How rural Kilkenny put artist Blaise Smith on the road to salvation

How rural Kilkenny put artist Blaise Smith on the road to salvation
Sean Keanesean.keane@kilkennypeople.ieSeanKeaneKPnews

Sometimes, you fear you will not do justice to the person you are interviewing. And it was only after I left the company of Blaise Smith that I realised the magnitude of the task ahead of me, in attempting to reflect his “artistic” journey and the importance of what he is doing and how, what he said to me, remained with me.

A Blaise Smith painting exudes atmosphere, draws you in; the brush stroke of the oil based paint on canvas or gesso is intoxicating.

He manages to capture the moment; or the personality of the subject; or the place - with breathtaking beauty and clarity.

In one way, he is recording a way of life - farm buildings and other pieces of rural infrastructure which are being lost and in another way he is on a voyage with the rolling sea of the imagination taking him different places while he is anchored by the town land of Scart, Dungarvan and by his family.

His portraits are, he feels, not art but craft work, first-hand observations of the things that may go unrecorded by cameras. “This is the reason that they suit the process of painting rather well. I also believe that a painting lasts a very long time and, leaving “art” aside, also functions to show what the world looked like to the painter.

A child prodigy, who dropped out of art school after five years of going and coming, won the £1,000 first prize in the Texaco Art Competition as a teenager and appeared in the Alan Parker film, The Commitments as the pool hall manager. He has his own jazz, hip, disco band which appear regularly on the music circuit - He is an incredible talent.

Any sense of pride Blaise may have had, was knocked out of him by the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), he claims, and it took him at least ten years to recover. They stole his confidence and it is only in the last number of years he has re-engaged, found his mojo, started to create some captivating paintings which are in serious demand. In the five years he attended NCAD he produced five paintings.

His mother, an art teacher named him Blaise because she thought the surname was so boring that he needed an exciting name.

She needn’t have bothered because the boy named after St Blaise, the patron saint of throats and Dubrovnik, is a riveting, magnetic person who was always destined to be a painter.

His ability to capture the essence of his subject is key to his work. He doesn’t work off photos and is passionate as he explains the importance of painting over other mediums like photography.

“For one thing, look at the longevity of a painting,” he said. Then he mentions the “Skip” factor. Builders who are demolishing or renovating a house put everything in the skip except paintings.

“The whole building and everything in it would be flattened and the workers would save the paintings and come and ask you is this worth anything - that’s the skip factor,” he said.

“Paintings tend to survive wars, they get through things and they have a very long life span. When I was young, I thought that If you want to reach a million people to change their lives or send a message to them you should go and make an episode of EastEnders. “Where as now I think a million people over 500 years, yes I think I can manage it with a painting.” He said lots of contemporary art is not designed to last and he’s fine with that. It’s a completely different thing. “I am trying to show what was before my eyes personally in this time.”

“If there is a portrait painted and a portrait photo. Take the photo blow it up and hang them side by side - 99% of people would take the painting. Every single mark is an interpretation of the person.

“People often say about photographs of themselves: That’s not me or not happy with that. That’s because a photograph is a slice of time - it is one thirtieth of a second. A portrait painting is,on average over a long time, it takes a couple of months and every incision means something.”

And he doesn’t consider himself and artist. “That’s for other people to say,” he said as he eats a tasty (toasted) scone from Murt and Mary Crotty’s cafe-restaurant on Kieran Street, Kilkenny.

He chews and then starts talking again: “Whether something is art or not, who knows, who cares. It is much easier for me to be a painter. I just keep it all really practical. Not interested in meaning and allegory at all I’m just trying to capture the every day things in the most eloquent way possible so that the image is good and people want to covet it,” he said with a disarming honesty.

Asked what’s the most important trait for a painter - To be able to draw and paint not talking about being an artist, don’t see myself as an artist, it’s a craft. Like making a Fabergé egg. I draw despite myself. I have this compulsion to get it right and include every detail. I can let go a bit to make it slightly impressionable but I am trying to represent what I see, obsessively doing all the details because I believe that it builds up into a conviction. In a way, I paint in too detailed a way, it’s not that I set out to do that but it’s what happens. I would rather they were a little bit more impressionistic and less detailed to be perfectly honest with you,” he said with a candour that took me by surprise.

