Clinton Kirkpatrick: Whence He Came
The Crumlin-born artist on the travels that shaped his craft and exhibiting alongside Kenyan woodcutting mentor John Silver Kimani
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your involvement in the arts to date?
Clinton Kirkpatrick: I've been involved in the arts since an early age, from playing piano to discovering my love for drawing and visuals at school and college. But the artist, and person I am today could most likely be traced back to a trip to New York City when I was 17 and studying at Limavady College.
Until then my holiday each year had been a day out to Portrush or Newcastle, and this week abroad opened my eyes to the world beyond our shores. The travel bug had bitten me and I later decided to defer my university studies in Huddersfield for two years in Australia where, in addition to partying, exploring my sexuality and developing relationships, I learned a lot about life.
I came back with a renewed drive to work and was awarded scholarships to travel to South Korea and Singapore, which further fuelled a hunger to explore the world. When I returned from these I held my first exhibition in the (now closed) Safehouse Gallery, but my work was still poor at this point and I found it frustrating not being able to fully articulate the visions I had inside me.
More exhibitions followed however until one at the Ulster Hall in November 2010 really kickstarted the development into the artist I am today. At this stage I was working with the Greater Shankill Partnership, an experience which gave me the grounds to still be invested in community arts. Unfortunately the role wasn't to last and after a calamitous year of personal misfortune I sought to get away again, this time to Kenya. Despite all of this, the last five years have been the most remarkable and fascinating in my artistic life.
Your new exhibition can be traced back to East Africa in 2012. Can you tell us about that?
The exhibition forms a part of a much larger story, dating back to my time in Kenya in 2011 when I volunteered to work on a new programme around HIV and AIDS awareness on the edge of Naivasha. I helped to write programmes to be delivered to a newly established peer education group in the local slum village and neighbouring schools, but soon found myself teaching drawing classes, an inspiring time I hold very close to my heart.
It felt like my world was being restored after the chaos that came before being submersed in this new culture and I was able to visualise work like never before. Towards the end of my time there the Waterfront Hall offered me the chance to exhibit in their gallery. I was self-employed after coming home, spending almost all of my time painting for the exhibition - but knew I had to go back once it was over. This time though I wanted to experience the place outside of that bubble of volunteer work.
White's Castle by Clinton Kirkpatrick
So I fundraised and saved, eventually spending another few months there at the end of 2012. It was a time like no other. I invested so much of myself as an artist into breathing and living it every day, and although it was challenging and full of contradiction, it was to be the most rewarding period. A large part of that trip was to introduce myself to other Kenya artists and organisations.
How did you come to know John Silver Kimani?
Our meeting was by complete chance. I went to an organisation called Kuona Trust – now a leading Kenyan visual art organisation – and I was put on their mailing list that day. The next day I received word of a woodcut printing course being taught by John Silver Kimani over four days. It cost a thousand Kenyan shillings, which is about £7. I learnt the art of woodcut for £7!
I liked Silver. He was funny, interesting and most of all I adored his artwork. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I took to the woodcut like a duck to water and fell in love with it. I couldn’t wait to explore it further when I got home.
I worked towards an exhibition at the Island Arts Centre in 2013 and created a whole new series of small woodcuts which really helped me to familiarise myself with the process. During that time I applied to the National Museums of Kenya for an exhibition, which was approved mid 2013. I knew that in less than a year’s time that I would be back off to Kenya again and that I would get to see and work with Silver further.
Whence He Came is comprised entirely of woodcut prints. What drew you to the art form?
I had been interested in learning methods of printmaking for a while, however screen-printing or digital printing was not for me. I was drawn to Silver’s craftsmanship and mastery of the woodcut, and also because colour is such a hugely important aspect to my own practice. The vibrancy and intensity of colour that I can get from the printing inks is exciting and stimulating for me. It is one of the main reasons why I still love it today.
Was it a difficult practise to grasp under Silver's mentorship?
It wasn’t difficult in the sense that I had to fight to get it to work for me. I naturally took to it and was able to clearly see the process and to problem-solve it. I think that creating art is problem-solving so that is often how I approach the practicalities of it.
Being able to understand it quickly was partly to do with how Silver teaches – which is like how I teach - he tells you how to do it and gives a demonstration then literally lets you just do it for yourself and mess it up. We can often learn better from our mistakes. I made only one mistake on my first woodcut plate and by the second I knew that this was an art form I would invest time in and take forward with me.
The Mind of Rich by John Silver Kimani
I didn't need much instruction and I even surprised myself with the image that I created. The piece of work, called 'All Wrapped Up', is still one of my favourite woodcuts to date. Silver was a great teacher and I am privileged to have been under his watch.
What influence has his work had on yours?
