Josef’s love for Cork is laid bare in his art

Cork painter Josef Keys tells Shamim Malekmian his plans to release a book of his artwork dedicated to his adopted city
Josef’s love for Cork is laid bare in his art
Josef Keys art: Michael Collins and the first two Lord mayors of Cork by Josef Keys

EVERY artist wants their work to strike a chord with people: To move them, to make them think, to affect them in some way.

For Cork painter Josef Keys, it was one such moment of connection that inspired him to compile a book of his artwork.

It was Corkonians living abroad who provided that vital connection.

“I went on to a Facebook page called ‘Corkonians Far and Wide’, the members are people who are from Cork city but are living abroad,” explains Josef, who is also an art teacher.

On the page, the artist saw a photograph of Cork city very similar to one of his paintings, so he uploaded his artistic version.

“I put it up on their site and went on teaching a class for three hours. During that time my painting had gotten 700 likes and 120 comments,” says Josef.

Reading the comments, Josef realised that his art had brought the childhood memories of Cork’s expats to life.

“They were saying, ‘Oh I used to go down that road to school’ and such. I realised because it was a painting, not a photograph, it was stirring their feelings.

“I thought it would be pleasant if they could see not just one scene but loads of them,” adds Josef smiling.

'Family' by Josef Keys
'Family' by Josef Keys

He now hopes to publish his book of artwork by the end of the year.

Born in South London to Irish parents, Josef studied art under the celebrated German-British artist Frank Auerbach at the Slade School of Art in London.

It was while he was at college that he met Susan Jackson, a fellow painter who became the love of his life. Susan sadly passed away six years ago.

Josef relates how it was the late English Realist painter and art teacher Sir William Coldstream’s fear of being accused of sexism for organising a class of only male students that brought Susan — the only female member of the class — into his world.

“After the end of the semester I got a letter from her, a big long letter, I said to myself, ‘This girl must like me’,” recalls Josef laughing. The 76-year-old tearfully recounts how it was Susan who asked him out first.

Josef’s frustration with the London art scene of the time, and the hand of fate, brought him and Susan to Ireland in 1973. Moving to Cork gave them both the motivation they needed to start painting again.

“We began painting and having exhibitions after we moved here, soon our sons were born, and we started to do more art work,” recalls Josef. Cork city has been a constant inspiration for both Josef and his late wife.

The swans of the Lee are Josef’s favourite subjects. He points to a painting of a family of swans swimming on the Lee and talks about how they all developed botulism and died that year. His face lights up on revealing how swans are now back again in the river.

He says he always felt that he was “blessed” during all the years of living and working with his beloved wife and bringing up their children in Cork.

Josef says his ‘Sue’ never stopped painting, even when she was terminally ill with cancer. Her last painting is hung up on the living room’s wall. It is a picture of a narrow road that leads into the sea. Susan passed away shortly after finishing it.

Josef believes the painting represents what the couple’s faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses preaches about the afterlife and finds comfort in that.

Josef keys and his wife Susan on their wedding day March 26th 1966.j
Josef keys and his wife Susan on their wedding day March 26th 1966.j

Josef’s memories of his late wife live on in the couple’s paintings of the city.

Much like her husband, Susan also loved Cork, and as an artist found inspiration in her landscapes.

Josef never forgot the first words of his wife’s opening speech at a Cork exhibition. “She said, we had a love affair with Cork, and I thought it was a very nice thing to say,” says Josef.

‘My Love Affair with Cork’ is now the title of the painting book Josef is working on.

He believes that not being a part of “Cork’s art community” has deprived him the chance of having a solo exhibition. However, he says Corkonians familiar with his work have always cherished his art.

Sheelah Moloney, the director of Cork’s 2020 art gallery, confirms Corkonians’ love for art. “Most of my buyers aren’t directly connected to the art world,” says the art curator.

Sheelah believes that all talented artists deserve to enjoy a life of public appreciation, and should be guaranteed “an outlet” to showcase their work.

With his two sons all grown up and living their lives out of the country, teaching has now become an essential part of Josef’s life.

“After my wife had died her students came to me and became my students,” he says. He is teaching both adults and children and takes pride in their accomplishments.

“I love people. I always try to find something positive to say about my students’ work when they first come to me.”

Many of his students have gone on to graduate from Cork’s Crawford School of Art, and some have become art teachers.

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