Musicians of Belfast Exhibition Continues

Fusing her love of music and art, Susan Hughes's current exhibition of portraits at the Ulster Hall features some familiar faces

Artist, musician, writer, blogger, teacher, collector, swimmer, forager. This unlikely collage of roles make up the multi-faceted life and work of Belfast painter, Susan Hughes, whose latest exhibition, Musicians of Belfast, runs in the Ulster Hall until February 24.

It is an engaging collection of delicate, lifelike ink portraits on water-colour paper. It is certainly one of the most impressive products of the 28-year-old Hughes's creative career thus far. Her subjects span the traditional and classical genres, and include a number of familiar Ulster Orchestra players as well as the legendary Donegal fiddler, Johnny Doherty.

There is also uilleann piper John McSherry and fiddler Donal O'Connor, who perform together in the band At First Light; flute player Maria Rafferty and concertina player Jason O'Rourke. In some instances, the portraits have been hung side by side in the Group Theatre space, making a telling contrast between the two musical styles.

John McSherry


On the morning before the exhibition's official launch, the Ulster Orchestra is in rehearsal for a lunchtime recital. As the musicians arrive, they stop and chat – some, like viola player Richard Guthrie, expressing pleasure at seeing their portraits on public display.

'I have really enjoyed working on this exhibition,' Hughes beams. 'Many of the subjects are friends, so that has given me particular pleasure. Some I didn't know before. I put an ad on the orchestra's notice board inviting people to come forward. Everyone has been very generous with their time, in terms of sitting and digging out photographs of themselves in performance.'

During her years at Aquinas Grammar School, Hughes was a member of the Belfast School of Music, where she spent some of her happiest times. But a career as a professional musician was not for her.

Instead, Hughes opted to study fine and applied art at the University of Ulster. She attributes her wide ranging love of the arts to her mother Mary, who immersed her and her younger siblings in the cultural world from an early age. 'At the time I hated going to all those galleries and poetry readings, but I thank her for it now,' she smiles.

Today, Hughes considers herself a visual artist first and foremost. Music, on the other hand, is 'a hobby', as well as an inspiration for her art.

'I played the violin at the School of Music and I was in a few orchestras,' Hughes adds. 'The Ulster Youth Orchestra, the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra and, briefly, the Queen's Orchestra. You learn invaluable lessons from being part of an orchestra, things like discipline and attention to detail and how to be still and quiet while other musicians are playing. These are skills you carry with you for the rest of your life.'

An eventual switch to traditional music was something that Hughes did under her own steam, taking classes in traditional fiddle at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, where she was taught by influential figures like Ruairi O'Kane, Martin Dowling and Sile Boylan.

'I have uncles who are musicians, but I was never really exposed to Irish music,' she says. 'I just got interested in it myself. When you play classical music at school, there is nowhere to go with it after the age of 18, unless you study it seriously.

'Irish music demands a very different set of skills. Many classical musicians find it hard to change over. You have to learn to listen, to play by ear. But it is a good way to go socially, you get to meet so many people. It's a generous world.

'I started going to sessions in pubs. The Duke of York was a favourite spot. I would sit and watch and listen and learn. Then I started to play at sessions. I was crap at first, but they tolerated me and bit by bit I got better.'

Jason O'Rourke


All the while, Hughes was continuing her art studies, and slowly the influence of music began to enter her paintings. Encouraged by her tutors to amalgamate the two, she initially found it difficult to make a conscious connection. But she was to find a way in through an unusual route.

'I was at the Glencolmcille Fiddle Week in Donegal, where I learned about the stories, the history, the folklore of the tunes that were being played,' Hughes recalls. 'Amazing tunes. I found that they began to have an influence on my art.

'Around the same time, I started collecting objects from the natural world. Pebbles, feathers, a bird's skull. They all had their place in those stories and, subconsciously but organically, they found their way into my art work. I suppose you could say that I started painting the tunes.'

Hughes took her foraging a step further when she started swimming in the sea – seeking out unusual finds at the same time, bringing up souvenirs from the deep and assembling collections based on memory and nostalgia.

'It was as though I was going into the water and becoming part of the natural landscape,' she explains. 'Now, wherever I am, I try to swim and take photographs, then write about it and experiment with what I find.

'There are some great places to swim in Ireland, like Tramore in County Waterford and the Forty Foot in Dublin. There is quite a community of swimmers, really nice people. They're intrigued by what I do, especially when I show them photographs I've taken of them under the water.'

Hughes is the the eldest of four musical children. Brothers Tom and Jack are, respectively, a cellist and a guitarist, while her sister Sally plays the piano. 'Our musical styles are so different, we rarely play together though,' she laughs.

And foraging also runs in the family. Her parents have set up Forage Ireland, an organisation which aims to encourage people to grow food, forage for produce and live better lives in tune with nature and the earth.

For the past four years, Hughes has taught art in a secondary school in County Fermanagh. During that time, she has organised a number of solo exhibitions, including one beside WB Yeats's grave in Sligo. She is currently at the mid-point of a year away from teaching and recently returned from a residency in the Norwegian town of Hardanger, famous for its folk music and as the home of the prized Hardanger fiddle.

Her blog vividly narrates the inspiration she found in its raw, rain-washed climate. She plans to return in May, to swim in a fjord and to work on a series of paintings reflecting both the dark depths of winter and the luminous light of the Scandinavian spring.

Meanwhile, Hughes is relishing being back in the Ulster Hall, where, over the years, she played many concerts. 'One of the most satisfying things about the portraits is that they are accurate depictions,' she says. 'Often when you see paintings of musicians, the hands are the wrong way or the instrument is not quite right. As a musician myself, I would be very sensitive to that.'

Musicians of Belfast is at the Ulster Hall until Saturday, February 24.