A GROUP of eight men from the north side of Cork will be exhibiting their artwork at a community house in Fair Hill next week.
The exhibition at 26, Bride Valley Park on June 13 will be opened by Lord Mayor, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald.
It’s the culmination of the artistic work of the retired men, who meet weekly at Bride Valley, supported by Cork City Partnership, Springboard and Cork City Council.
The Fair Hill Men’s Art Group, facilitated by artist and tutor, Paul McKenna, go on regular outings. While on a visit to City Hall in 2016, the men met the then Lord Mayor, Cllr Chris O’Leary and spoke about issues that concerned them.
When the Lord Mayor said that he had a selection of paintings on loan from the Crawford Art Gallery that had special significance for him in the year that was in it — the centenary of 1916 — Paul thought it would be an interesting project for the group to make their own paintings based on the Crawford art collection.
“The men were particularly taken with the layers of meaning contained within a painting called The Consultation by William Sheehan (who studied at the Crawford),” says Paul.
“I contacted the Learn and Explore programme in the Crawford Art Gallery. They invited the men to visit curator, Anne Boddaert, who arranged for The Consultation to be taken out of storage. We brought along our version (painted from a photograph) and put the two paintings side by side.”
The Consultation, painted in 1917, depicts the Cork actress, Caroline O’Connor, seated at a table in her family home in Ballintemple. At the opposite end of the table is a man, seen reflected in the large mirror, ominously bearing a letter.
This represents the moment when Caroline received the news of the death of her two brothers who had served in the British army and were both killed in 1917.
Paul says that the painting is ideal for students of art for the different elements in it.
“There’s a still life there, there’s portraiture in it. We reproduced it by gridding it.
“Each member of the group worked on a little square and then it all came together as a single piece. We exhibited it in the Crawford next to the original piece.”
The centre-piece of the exhibition at Bride Valley is a new take on Men of the South by Sean Keating, a painting that refers to the Irish rebellion.
“We took the composition and inserted portraits of the Fair Hill men into our painting,” says Paul.
He points out that the group of Fair Hill men, mostly aged 70 and upwards, had no previous background in art.
“I bring in a lot of books from art dealers and auctioneers. We try to focus on Irish art. The men copy paintings from the books or they bring in photos of their own that they want to paint. I direct them showing them different techniques.”
Can art be taught in this way?
“Of course it can,” replies Paul. “It’s probably the best way to learn, observing how others do it. I explain how the paintings have been made. That’s how I learned art in school, by just copying other artists.”
Before coming up with the idea of turning Men of the South into Men of Fair Hill, Paul had been involved in a communal painting when he was working at the former Sample Studios. There were 50 people involved.
“We did a reproduction the Cork painting, A View from Audley Place by John Butts. So I brought that idea to the men’s group.”
Paul says that some of the Fair Hill men “would never have stepped inside a gallery before. I think people can feel quite intimidated by art galleries. They can be daunting.”
He adds that the Fair Hill Men’s group “takes them out of the hum- drum. The men are full of banter. It’s a bit like a men’s shed.”
Cork City Partnership, says Paul, “keeps its eye out for people who are isolated or going through a hard time. These people just need something to do. In Fair Hill, there are not much amenities around, especially for older people.”
One of the Fair Hill Men’s group is Tony Bevan, 71. from the Commons Road. He worked as a painter and decorator for more than 40 years and subsequently worked as a security guard at the CIT School of Music, the Cork College of Commerce and also spent seven weeks in security at the Crawford Art Gallery.
Was he in awe of the paintings and sculptures during his stint at the gallery?
“It was way over my head,” says Tony. “I didn’t understand them.”
He was encouraged to join the Fair Hill Men’s group by Mary Sheehy, community development worker with Cork City Partnership.
“I always wanted to do art,” he says. “I now love looking at art. It’s unbelievable to make copies of the paintings in the Crawford. My favourite is Men of the South.”
Clearly, Tony and his cohorts have found a whole new world through the prism of art.