My Cultural Life: Pat Cowley

The Derry-based painter on his introduction to oils, his love of landscape and why Van Gogh is one of the greatest ever

When did you fall in love with painting?
It must have been at the age of about 11 or 12. I have a memory of sitting on the rocks at Ballyliffin in Donegal sketching, and I remember also at that age trying to draw portraits which, of course, were usually unsuccessful. But I don’t think there was ever a time that I was not drawing, even if it was in the margins of schoolbooks. I remember at school being constantly told off and even given four of the best for ‘wasting’ good jotters.

I think I was about 13 when I went to a demonstration by Kenneth Webb in the old city hotel where I saw and smelt oil paints for the first time, and I thought that’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.

What landscape do you most like to paint and why?
As I have always lived in Derry/Donegal, I have access to all the landscape a painter could dream of - from the soft green landscape of County Derry/ Tyrone to the rugged wildness of Donegal and, of course, the coast which is only 10 minutes away.

So my work is about landscapes and nature and how man shapes and interacts with it. I like to get out to a location to observe the ever-changing light. But not just the big landscape of mountains and water, also the small world of rocks, sheughs, streams and fauna.

What painter do you most admire and why?
That’s one that I can’t answer because you look at a Rembrandt self portrait and its simply breathtaking, but then so is ‘Las Meninas’ by Velasquez. Then there’s Mark Rothko. And I give up when I think of Leonardo Da Vinci.

If you could have painted any picture in history, what would it be and why?
‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso springs to mind immediately. It’s a monumental painting about the horrors of war. Initially about the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi bombing of the small town, it very quickly became a potent symbol and reminder of the horrors and futility of war.

Coming as we do from Northern Ireland we know and have experienced our own Guernica’s, and it serves to remind us of hopefully what was, but thankfully is now over.

If you could have four cultural figures from any period in history around for dinner who would they be and why?
I think I would like to have Geoffrey Chaucer at the table - we know he could tell us a good story and there is so much we don’t know about him. I'm sure he would be excellent company. To even up the table, what about Angela Kauffman, one of the most successful and internationally recognised artists of the 18th century - unfortunately now somewhat forgotten and neglected. She was born in Switzerland and she moved to London in 1776, where she actually helped to found the Royal Academy, before finally settling down in Rome.

I would have George Bernard Shaw who I’m sure with his clever and witty banter would be very entertaining after a couple of bevies. Finally, Bob Dylan, whom I think is a true artist and an all round genius. Maybe we could get ‘his Bobness’ to throw off a couple of songs to round off the night.

Which Irish culture figure do you most admire?
Seamus Heaney is recognised as a poet of world stature, deservedly so for he is a great poet who appeals to all men. For all that he’s still the man from County Derry who hasn’t changed his accent and could pass for a farmer - he speaks the language we speak. He’s a ‘ledge’.

What has been your cultural highlight of 2008 thus far?
Visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam undoubtedly was the cultural highlight of my year. I know that Van Gogh is probably the most known name in art and everybody knows the ‘Sunflowers’, but to see the worlds best collection of his work at close quarters opened my eyes to how great and varied an artist he really was. His draughtsmanship and skill with paint was just amazing.

Which of your paintings are you most proud of?
Hopefully the next one.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever had?
Once, on starting new employment, my head of department greeted me with the following advice/ question: ‘There are hooers and doers- which one are you?' It didn’t take too long to figure out the correct answer and I’m still taking that advice every day.

If you could write your epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be?
‘Still looking at the Stars’. 

Pat Cowley lives and works in Derry city. His paintings appear in a new book, Following the Foyle: A Portrait of the River Foyle, published by Cottage Publications. For more information or to purchase a copy of the book call 028 9188 8033 or click here.