He continued: “I can make these things – messages to the future, my personal observations. I don’t really trust photography to be the sole vessel for what our age looks like or will be remembered. When you look at The Ambassador painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, you see it’s a social record what they wearing, the hairstyles they had, how they wanted people to se them. We tend to overlook that.

“Another example is the Schoolmaster by Jan Steen. It is a social record of what was going on.” Then he gets into a train of thought: “Kids are more open to seeing what the picture is actually about. Rather than what it means which is a different question. Adults ask all the time what is the point of this - does it have to mean anything. I’m here to make a documentary, a document of what this looked like. “

And for all his acknowledged genius his incredible portraits, languid landscapes and haunting still lifes he didn’t paint for many years because of the way he was treated in art college where he was told from the outset that painting was more or less dead and that newer, more modern, less permanent art forms were the way to go.

However, art college did do one thing it armed with the reasons why he should paint and gave him an appreciation of other art forms that he might have got.

However, he never finished hid course at NCAD in Dublin and now paradoxically he is a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA)and vice principal of its drawing course.

So how did Blaise Smith end up in Scart? Well it all started with his mother-in-law, Terry Kelly who is the former CEO of the Crafts Council of Ireland. She bought a house nearby and he and his wife Orla (Kelly) wanted to leave Dublin and decided to look for a house in the Kilkenny countryside. The moment they saw the cottage in Scart they knew it was for them.

Interestingly it had previously been the home of hell raiser, fellow painter and wild man, Mick Mulcahy. He remembers coming to view the house in Scart and meeting the near-notorious, yet likeable Mulcahy. “Once I told him I was a computer designer, he never looked at me again,” he recalled.

The house is open, airy and spacious and what you would expect of a man and a family which respect for tradition, a lot of what is being lost in rural Ireland.

He grew up in trendy, Rathmines in Dublin and all his people are Jackeens, going back generations.

“When I moved to Kilkenny my family said we’ll give you five years,” he said.

“My grandfather was a milk man and had cattle in Kimmage, Eddie Murphy.” And you get the sense of pride he has in his own people. He humorously said that the CoI side of the family seemed to have owned a lot of property on Henry Street at one stage but lost it all.

He is very close to his parents and his father Alan, who was an architect with the OPW before he retired seems to have been a huge, positive influence artistically and musically. He was and is a huge figure in the jazz world and a well respected promoter. Once Blaise “caught him” telling someone that Blaise had “emigrated” to Kilkenny.

Asked if he always wanted to be an artist he said: “I was able to draw and paint from a very young age. My father, being an architect, there was always drawing equipment around the house, so I think having access to bits of paper helped.” When he was 15 years old he won the Texaco Art competition and received £1,000.

However, things didn’t go the way he thought. “Art college completely messed up my head. Within about two weeks you got the strong message that painting was dead. Why would you do doing painting or drawing or anything like that,” he disclosed.

He feels this still pertains and it is a serious criticism he has of the NCAD. “Drawing was my thing, I had a portfolio, I was best at school in my class at drawing and nothing else, my personality had been wrapped around.”

He said this was simply kicked out from underneath him at NCAD. “I was told instead to check out performance art. There are very few college courses where your ego is actually on the line. I was asked is this a valid thing that you are doing. This total assault on a fairly young person on their personality boot camp for the ego like the boot camp for US soldiers before Vietnam was rough,” he admitted. He remembers being in tears. “I was completely worn out,” he added.

As a young idealistic teenager before art college, immersed in looking at art books, and watching films, documentaries on artists and I was good at it and better you were the more you did do it became a self fulfilling cycle. He thought that with the right painting he could change the world. “I thought I could have an impact and painting was the tool to make that impression,” he thought. It was brought home to him that painting wasn’t valid any more and not particularly important.

