My incredible urge to be a dad

Cobh-based artist John Adams has an exhibition running at the Ballymaloe Grainstore for the month of May. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to him about his latest work, his renovated studio and exhibition space, and his despair over property developers and multi-nationals
My incredible urge to be a dad
Baby Finger by John Adams.

THE centre-piece of artist John Adams’s latest exhibition at the Ballymaloe Grainstore is of a baby’s hand holding onto John’s finger. It’s a simple image. But some people read too much into it and mistakenly thought that it was inspired by the abortion referendum. It is, for John, a poignant image that has nothing to do with abortion.

He explains: “The painting is about my desire to have a child. That prospect is highly unlikely. But even though I turned 55 last week, I still have an incredible desire and urge to be a father. I have five god-children and my friends say I’d make a great father.”

While John can come across as a little world-weary at times, dragged down by the difficulties of being an artist, he retains an element of child-like wonder at the possibilities that come with the creative life. As an artist, beauty is important to him.

“I have to feel that something I’m going to put on my walls is beautiful,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean that John shies away from harsh realities.

“If I’m doing intellectual work, it could be political, in a subtle way. I might have a reference to political corruption in Ireland.”

His other bugbear is how “the multi-nationals are taking over the country at an alarming rate”.

And John is in despair at property developers who, during the Celtic Tiger years, knocked down venerable buildings to build “cheap, ugly” apartment blocks.

Through his work, John has documented Cork harbour and Cork city, which resulted in two successful exhibitions.

But his current exhibition, entitled Ocean Colour Scene after one of his favourite bands, is “a quest to break away from realistic painting and return to a way of painting where the subconscious mind can play and meditate on images, colours and forms, happening on the canvas.”

John Adams' painting of Paddy Casey
John Adams' painting of Paddy Casey

He talks about his technique of getting into “a trance-like state” and seeing what emerges.

His exhibition also includes a portrait of singer Paddy Casey. Portraiture, revealing the essence of the subject, is something that appeals to John. His Luke Kelly portraits garnered much praise and he is about to start making a portrait of Paul Brady, whom he approached with the idea.

A self-starter, John bought and renovated a derelict three-storey house in Cobh and spent the last three years fixing it up. He did most of the work himself, having clocked up experience on building sites in London years ago and having made and painted sets for the theatre.

He studied woodwork at school in Dublin and, as a boy, enjoyed being at his father’s side when he was building boats. John took it all in and says he is adept at using hammers and saws.

The house on Rahilly Street is called Coliemore and is for artists of all kinds, who want to exhibit or perform. It includes John’s living quarters on the upper floors.

Recently, Bill Griffin exhibited there and performed his one-man show about Francis Bacon. John says his gallery is much-needed given the closure of commercial galleries in Cork, as well as artist-led spaces such as Camden Palace and Sample Studios.

Painter John Adams.
Painter John Adams.

So why isn’t he using the gallery space at Coliemore for his exhibition?

“The Grainstore is a wonderful space that is much bigger than my gallery. It’s important for artists to be seen in different places, to reach out to new markets.

“Ballymaloe would have a reputation for attracting people with a bit more money than the average punter. That’s important when you’re trying to sell art,” he said.

When the art market took a nose dive during the recession, John chose not to exhibit as lowering his prices wouldn’t have done his career any good.

“I stayed under the radar and got on with different aspects of my work. The house took up a lot of my time.”

John went through a tough few years before the recession, not just fiscally, but emotionally as well. Art proved to be his saviour.

“In 2004, I suffered a very bad depression. I didn’t go out for a couple of years apart from going to the local shops. I had a lot of thinking to do. It was basically to do with relationships and friendships. Certain things happened that made me lose a lot of my faith in friendship. I was wondering who I could trust in life. At the end of the day, family is what matters most, anyway.”

During the grim years, his paintings “were quite dark”.

“But as they went on, I got closer to the light. It was amazing really. I came out of it myself. I’ve been very good at that over the years, talking to my mind and making myself realise that there are going to be better days ahead,” he explained.

Brought up in Dun Laoghaire and then Bray, John came to Cork to study art at the Crawford College of Art and Design in 1983. He completed his foundation year but didn’t get accepted onto the fine art course. However, he studied fine art in Limerick. He has also studied at the Florence Academy of Arts.

A former independent candidate in the local elections in 2011, under the umbrella of the Cork People’s Convention, John never really wanted to be a politician. But years of carping at politicians meant that he felt compelled to make a stand.

Art is perceived to be a vocation. But John says that, sometimes, he thinks it’s a curse. He adds: “It’s such a hard way to make a living.”

Not that that has ever stopped this resilient and resourceful artist.

John Adams is exhibiting at the Ballymaloe Grainstore in East Cork, until May 31. Find him on Facebook at Johnadamsartist.

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