IRISH SUNDAY INDEPENDENT
SUNDAY, 20th FEBRUARY 2011
BY LUCINDA O'SULLIVAN
ONE good thing that came about during the Celtic Tiger years was a great increase in art across the spectrum. Galleries boomed. Everybody wanted art on their walls. Whether it was original or reproduction, it was good, as it brought alive in people an awareness and interest in art -- which in many cases saw them progress from their first print to their first piece of sculpture or an original painting. People became aware of bespoke crafts and began to appreciate the hours of work, love and design put in by craftspeople; the silk-like sensual touch of beautifully crafted wood; the fineness of individual pieces of jewellery; or the imagination behind an evocative sculpture. Gerard Byrne is one such artist whose work hopped off gallery walls all over the country throughout those years.
The self-taught artist was born in Finglas in 1958, one of six children, and attended the local Christian Brothers school. He wasn't very happy there as he didn't get on with one of the teachers. He was sent into City Quay School, which was "a bit rough" but it had a holistic approach and was a very caring school. "They looked at what talents you had, and encouraged me to paint, putting me in charge of the painting department from early on. "They developed your personal skills, which gave me a sense of finding myself in school. It built up my confidence. After a couple of years I went back into the Christian Brothers system and did my Group Cert."
When he left school he wanted to go to art college, but his parents said he'd never make a living as an artist, "and really they couldn't afford to send me. They said, 'You need to get a trade to earn a living'." With the Group Cert rather than the Leaving Cert, Byrne was told he could only get a basic trade and he applied to Whessoe to become a welder. At the interview he was asked what he would really like to do, and replied that he would like to be an electrician but didn't have the required Leaving Cert. Months passed, and one day there was a knock on the door -- and there was the interviewer, who told Byrne he was starting immediately to train as an electrician. Byrne was thrilled.
In the Eighties he bought an old VW camper van, 'Katie May', from his father, and got sponsorship from VW and set off to drive to Australia with a friend. He became a flying electrician in the Outback. Coming back from Australia, he returned to 'sparking'. However, a long-term relationship which he had been in then dissolved.
"I was a bit upset about that. I was suffering, because I loved the woman, and I thought, 'I have to do something for myself.'
"I took the garage from my parents as a studio, and painted and painted, and decided I really wanted to do this. Once I'd decided this, it was funny how things fell into place.
"I saw the art exhibition on the railings of St Stephen's Green and I brought my paintings down there. I was terrified, as nobody had ever seen my work. I didn't know you had to have a permit, and the other artists objected, calling the police. In the midst of this a guy came along, pushing a pram. He said, 'Have you got a gallery? Have you got an agent? Would you like an exhibition?' At that point I would have died in peace, having achieved my goal.
He had his first exhibition at the George Gallery, and it was a great success. He came up with a plan to give up work, live cheaply, and paint. He went to America for a few months to finance the purchase of a cheap house in the Liberties, which he bought for €15,000, and renovated. He used to go up to the fish and vegetable markets to paint, where the stallholders often fed him. Likewise with clothes, at the Iveagh Market.
All of this left him free to be an artist. There was talk at this time of the Berlin Wall coming down, and he felt he should be there experiencing what was going on. Up came another old camper van, and he set off for East Berlin, where he spent six months working for an Irish exhibition. He was living in a dingy flat overlooking a cemetery and surviving on deep-fried aubergine every night. The organiser decided at one point that Gerard was getting too thin and gave him a list of addresses, private homes, where he had to go each night for dinner on a rota -- which was an amazing insight into East German life.
After coming back to Ireland in 1992 he had an exhibition of German pictures in the George Gallery, which he says put him on the map, although he still struggled.
The George Gallery closed down, but one night he had a strange dream in which his grandmother told him, "Everything will be OK." He went into town with his portfolio to meet an agent in Bewley's. The agent didn't turn up. Walking home, he passed the then new Harrison Gallery, and he called in on spec. The owner told him to bring his paintings in immediately, and a few days later was looking for more.
A couple of years later he was taken on by the Gorry Gallery, where he had a number of sell-out exhibitions. Security had come. These were very good years.
Byrne's grandmother lived beside the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, and the Turner Conservatory and Palm House there have featured widely in his work. Byrne's Palm House paintings almost exude the smell, the heat and tropical intensity of exotic plants.
His paintings have a broad impressionistic style, and he paints mainly outdoors. He has painted a lot around the colourful roads and coastlines of Dalkey, where he now lives, and France. "Things were going so well for me, paintings sold off the easel. I painted and painted, and it was a nice life, but then the recession comes along and bites you in the ass. I'm like everybody else: I have a mortgage to pay, maintenance on kids, car to pay for. "It got me down, and then I said, 'Hold on, I became an artist to be an artist. I didn't do it to get rich, so if I haven't got money, so what? I still have my art.' So if it means selling my home, or cutting back, to do that, I am not going to stop being an artist. "Sometimes these things free you up to do other things. It makes you get out more into the world, out of your comfort zone. I rented the house last year for six months and I travelled to France and Italy. Before, I wouldn't have had time to do that. "During the Celtic Tiger, we all thought we were millionaires. Now, there's more chat, people are friendlier again, it's more personal. In the boom we were all living in isolation behind closed doors, gated communities, big cars. I think it's a good change.
"I get a lot of people saying: 'I wish I could afford your pictures' and I say: 'I wish you could buy my pictures' -- so I've started to do a lot of charcoals, and they work out a lot more affordable for people."
Gerard Byrne's work is available from the Doorway Gallery, South Frederick Street, Dublin, and from www.gerardbyrneartist.com