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 Members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group with The Consultation painted by them, at the Crawford Art Gallery. Included are front from left, Michael O'Connell, Aidan Fitzpatrick, Tony Bevan and Danny Coakley. Back from left, Paul McKenna, art teacher, Con Dennehy, John Kelleher, Seamus Ambrose and Joe Browne. Picture: David Keane.
Members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group with The Consultation painted by them, at the Crawford Art Gallery. Included are front from left, Michael O'Connell, Aidan Fitzpatrick, Tony Bevan and Danny Coakley. Back from left, Paul McKenna, art teacher, Con Dennehy, John Kelleher, Seamus Ambrose and Joe Browne. Picture: David Keane.
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Painting by numbers: Age is no barrier to Fair Hill Men's Art Group

A group of retired men are making serious waves in the art world with their recreations of famous paintings. 

The eight men, all from Cork's northside have achieved a great degree of notoriety since they established the Fair Hill Men’s Art Group five years ago - and they’re on an upward trajectory of success.

Meeting the Fair Hill Men’s Art Group in the Crawford Art Gallery last month, it’s immediately apparent that they are a true testament to the phrase 'age is just a number'. 

Despite all being over the age of 70, the group are witty, sharp and the type of people you could while away hours with.

"We’re nearly resident artists in the Crawford at this stage," Joe Browne, who has been painting in the group for the last four years, joked.

The gallery has been a huge source of inspiration for the Fair Hill group since its formation. 

Perhaps the group’s most iconic work to date is their interpretation of Seán Keating’s Men of the South, which the Fair Hill men used as composition inspiration for their own Men of Fair Hill.

 The Men of Fair Hill painted by members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group, on display at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.
The Men of Fair Hill painted by members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group, on display at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.

"We painted that one there," Danny Coakley another group member told me, gesturing jovially to the original Keating painting.

In truth, their own adaption is no less impressive than the 1921 original. 

There’s both stoicism and personality conveyed in Men of Fair Hill, a self-portrait of the eight men shown mixing colours, clutching their walking sticks and donning peaked caps.

The first Crawford replica the group undertook was William Sheehan’s The Consultation

The art group use a clever methodology, devised by Paul, when working on their larger pieces.

"Before we began working on The Consultation I asked the Crawford for high resolution images of the painting which I then gridded up. 

"The men work on the paintings in a collaborative way, taking a section each," Paul told The Echo

"We used the same approach when we did our interpretation of Men of the South, but I just photoshopped the Fair Hill men’s faces into the original image. 

"It’s difficult to kind of approach the overall subject so usually when it’s broken down into a little square like that it’s not sort of recognisable as to what they’re painting, so it makes it a bit easier."

 Fair Hill Men's Art Group members Tony Bevan, Danny Coakley and Con Dennehy, at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.
Fair Hill Men's Art Group members Tony Bevan, Danny Coakley and Con Dennehy, at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.

The group are currently working on a copy of Mary Swanzy’s detailed Samoan Scene, another artist whose work has previously been exhibited in the Crawford.

"I’ve chosen the paintings we work on based on the fact that they are in the Crawford art collection so they are accessible and we can go and see the originals. 

"Mary Swanzy’s painting is usually in the gallery; The Consultation is here, as is Men of the South. 

"The Mary Swanzy painting is one that we started last year as she had a retrospective last year so there were a lot of her paintings in the Crawford for a special exhibition. 

"The aim was to get it done within the year, but these things take a lot of time," Paul said.

One of the main things the group enjoys about recreating the famous works is learning about the history behind the paintings and their artists.

"You learn a lot of history from the artwork. 

"Mary Swanzy’s cousin, for example, killed Tomás MacCurtain in Blackpool — Oswald Swanzy was his name," Joe Browne said. 

"When we started, we hadn’t a clue about any of that. 

"Paul asked 'what do we know about Swanzy?' and someone pipped up, 'it’s in Wales'"!

The history of the paintings is of particular interest to John Kelleher, a former army man. 

Whilst they all came from different careers, including painting and decorating, a caretaker, truck driver, a carpenter and a maintenance man, the group all gel together well.

"We’ve never had a falling out… yet," Michael O’Connell joked. 

Two of the eight have a special connection to the Crawford. 

Tony Bevan, 72 from the Commons Road, worked as a security guard in the gallery for a time and Seamus Ambrose did some plumbing work on the building years ago.

"It’s fantastic to be able to come back now, with paintings that I helped work on," Tony said.

The group are in agreement that maintaining an active social life and establishing a routine is important after retirement.

"It’s only two hours a week, but it’s great to meet up, chat and paint," Tony Bevan said.

"Even if you miss one Wednesday you’d lose track of the week, so it’s good to have the routine."

"We have great craic too," fellow member Con Dennehy added.

 John Kelleher, Joe Browne and Seamus Ambrose, all members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group, at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.
John Kelleher, Joe Browne and Seamus Ambrose, all members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group, at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.

Along with the larger copies, group members also work on their own individual paintings and there’s a bit of healthy competition in the group as one member has even earned a bit of cash from selling one of his paintings.

"Seamus is the one pro amongst us because he sold his bit of art," Joe Browne said. 

Explaining the funny story behind the sale of the painting based on work by a New Zealand artist, Paul said: "The painting was part of a small exhibition in the Scrypt Café in the Triskel, where it sold for €75, but it was actually hanging upside down at the time!"

Participating in the art group has also helped some members overcome personal difficulties. 

Seamus Ambrose said that he suffered from a stroke a few years ago, but an upcoming field trip to Dublin Castle was a goal to work towards as he was recovering.

Con Dennehy said the art group has had a wonderfully positive impact on his life too.

"It’s been one of the best things ever to have happened to me. 

"I used to do a lot of gardening, but it became a bit difficult, especially in the bad weather. 

"It’s great to have the painting as another hobby."

The Crawford has been championing their work since the beginning, and it’s become a symbiotic relationship as Paul explained. 

 The Consultation painted by members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group, on display at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.
The Consultation painted by members of the Fair Hill Men's Art Group, on display at the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: David Keane.

"The copies and interpretations done by the art group also make people want to see the originals as well because they’re curious as to where it all came from and how it all started. 

"It’s fantastic as it brings people into the gallery."

Indeed 2019 was a fantastic year for the Crawford, which welcomed over 250,000 visitors – a record year for them. 

Education Officer Emma Klemencic said she would like to encourage groups like Fair Hill Men’s Art Group to utilise the gallery.

As for Fair Hill Men’s Art Group, the best might yet be to come for the formidable eight. 

If they got the opportunity to paint a famous Cork person, who would it be? 

The general consensus reached was Roy Keane. Watch this space!