainly was part of the mix. At times the wind along with rain and even hail at one point, caused me to exclaim that this is an “hail-acious spot.” I am fond of painting the golden hour and strong sunlit motifs but allowing other types of light to be expressed was motivating me here. I would somewhat jokingly say during the short video documents that were made at these locales, that I did not want to be considered a “fair weather painter” only. You see a friend ribbed me about this, years ago, meaning that my penchant was to only paint in ideal conditions with the overtone of “a fair weather friend” who only sticks around when the going is easy.
So on these trips, I did quite a few works in the Irish mist or in the rain in Maine. For example, near Dungloe in western Ireland, I stood on the beach on a very grey day and remained there, standing on the shore as the tide came in, reaching up to my feet before I hightailed out with easel and supplies. More dramatically however was the painting on a perch over the Cliffs on Moher, in County Clare Ireland on a rainy day with dramatic and moody mist and sfumato with waves crashing below. I recall the part in the recent movie, Mr. Turner, where the British artist ties himself up on the mast of a ship during a violent storm so he can experience the full strength of nature. Now there is conviction!
These trips provided opportunities to connect with the art history and parallels of both locales. In County Donegal for example, it was learned that the American painter, Rockwell Kent had made this area home for a while and the source of his paintings. I had known of his work from Maine, so it was with delight to discover that we shared the attraction and inspiration from these corollary coastlines. His work is wonderfully evocative of place and history and beautifully stylized as in the tradition of great American Illustrations. I enjoyed learning of his progressive politics as well, which goes along with other artists of this period, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
There was also the aspect of connecting with my ancestors. My great grandfather, John Shaw came from county Sligo in the late nineteenth century, arriving with his brother in New York with only small change in their pockets. So it was a thrill to paint the evening light of the sun setting over the Atlantic at Mullaghmore.
I discovered some Irish painters too including John B. Yeats (father of the poet, William Butler Yeats) and Derek Hill. We visited Derek Hill’s studio and home, called the Glebe House near Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal. We had a wonderful tour of the house and the art collection with spirited anecdotes told by the docent. Hill was a portrait painter and plein air landscape painter and he’d spent years in Italy too rubbing elbows with Bernard Berenson and others. So it was intriguing to find these commonalities between our careers.
While in Dublin we visited the National Gallery of Ireland on several occasions on this trip, as I wanted to sketch from a Carvaggio that was recently discovered in a Jesuit home there. The museum was fully open on this visit. Not so on the last trip, so the museum was appreciated as a major world-class collection. An Irish impressionist, unknown to me, was featured in a retrospective in the musuem. Rodrigo O’Connor was given several rooms to show his work and his connections to the French artists he associated with in the halcyon days of 19thcentury Paris.
There were wonderfully affecting Irish works in the museum that captured the pathos of hardscrabble life of the nineteenth century. One large canvas portrayed a funerary boat taking the deceased to sea on the coast of one of the Aran Islands. The emotion and sadness and finality of death were portrayed so as to be palpable and without sentimentality and with veracity and authenticity in every brush stroke.
The literary history of Ireland is a vast and rich heritage that has just begun to be appreciated by me by reading such books as Thomas Cahill's, How the Irish Saved Civilization. And while in Dublin on these trips following in the footsteps of James Joyce was an inspiring aspect as well. There were a couple of instances that had those semi-eerie but fascinating aspects. For example, painting along the River Liffy the gulls were coming up close so as to show their curiosity about my canvas and this recalled Leopold Bloom’s interactions with the birds. On another occasion, crossing the O’Connell Bridge in Dublin we encountered a blind man, which brought to mind Bloom’s meeting with the “blind Stippling” on a Dublin street. We also happened by horse-drawn coffin during the cab ride out, and this evoked the famous scene in Ulysses of the funeral of Paddy Dignam.
The most serendipitous occurrence in Regards to Joyce, was on a beautiful sunny day when I took a cab out to the Martello Tower, which is the locale for the start of Joyce’s Ulysses. The intent was to paint there early in the morning but I found the Dublin Bay rather nondescript and the Martello Tower not compelling either. However, an elderly woman noticed me with my art supplies and she struck up a conversation with me. She was a lovely soul with incredible character and compellingly stylish apparel and deep red wild hare. She was probably a homeless woman as she had a small suitcase on wheels. She conversed and waved to locals walking there as she appeared to be a well-known denizen. She knew of the artist Derek Hill and the apocryphal story of Hill’s meeting of an old man, James Dixon on Tory Island. This fellow Dixon, challenged Hill’s painting prowess by saying he could paint better- and then went on to become an artist in his own right.
So upon my return to the states, one of my first painting projects after completing the landscape series was to paint a portrait of this woman, Audrey. Her visage recalled to me other portrayals of aging women by artists like Rembrandt and Giorgione. A canvas in the NGI also showed this genre, a portrait of scarfed woman with a cane by Helen Trevor called the Fisherman’s Mother. I knew from this meeting with Audrey that I had to paint her. Her face, eyes, wrinkled skin, her way of talking and her spirit all were terribly compelling. The light on this rare sunny day also contributed to the specialness of this chance encounter.
The music and pub life also figured into the total Celtic experience. We visited quite a few pubs offering Trad music in the evenings in Dublin, Doolin, Dingle, Carrick and Galway. At one pub, Evelyn’s in Carrick, I asked the fiddler what the name of waltz was that they had just played. He did not know, however he believed it to be over a thousand years old as it came back to the Island after being kept alive in Iceland by Irish immigrants.
Politics were in mind there in several respects. The Irish had just banned fracking from the entire island and a decent man, a poet, Michael Higgins had just been reelected as their President. The contrast to our own crass president and the desecration of the beauty of the land in Pennsylvania due to the gas industry made an obvious comparison.
So to sum up, this show presents my work inspired by visual uniqueness of both shores. The paintings were done on location and represent a direct interaction and expression of the land, sea, light and atmosphere. One of the corresponding motifs between Maine and Ireland were the lighthouses. I found a wonderful one at at Fanad Head in Donegal and several in Maine too and it was splendid to paint these 19th century icons. But as my account suggests, the many other aspects of the Emerald Island are part of the influence.