New Art, New Nature at Ulster Museum

Dominic Echlin on the life and work of artist William McKeown and his featured work in the Ulster Museum's current exhibition

William McKeown was born in Stewartstown in 1962, and spent his childhood and school days in County Tyrone. His first degree was at Central Saint Martins, London, where in fact he studied textiles – always a great interest and passion for him.

As he worked through that degree, he became more interested in becoming an artist, and subsequently studied in Belfast and also in the Glasgow School of Art. When he became a full-time artist, he lived and worked in Dublin until about 2004, and shortly after I met him, he moved to Edinburgh, where he established a studio. He died in 2011.

Willy's work ranged from painting – working with oils on linen – to delicate drawings of flowers in pencil, and throughout his career he produced very, very delicate water colours, similar in some ways to the paintings, in that there is a gradual variation of colour. He is most familiar to people from his abstract monochromes, although his later works are anything but.

He was always interested in nature. He grew up on a farm, and was greatly influenced by the outdoors – by the sky and the quality of light in County Tyrone. He recounted wonderful tales of the time he spent particularly with his father just being outside, and he often described trying to express the feeling and the freedom of being in the open air, in the sunlight, through his pictures, and not in a straightforward landscape way.

 

Certainly some of his works could be interrupted as being images of the sky, but that wasn't always what he was trying to deal with. It was more about expression. He talked about some of his pictures almost being like taking a breath, and was very interested in the idea of the viewer's reaction.

He believed that the pictures were not about his ego – they were not about what he was trying to say – it was more about developing an empathy with the viewer, with the viewer being drawn in to the picture and receiving the air from the work.

In 2011, Andrew Martingdale and I were given all of Willy's remaining work; we have the responsibility of looking after it. Part of that is setting up a foundation principally so that Willy's work and ideas can be preserved and given out for people to enjoy and understand. We firmly believe that there are so many interesting things that his work can give us all.

We particularly wanted some of the work to come to the Ulster Museum, because Willy was from the North, and so much about his work references his childhood spent in County Tyrone. Also, the Ulster Museum was where he first encountered art in a true sense, as a boy and as a young man.

He encountered aspects of art and craft there. He was always interested in studio pottery, for instance, and his first experience of seeing studio pottery was there. And the linen work – after all, he was always interested in textiles.

Another of the links is that, for a time, he worked as a demonstrator weaver in one of the little cottages at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, weaving on one of the looms there. So there were various links to the Ulster Museum as an institution.

We are delighted that the museum has been able to purchase the big picture in this exhibition, 'Untitled', and we therefore felt that to complement that it was right and proper for the foundation to donate to the museum the watercolour set 'Waiting for the Corncrake'. That set is particularly important because, as a group work, it needs to be viewed as a whole and not as individual pictures

 

It was originally exhibited in Dublin on a single wall. The paintings are usually displayed unframed, mainly because when he produced the set, Willy was rather skint. But when he came to display them unframed, it changed the way that people looked at them. It got rid of that formality. The way they are displayed at the Ulster Museum is almost like an installation.

Willy used to talk about people walking past his art and not noticing it. There is one story wherein he had a chap in the studio building some tables for rolling out the linen to make the canvasses. He was playing with Willy's dog, Buster, throwing a tennis ball against the wall for Buster to jump up and catch – he threw the ball straight at one of the big pictures.

He didn't notice it; it was almost as if the art wasn't there, it was so subtle. Whereas other people would literally spend hours looking at the pictures. I've seen people burst into tears viewing them. There is something about the quality of the colours. It often looks like someone has just produced a wash – until you think about how Willy achieved the change in variation.

The pictures are difficult to access sometimes, but there is a definite reward in spending time appreciating them. There is no big message there – he isn't ramming a concept down your throat – it's just about expressing his love of the outdoors. I hope there will be other opportunities for people to see Willy's work, to see the very strong links in his work with where he was born and brought up.

New Art, New Nature runs in the Ulster Museum, Belfast until June 28. Visit the William McKeown Foundation website for more information.