Our work is visually very different, although there is a common thread where we both love storytelling and creating surreal visuals based on imagination and mythology. I love his work and his passion for it, and it is this admiration that is inspiring to me. I wish to be as accomplished as he is one day in this art from.
Has the medium allowed you to express ideas differently to how you would have in canvas paintings?
I still express the same ideas as they are inherently in me. I would say however that the method of reduction woodcut printmaking and the process involved is incredibly different to painting, although it is also teaching me how to develop my painting. It is all interlinked.
I see woodcut as a type of drawing. It is immersive and it helps me to focus, though if you lose sight of that concentration there's no going back. There's no room for error, so I still have a lot of learning to do.
You describe your work as often being 'in conversation with society'. What sort of themes do you hope to communicate with this collection?
These works are lifted directly from my sketchbook I created in Kenya in 2014 and are a commentary on what I was experiencing at that time. Some of it is personal and some of it isn’t. I talk about our surrounding world; I am interested in how we all interact and live as humans. I am interested in the conversations around existence, mythology and evolution. In these new works there is a conversation about black and white people.
There is a piece called 'Mentor' which is an intimate piece of work about Silver and myself. But there is also a piece called 'White’s Castle' and it touches on the subject of white colonialism and how I still see it as a very present part of Kenyan society today – to my disgust. But there's an underlying humour in my work too, and even something relating to a rhyme I say to a specific friend at the beginning of every month.
Do you feel there's a harmony between the chosen works from each of you or are they intended to be distinct from one another?
There is complete harmony in all its glorious difference. The power of colour and character unite the work in the exhibition although the work remains distinctly individual and signature to each artist.
Baking a Smile by Clinton Kirkpatrick
Will there be any further collaborations between you both down the line?
Yes. Organising the exhibition has been a breath of fresh air and it has helped us both to make the best woodcut prints we've ever made. I think this collaboration is only the beginning of us working together. There is a whisper in the air about a joint exhibition in Kenya in the future, but I am not one for getting ahead of myself.
I want that to happen but I am aware of the enormous effort that it takes and everything will need to be securely in place before it does. Perhaps we should just wait and see what happens with this show first.
Your work is often characterised by quite striking, brazen figures. What is the thinking behind these?
The figures and characters in my work can be stripped-down versions of the human form. They are simplified and manipulated and often take on a form that best suits the scene or scenario of the piece of work; I also imagine the characters and how they can best fit their purpose. They are also interesting and fun for me to create!
What kind of reactions has your work provoked in the past?
My work evokes mixed reactions. I struggle here with how my work fits in because it quite literally doesn’t in the majority of the arts scene. It's very refreshing that the Seacourt Print Workshop are so interested in and one hundred percent behind the work. They are doing great things with their international gallery space.
With my work I have a circle of people who are interested in it and that have been extremely supportive. There are the people who laugh at it in a humorous way; there are the people who look at it in disgust and think that it is rubbish. Alas, welcome to the art world – it’s subjective. That is fine, but I will challenge anyone to actually find out about it first in order to make an informed decision. Perhaps a perception of how you view my work is changed when you are informed of why it exists.
The Lake of Joy and The Joy of the Rich by John Silver Kimani
Is visual art a viable career in the current climate? What would you say to emerging talents hoping to pursue it full time?
It can be hard and there are no certainties. Art, for me, is a way of life and not a 'career' as such; it is inherently in me and I know that no matter how rocky the road can be that it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
It's taken many years for me to begin to understand my own practice and why I am doing it, but that's how i think it should be. Quick fixes are rubbish. Gimmicky art is rubbish. Repetitive, mass-produced art is boring.
To anyone wanting to pursue art I would say to do it first and foremost because they love it and because they want to do it. Spend a few years seeing if it really is for them – some people can’t handle it or crumble with pressure or get bored with not earning money. Money isn’t everything.
Spend time in the studio and really learn your processes and techniques; make a lot of terrible work because that is how you will see to make better work. My collection [of bad work] is unreal – but it's the work that's brought me here and there are always ideas to come back to and explore later. Having said all that, I think if you're a serious artist you won't need the encouragement.
Where do you hope your work takes you in future?
2016 is looking busy as I am hoping to go away for a few weeks to complete a personal art project after this exhibition, and then I have another in Belfast in September. So I will soon be straight in to making work for that.
I hope that my work takes me out of Northern Ireland – although I want to remain a firm fixture here too regardless of my work fitting in or not. Northern Ireland is my home place afterall. Wherever my work takes me, it takes me!
Whence He Came by Clinton Kirkpatrick and John Silver Kimani runs at the Seacourt Print Workshop, Bangor, until March 26. There will be a free artist talk featuring both from 7pm on Thursday, February 18. For more information visit www.clintonkirkpatrick.com.