It did however, give him a very good aesthetic foundation for all the arguments against painting.

When I decided I was going to paint I was armed against those arguments.”

He worked in Trinity College Dublin as a technician and always highly interested in IT, he started to dabble in multimedia, success followed and with an office in The Arthouse, on Curved Street,Temple Bar, his career took off.

After a number of years, and after four of five months working at home and meeting his obligations with work in Dublin, he came out of the cottage in Scart and said to himself one day as he walked around the yard: “It would be impolite not to paint this” and so began the loved affair with Scart

The weapons

One of his most remarkable periods is the weapons epoch, where over a two year period, he painted guns, mortar rounds and bullets,

He started out painting every day things like farm houses and when it was raining, he painted tins of custard and stuff from Shortis Wong’s on John Street.

One evening he was watching the news on RTE when a piece came on about an arms find up in the North and they were showing what weapons they had seized on the news.

“Each weapon was on a Formica table top and I just thought, they would make great still lifes,” he said.

“Weapons are every day things, we see them all the time. So I decided to paint them and went to James Stephens Barracks on a regular basis and built up a record of these weapons.

“That was the rationale behind painting the weapons, they are everywhere. If you watch TV after 9pm, you have CSI for four hours and guns, there is someone dead and someone shot every five minutes, its down as entertainment. He spoke about product placement of weapons, Take the Magnum hand gun in Dirty Harry.

In the first five minutes of the most popular film of that year, you are told all about the most powerful handgun in the world, it’s a free ad.

Weapons are and were always knocking around like cans of Coke,” he pointed out.

The mirror

A large, long mirror stands at the side of his studio, Asked why he said: “Painters always have one in their studio. You look at a painting in reverse and if something is off balance or funny it will show up in the mirror. If you’re painting a person and put the mirror on it you can see more easily where you went wrong. And occasionally draw myself, so it’s very handy.

Drawing

Irish people are in general terrible at drawing and worse, they think they are terrible at drawing,” he said. “And one day I said to my daughter I’m going to teach a bunch of adults to draw and she just said to me - How did they forget, she asked?

“When children get to 12 they stop and say I can’t draw. They get self conscious, Irish people are very bad at drawing. Surprised at Presentation School, Carlow, Polish kids who could draw better and indeed they could draw better than most adults that I teach.

We hear a lot about project maths and how important it is that the whole country do it for employment reasons to exploit that area.

Every single object you see around you started as a drawing, often on the back of a envelope. The iPhone is the classical example of something that started as a drawing.

“All design from packaging to everything else, comes from the ability to draw. Drawing is the ability to compose something. The iPhone is such a success because it is beautifully designed and the interface is beautifully designed. It’s not about functionality. If you walk through a shop looking for an item, you will pick off the one off the shelf that looks good. General level of Irish design is getting better and is behind other countries, fundamentally because people can’t draw.

The problem is at primary school where there is not much drawing done Not even a sheet of paper and a pencil,” he said.

He continued: “Drawing is a fundamental tool, humans drew before they could write, hieroglyphics and wall paintings are drawings.

“And why there is no attention given to this in the education system,” he asked. “You have mathematical subjects, science and language and then this other thing – drawing, it allows you to see what the world looks like around you. You are recording how it looks and that is not being covered in our primary school system and it’s a loss.

“Therefore if I’m involved in the RHA drawing school at the pinnacle of drawing in the country, I hope that it will have a trickle down effect and that eventually it will influence the education system. Drawing is a huge loss to the country. Something happens. It’s a language and you see when people design their own houses, more often than not they make a bollix of it because they don’t draw themselves,” he pointed out.

Commitments

Blaise auditioned for the lead in The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte which went to Robert Arkins and Jimmy got the part of the pool hall manager.

He got paid £300 for a week’s work and remembers at the time, Dublin was so depressed and that he was walking down the street and recognised a few faces from the dole queue he was on and he just stood in beside one man and next thing he’s in The Commitments. And Blaise Smith is all about commitment.