Just What is it That Makes Irish Homes So Welcoming?

Artist Tom Bevan collects the detritus of everyday living, and makes it art

The bespectacled gentleman sitting on a bench, quietly updating the floor plan for the artworks at the Higher Bridges Gallery in Enniskillen's Clinton centre, turns out to be the artist himself, Tom Bevan.

On a table laid out with photograph albums, boxes of sundry postcards and press cuttings, I pick up a photograph I recognise, a black and white studio portrait by the Malian photographer, Malick Sidibe.

'Yes, please do touch everything,' urges Bevan. I seize the moment and invite him to give me a guided tour. What a stroke of luck to have the artist at hand to tell me the true stories behind these paper collages, found objects of interest and recycled cloth sculptures.

Born in Belfast in 1946, Bevan now lives with his Japanese partner, a sculptor, in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg district of New York, where early Polish immigrants settled and which is now a hip area for artists.

Every Wednesday, residents throw unwanted items into the street to be picked up by passers by. That is how Bevan found the bundle of Ikat fabrics, fresh from Indonesia, he has wrought into wriggly toy-like sculptures stitched and stuffed with kapok.

They are scattered on the floor to form the centrepiece of the exhibition. Unwanted magazines provide press cuttings and arresting images for Bevan's paper collages, while discarded paintings by other artists form the basis of some of his compositions. 

Two hard-backed books, similarly recycled, bulge with paper cuttings. Their pages are new canvases for a myriad of tiny multi-coloured strips of paper glued in place during many hours. Occasionally the strips have been deliberately stuck together to create pop up shapes as the pages are turned.

Two diaries dated 1997 and 2000, meticulously annotated in Japanese characters and carefully adorned with miniature stickers and badges, remain as they were found but are entirely in keeping with Bevan’s own artworks.

On a different stand are two hand-written diary pages from the year 2008, which neatly list Ms Chie Ozaki`s daily diet (breakfast and dinner, no lunch). These have been placed on plain black paper. On top, in contrast to the measured diet plan, a single portion of rich chocolate cake stains the pages.

Among the retrieved objects are carefully chosen pieces of glass, porcelain or metal - like the large, lone gold-plated earring or the two bowls which Bevan fashioned miraculously from broken pieces of pottery. 'People and their detritus interest me,' says Bevan.

So do iconic figures like James Dean, Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ whose images appear in some of the collages. But there are also anonymous all-American guys and gals, their faces mingling with native American Indian totem poles, flags and wild west wagons as well as a bevy of bathing beauties, happy families and the odd crashed car, included only because Bevan knows that the owners survived.

'I like distressed photographs,' says Bevan, explaining a group photo of guests at a Polish wedding, their faces scored out. 'I’ve collected many and, inspired by them, I have tried to produce my own by scratching and scouring the surface. I realise how powerful in design and in creepiness the result can be.'

There is something vaguely unsettling about this show. Perhaps it is the personal nature of the artist’s preoccupations or the fact that we cannot directly share Bevan’s obvious pleasure in the creation of his artworks. A compulsive collector, who amassed a large collection of fossils when he was a teenager, Bevan confesses that art is his vocation and his drug of choice.

'Assembling sculptures constructed from all manner of urban detritus allows me to "play", as in creative imagining,' he opines. 'It releases pleasure chemicals into the brain and is therefore a vocation which cannot be easily abandoned in favour of a sensible job.'

In wishing to encourage visitors to handle the exhibits, Bevan emphasizes the power of touch, which reassures and connects individuals and helps us appreciate the physical world in which we live. Does Bevan succeed in touching others with his art?

Clearly he does, for he has sold many artworks to collections and private individuals and has been awarded bursaries by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and by various foundations in the UK and USA. He has taken up artist residencies as far away as China and Vietnam.

Yet each time I visit the Clinton Centre exhibition I find myself alone. Among the guest book entries someone has written, 'As sublime as…' and another 'unusual, challenging, unique but did not rock my boat'. It is unfortunate that not everyone has the opportunity to see and talk about the exhibition in the company of the artist himself. Or maybe it's the title of the exhibition that puts people off.

Just What is it That Makes Irish Homes So Welcoming, So Appealing? runs at the Higher Bridges Gallery until January 20.