Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Fragments of a Scottish Childhood

Joe O’Brien –Solo show at’s Bath Street Gallery 

There must be something in the water in Maryhill, given that the north Glasgow district’s artistic talent pool takes in Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz, actor Robert Carlyle and troubadour Donovan Leitch.

Now, in his new solo exhibition at’s Glasgow gallery, artist Joe O’Brien (49) shares his distinctive perspective on a typical tenement upbringing in Maryhill the 1960s.  Fragments of a Scottish Childhood runs from July 1 – 24, but far from painting his childhood in dark brushstrokes of misery and deprivation, O’Brien offers an unsentimental portrayal of an area that was changing before his eyes. 

"Leaving Fleeto Land"
In his painting Leaving Fleeto Land, there is an almost biblical grouping of women and children huddling together as their former homes are pulled down to make way for new development, echoing  the artist’s childhood home in South Woodside Road which was also demolished.

“When I was wee, what adults told me about things such as religion or education, or the idea of security through a steady job, seemed to be solid and of substance,” explains O’Brien, who was one of four brothers and the son of a railway worker. “My perspective has changed a lot, and these ideas it no longer seems to carry the same weight.”

O’Brien says that inspiration for the exhibition came in fragments, from dreams, memories and experience. The River Kelvin (he called it the Kelly) loomed large in his childhood, not only giving him a love of nature, but also sparking the young Joe’s imagination with visions of crocodiles in the Kelvin’s then murky waters.

“It was a sort of Peter Pan world for us, and in those days, there weren’t so many footbridges linking Maryhill across the Kelvin to the west end which we regarded as the ‘other side’. 

“It was a breath of fresh air skiting through Kelvingrove Park of a Sunday and into the art gallery. Even then, the textures, colours and narratives of the paintings gave me a feeling of awe, not that I knew anything about the technicalities at that time.

"Mr Boyle's Chemistry Lesson"
“Looking back, I realise the significance and power of imagination. I don’t think we use it enough, and there’s a danger of limiting ourselves by our circumstances, but I’ve always drawn and painted. I was the guy in my class at school that was known for being ‘good at art’. My mother was artistic and was always drawing, and that really engaged me; I had very supportive parents.”

On leaving school Joe worked in what he describes as a ‘patchwork of jobs’, but always sketching and painting in his free time. For a time he worked in the parks department as a labourer, but it was when he was working at the pool hall in the QM Union dishing out change to students, that a lecturer took an interest in his drawings, and suggested that it was time he became a proper artist.

“That one voice, confirmed what I’d always known inside – it was an epiphany,” recalls Joe. “It also coincided with uncertainty in the job and I decided to try it. I ended up disappearing into the east end of the city, and hired a prison cell in a former jail in the Calton district.

“I spent the next five years living and working there in complete isolation, not even my close family knew what I was doing. In retrospect, if my family had seen where I was living they would have been concerned, but I was having a great time, paring things down and having time to develop and be creative. I wasn’t afraid, in fact a life spent unfulfilled would have been far more scary.”

During the five years working in his ‘cell’, Joe’s work progressed from small landscapes to more surrealistic and figurative pieces. When he emerged from his creative cocoon, Joe took his work to a couple of galleries and it wasn’t long before he was earning a living as a fully-fledged artist.

Joe recalls that when his first painting was sold, he felt like shouting it from the rooftops. Although discrete about who buys his work, Joe says he rarely meets the buyers or the sellers, although he has heard it said that actors Sean Connery and Ewan McGregor are admirers.

Things have come full circle now that Joe is once again living in his native Maryhill, while working from a WASPs studio in Denistoun. He is emphatic that these recent paintings are not a sepia coloured view of his childhood, but rather they stem from a time when he used his imagination to reinvent his surroundings
“It feels as if the River Kelvin has been coursing through my life,” concludes Joe. 

View more of Joe's work HERE

Exhibition Preview Night: Thursday 30th June, 6.00pm-8.00pm

Exhibition run: 1st July - 24th July

Artist talk/coffee morning, Saturday 2nd July 11.30am to 1.30pm, (with artist talk at 12pm) sponsored by Coffee Chocolate and Tea of Glasgow, an artisan shop on Argyle Street who roast their own coffee beans/make their own chocolate etc.

For further information & images, or to arrange an interview with Joe contact Heather MacLeod on 07891144157 or
Glasgow Gallery
193 Bath Street
Glasgow G2 4HU    Tel: 0141 221 4502
Opening Hours:
Tues – Fri 10.30am - 5.30pm
Saturday 11am – 5.00pm
Sunday  12 – 5pm
(Closed Mondays)>


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