Eamon Colman's Panorama Exhibition
Exhibiting as part of the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend in Omagh, the artist recalls his journey
'Journeys' is the theme for the 12th Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend, which will take place at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh from September 13 – 15.
In keeping with the theme, among the speakers will be travel writer Dervla Murphy and author and historian Patricia Craig, who will give a talk entitled 'Views of Ireland: Benedict Kiely, Frank McGuinness and Sean O'Faolain.
Also appearing will be Anglo-Irish actress Carol Drinkwater, who perhaps most famously played Helen Herriot in the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, but who now lives in the south of France where she and her husband produce top grade olive oil from their own olive trees. Drinkwater’s best-selling books on the subject include The Olive Farm and The Olive Harvest.
As in previous years, a major art exhibition will open during the weekend. This time, Panorama will showcase the work of Irish artist Eamon Colman, an elected member of the Irish Aosdana, who has pursued his artistic journey with noted success, staging more than 30 solo exhibitions in Ireland and around the world.
When I meet with Colman in the café of the Strule Arts Centre, he and arts officer Jean Brennan are busy perusing his back catalogues, making the final selection of pieces for the show, which they define as a review of Colman’s work rather than a full-blown retrospective.
Colman, who instantly reveals his pride in the project, tells me, 'I feel gratified that at this point in my career – I am 56 and have been painting for 30 years – I have been given the opportunity to choose a selection of my best work, what I consider to be the humdingers. The real task has been finding them and borrowing them back from public and private collections, but I can’t wait to see them all together in one room.'
Colman further defines Panorama as a visual diary of his own travels. 'My paintings are landscapes that are neither realistic nor abstract,' he explains. 'But, as the titles indicate, they do contain a narrative.'
As we talk, I learn more about Colman’s own journeys, his perambulations and preoccupations. He is a serious walker who has undertaken extensive treks in far flung places – over the mountains of Kashmir, along the Ganges river and around the coast at Capetown. 'When walking I have the space to really look around me,' he comments. 'To appreciate the detail and contours of the landscape.'
It is clear that Colman cares deeply about the natural world and its conservation. For example, he recalls with utter dismay, how he watched butterflies turn back in their tracks when they encountered an invisible line of radiation around Chernobyl.
Like him, the painters that Colman admired when he set out to find his own voice, his own style, all had a strong sense of place. They include his godfather, Gerard Dillon – who, with George Hanlon and Nano Reid, frequented his parent’s house in Malahide Road in Dublin – and the English artists John Piper and Ivon Hitchins.
As a colourist, Colman paints mostly in oils using the techniques of the Old Masters, which he perfected when he worked in the London studio of Howard Hodgkin. 'I use natural pigments, which I mix myself with linseed or poppy seed oil then paint on canvas, hand made paper or linen, building up thin layers of opposite colours such as green under red to create extra vibrancy.'
Leafing through the catalogues of Colman’s previous exhibitions, I am struck by the vividness and purity of colour in pieces like 'Where the Screech Owl Sings', which was chosen in 1986 for a British Council touring exhibition entitled Celtic Vision.
I also become aware that many of these gentle, compassionate works bear allusions to actual events and people like the native American Indians or the Masai in Africa, whose stories intrigue Colman. When I admire 'Moonflower' (image below), one of the pieces from a collection entitled Postcards from Europe, Colman reveals the extraordinary true story that inspired the painting.
From 1995 – 2004, when, as President of the European Council of Artists, he travelled around many European countries lobbying for better living and working conditions for the artist community, Colman met the chairperson of the Latvian Artists Association, a lady named Ruth.
On her wedding day in 1956, she was celebrating in a bar with her new husband when a Russian soldier put his hand up her skirt. Her husband hit him and the pair were arrested and sent to separate prison camps in Siberia.
Touchingly, Ruth’s husband never gave up hope of seeing her again, and kept her close by whispering her love name, Moonflower. 30 years later, when the pair were released, they spent just six months together before he died.
'Ling Line Morning' (image above) is dedicated to the handsome former architect that Colman befriended in Romania. He fished ling with his feet for his hands had been cut off when he refused to design a new palace for President Ceausescu. As a mark of friendship the architect gave Colman the actual cloth that was used to bind his wounds and asked him to incorporate it in this painting.
During a walking trip in Vermont in 2001, Colman was picking fruit from a fig tree in the garden of fellow artist Eithne Jordan when they heard about the attack on the twin towers in New York. 'Song of a Fig Tree (for Eithne)' (main image) is a flame-tinged impression of that day.
In the countryside near Kilkenny, where Colman now lives, is a small hamlet of derelict houses deserted by the family of a Protestant man who, shortly after the Partition of Ireland in 1920, was shot by the IRB for being an informer.
Year’s later the man’s accuser admitted on his deathbed that he had lied. Contemplating the plight of those people and their ultimate flight, Colman created a series of paintings entitled Between a Bog and a Hard Place.
Whichever pictures finally go on display in this must see, landmark exhibition, each one has a colourful tale to tell. Lucky are those who, like me, have had some of them told so vividly by the artist himself.
Panorama runs in Strule Arts Centre, Omagh from September 16 to November 2.