Artisit Eoghan O'Driscoll at his Kilkenny Arts Festival Exhibition 2019 in Langtons Tearooms. Photo by Vicky Comerford
Artist and renowned poet Eoghan O’Driscoll is a Kilkenny native. Eoghan and I go way back, we are friends since secondary school, with our paths intertwining a lot over the years.
I was deeply honoured recently when he asked me to open his solo exhibition in Dublin. I was all geared up to say a few words at the gallery opening about my great friend and then Covid 19 happened. The exhibition has been inevitably postponed, but Eoghan’s story is still a great one to tell…
Eoghan is honest and raw in what he puts on the canvas. When we met up a few weeks ago for this interview, something he said just stuck with me - “you can’t escape the utter honesty of what you leave on a canvas.” That sums up Eoghan, he is honest to the core and doesn’t hold back in telling his story of his troubled past.
Eoghan studied art at Kilkenny College where he sat the leaving cert. He then travelled to Wales where he studied Creative Arts at the University of Glamorgan. He travelled throughout Europe, living in France, Spain, Italy and in the UK.
He worked in the National Library of Ireland for three years. He also has a huge passion and gift for poetry, he even studied American poetry at UCD. He has written six collections of poems.
Eoghan’s journey has not been an easy one. He has battled with mental health problems his whole adult life which included periods in hospital. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and is doing well again in recent years.
These periods of illness are often the subject of his work, where he tries to reflect to others what it is like to be unwell. He lives now in his native Kilkenny in a unit in the Good Shepard and is grateful for the day he met them. His full time studio is also based in Kilkenny in TASK.
He has exhibited widely in Ireland including the Crawford Gallery in Cork and in Dublin. He has sold over 500 paintings, with some going as far as Auckland (New Zealand) and New York. His work has continued to develop and evolve, moving into abstract from figurative. He is best known for his ‘faces’ paintings which were featured on the Late Late Show. He has also been the subject of the documentary ‘Inside’ with Brent Pope.
Eoghan what are your paintings about?
They are very much about story telling. The emphasis of the art in itself and my journey through health and mental ill health. I’m coming to a stage where I have a benevolence of the universe around me, that life is good, it’s for the living.
I certainly have hope and a positive approach to myself, to my art and to my life. For all of us to know that it is a good thing to overcome our suffering and to get to the other side. To be able to talk about that and inform people about my journey is important to me.
It’s an ongoing process, if I don’t paint for a couple of weeks, I go a bit nuts! It’s my therapy. To be the next Picasso is not motivation for me. To be an honest artist, painter, poet, is important. A truth is addressed and people resonate with that.
What is your style?
Basically its impressionist’s art. It probably fits into the school of post impressionists.
You have battled with your mental health over the years. Can you tell us when this all started to happen?
I was in college in Wales. As part of the course I ended up going on an Erasmus to Toulouse in France, where I discovered wine! I was only 19 at the time and I was in trouble by the age of 21.
I met with a psychologist and he said to me, ‘you are not going to be here in a year’s time if you continue on drinking’. I realised he was telling the truth, I was in trouble and it wasn’t fair on my family.
For my 21st birthday I went out for a pint and I said I’m not drinking for a while and I didn’t drink for eight years. So for eight years I was sober, I travelled, I studied and I lived quite reclusive. I was in Dublin working for the National Library of Ireland. I had my stuff together and kept going for counselling.
Then I finished with the library and I started back drinking. I just wasn’t able for it. Within six months I was drinking every day, I was homeless and I was street drinking.
Street drinking in Dublin is very dangerous. I remember staying in a hostel, which was four quid for the night. I remember looking around at all the heroin addicts and thinking to myself this is not what I want.
So I got out of Dublin and thankfully into the Good Shephard here in Kilkenny. I remember a butterfly coming into my room on the first night and thinking this is the universe telling me to stay put. It was the answer to a lot of my real world problems, there was no point in me coming out of hospital to nothing, that’s not the answer to my issues. To blame them all on mental health is not right either, I think they are very real everyday problems within society today.
I’m sure your parents and friends tried to help you along the way?
There’s only so much they can do, it’s really up to the person themselves. My Mam drove to Cork to pick me up me up off the side of the road, she did everything. I was in treatment centres and in medical hospitals like St. Pats and John of Gods in Dublin.
Once I was sitting beside another patient and we got talking. I asked him what he did before he retired. He told me he was a judge and then he took to the bottle. I realised I was in a centre for eccentric geniuses who drink too much, where I fitted right in with my thoughts on Dante!
Sometimes you just need to be left alone to get through it, but to have somebody to call is a blessing in life.
You have been home in Kilkenny for the past 15 years and painting full time for the past 5 years.
Yes I have been painting for the past five to six years, as well as writing six books of poetry. I reveal a lot about myself in the books. I talk about been suicidal, it’s just utter honesty.
You have said painting keeps you out of trouble. Does it give you a good pattern in your day?
If someone is sitting all day in a flat, watching television – that is not the answer to their mental health issues. Everyone here at the studio have been in hospital at different times, we are like a family and we are all very close. The support is overwhelming, we have a drop in centre in Colliers Lane, which all helps.
Work ethic is very important to you.
Yes it is, it’s my expression. Coming for an Irish culture we don’t talk about feelings as much as we should.
You ask the question constantly ‘who am I’?
Yes I do - who am I in a massive universe, I am nothing! The self-obsession is part of me, I am on my own so it’s hard not to be self-centred at times.
Someone once told you that Van Gogh painted what he saw and you paint what you feel.
My paintings come from an inner place, it comes from my gut. Van Gogh created something so beautiful from a difficult subjects. It’s just incredible and I learn from that. Take my painting my ‘Yellow Dora’, she is very sad but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a beautiful side to her.
Do you paint to survive?
Yes I think so, it’s not about money. It’s to survive mentally and spiritually and I couldn’t paint like this unless I had experienced what I did on the road I travelled.
To view some of Eoghan’s work visit www.eoghanodriscoll.com