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Cork Lives
Artist Maria Dowling with the painting she did for Michael D Higgins.
Artist Maria Dowling with the painting she did for Michael D Higgins.
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A painting fit for our President

FERMOY-BASED artist, Maria Dowling, recently completed a prestigious commission.

BT Ireland, which runs the BT Young Scientist Exhibition at the RDS, was looking for an artist to paint Áras an Uachtaráin. The idea was to present such a painting to President Michael D Higgins at the opening of the exhibition last week.

Maria, who has been painting full-time for 15 years, was recommended by Claire O’Connell who runs the Gas Lamp Gallery in Gorey, Co Wexford. Maria’s painting, featuring President Higgins’s Bernese mountain dogs, Bród and Síoda in the foreground and the Áras in the background, was presented to him by the managing director of BT Ireland, Shay Walsh.

President Higgins was so delighted with the meticulously executed painting, showing his dogs in playful mode, that he held it aloft, smiling enthusiastically for the cameras.

Maria, a divorced mother-of- five grown up children ranging in age from 31 to 18, was only told about the commission at the end of November.

“I had a few weeks to do it and I had to keep it top secret,” Maria says.

However, she couldn’t help letting her children in on the surprise as they saw her working on it.

Michael D Higgins with the painting presented to him at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition. The painting is by Cork artist Maria Dowling and features his two dogs.
Michael D Higgins with the painting presented to him at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition. The painting is by Cork artist Maria Dowling and features his two dogs.

“The original brief was to do a painting of the Áras. But when I spoke to Claire about it, I suggested including the dogs in the painting. It personalises it and makes for a good gift for Michael D’s time in the Áras. I spent about two weeks thinking about it. I wanted to get it right in my head first and it worked out fine.”

Maria kept in mind the photographs of the dogs “jumping all over Prince Harry and Meghan when they went to the Áras”.

She added: “They kind of broke the formality of the occasion.”

Maria didn’t get to meet the President this time. She has met him in the past.

“Shay Walsh came back to me later on Twitter and said the President was very appreciative of the painting.”

Maria, who works from a studio in her home, gets about one commission a month.

“In between commissions, I try to choose what I want to paint. A lot of the commissions would be gifts for people for maybe significant birthdays or family occasions. I don’t get a whole pile of corporate work but it’s all welcome.

“When I’m doing a commission, I like to know what the person really wants. It’s difficult sometimes. You need to try and get into the head of the person who commissioned the painting because they have a strong idea of what they want.”

Artist Maria Dowling's painting for Michael D Higgins.
Artist Maria Dowling's painting for Michael D Higgins.

For Maria, painting is satisfying work.

“I love it. I paint every day.”

While it can be a little isolating, Maria says she gets out a lot and is a member of a number of painting groups. Sometimes, she paints en plein air.

A lot of the time, she paints from photographs and also, from her own sketches.

Her oils on canvas are of seaside scenes, based on her children when they were younger. She loves going to the beach and says Ardmore is a favourite spot.

The living artist that she most admires is Donald Teskey. She also likes the work of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.

While she says that she should have studied art at third level, Maria took a different route.

Her talent was recognised at the Loreto school in Fermoy but in terms of a career path, art wasn’t considered feasible. Instead, Maria studied science at Trinity College Dublin. She went on to work in a family business with her husband.

“I was always painting as a hobby. With my divorce and the kids getting bigger, I had more time. I really took to it.”

Maria’s work is representational, almost of photographic quality. Conceptual art “isn’t really my cup of tea. I wouldn’t be tempted to go down that road. I love doing seaside scenes and if there’s any young relatives around, I nab them as models.”

Her work has a timeless quality: “It depicts simple fun.”

She carries a sketch pad wherever she goes.

Maria says she can “just about” make a living from her art.

“If I didn’t have children, I might be able to survive on it. It’s that kind of a living.”

During the recession, when there wasn’t much spare money for luxury goods, she said “work was very quiet” for a few years. However, in the past two years it has been steady enough again.

At the moment, Maria is working on a commission depicting a wedding couple in a field of ripe golden grain close to the sea.

“Maybe it’s an anniversary present,” she says.

Maria comes from an artistic family. She has a brother, Arthur Riordan, who works as an actor based in Dublin. Her sister, Liz O’Riordan is a pianist, singer and teacher and her brother Niall is also a musician.

Would Maria recommend the artistic life?

“Yes, but it’s hard work.”