When I was initially invited by my two friends Paul and Gentian to start this project, it was as a photographer, archaeologist and project manager. At first I didn’t know how it would all work out but it sounded like a fun challenge. One of my first tasks was coming up with a name. Our shared goal was to learn more about Paul Henry and his chosen locations. The resulting body of work comprising paintings and drawings by Gentian and Paul and my photographs would not necessarily be in imitation of the style of the artist therefore requiring the art world label ‘After Paul Henry’, but there would be a connection in terms of subject matter, motivation and location. So I felt that as a project title ‘After Paul Henry’ suitably reflected our geographical retracing of the artist’s footsteps and the reflective nature of our research.
Although I am not a painter like my two APH colleagues and our esteemed subject I have a huge appreciation of the medium and its possibilities, as a means of expression but also as a recording tool. Paul Henry had a style of painting that was very aesthetically pleasing but in my opinion his most successful paintings are those in which his enthusiasm for the subject is tangible. It is as if he delights in his compositions, the colour palette, the application of the paint and his role as a tour guide of sorts.
I naturally took up an administrative and documentary role on our trips photographing with a very broad brush and keeping our fans up to date on Facebook. Now that we have an exhibition looming I feel a certain amount of pressure to look at my own contribution to the project in terms of creative output, or maybe not. Having completed an MA in Art & Process at the CIT Crawford College of Art & Design I find myself working on a number of projects that sit very comfortably in an interdisciplinary space between contemporary art and heritage, a specialism that Paul has dubbed ‘arteology’. With all this in mind my part in our first After Paul Henry group exhibition may not be exclusively photographic, there may also be elements that are derivative of the research and documentation processes.
It is difficult for us not to behave like tourists whilst on Achill because that is what we are. Paul Henry earned the right to be more than a blow-in and in doing so he could focus on his surroundings with greater concentration. In amongst our somewhat frantic and urgent explorations and interactions I did find a few items of particular interest, which I will expand on further in future posts. I was particularly taken with the flat roofs of Dookinella that were built using shuttered concrete, probably in the 1950s or 1960s. The result is a village with numerous examples of hacienda or villa style houses and bunker-like outbuildings, some with sloping roofs and ventilation holes near the eaves. Since the beginning of the project I have had an interest is the work of Grace Henry, more specifically her paintings by moonlight. I made some relatively unsuccessful experiments with digital photography one night in Keel. My next attempt will be with medium format film and this time I’ll try harder to resist the lure of the pub. I am also excited at the prospect of new adventures in Connemara where I expect I will be in search of leaning, weather-beaten trees.
Having lived abroad for many years and worked primarily on urban landscapes, this project allowed me to bring my painting practice into a rural Irish setting. I have been a fan of Paul Henry’s work since I first saw his paintings in school. I love his use of colour, which is very much influenced by post impressionist painting, and the romantic view of Irish life that is synonymous with his work. Our initial visit to Achill was a broad survey of the island with some targeted efforts to find and photograph some of the exact scenes he painted. My particular focus was on modern life on the Island and how it sits along side the remaining relics of Paul Henry’s time. After reading Paul Henry’s Biography I was intrigued by how he felt he had to capture a time in Ireland that was fast disappearing. This is one reason why his artistic legacy is so important.
So what does remain the same? Well, the natural landscape for one although there are some introduced plant species such as mombrisha and fuchsia. There are some remnants of traditional practices such as turf cutting and fishing but overall there has been a move towards modern living as would be expected. Over time the inhabitants of Achill became increasingly dependent on off-island resources and this continues to be the case today. There are a dwindling number of old stone houses although there are others that survive as sheds adjacent to more contemporary buildings. The island still retains its charm due to its scenery and the ever-shifting light.
The results of my first couple of visits were mostly paintings in which I began to capture the contemporary landscape but then an unlikely new subject matter presented itself last June whilst walking on the beach in Dookinella. The winter storms in 2014 had caused great destruction to the coast, eroding the beaches and washing up huge amounts of marine debris onto our shores, a reminder from nature of the human impact on the environment. And so my new work for our exhibition in July is based on weathered and worn plastic objects that I collected from the beach. The aesthetic of the objects is far removed from nature yet reformed by it. The plastic, sometimes in colour shades reminiscent of a Paul Henry painting, seems to have a beauty all of its own. I believe a landscape painter is challenged by nature in many different ways, a constantly changing atmosphere being the most illusive element for the artist to capture. My work focuses on a by-product of that ‘change’. I am not finished with the landscape itself by any means but for this exhibition I want to focus on this particular subject.
When I first visited the National Gallery of Ireland in 2000 I was immediately captivated by the work of Paul Henry. For me art is very connected with history, and in the case of this artist, there was a personal and professional history that was of great interest to me. When Brian, Paul and I first started talking about Paul Henry, we felt that more could be learned about him outside of the gallery and books, in the landscape that he painted. So we set out to follow in his footsteps making out first trip to Achill in 2013 and returning again in 2014, and as it was my first time there it was a great personal discovery. It is a beautiful natural landscape so I could see why Henry found it hard to leave. I was also very interested to see how much of the architecture was left. Buildings from his time are quite rare now, especially the cottages that feature in so many of his paintings. On the way back from our last trip I also had my first glimpses of Connemara via Killary Harbour and I look forward to returning very soon.
For me this project provides a different kind of opportunity to learn from a Master like Paul Henry, by visiting new places and having direct experience of the landscape and conditions that he was responding too. It provides a new perspective when looking at his work. It is a very interesting project and I am happy that I can share the experience with two friends. Our first exhibition together in July will be another learning experience but it will not be the end of our journey. We have so much more to learn about Paul Henry and his experience of the Irish landscape and country life.
Gentian, April 2015
A collaborative project by archaeologist and photographer Brian Mac Domhnaill and painters Gentian Lulanaj and Paul Mc Kenna.