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2005-02-22 Three-hour gaze at Benbulben leaves me more than pleasantly surprised

I sat motionless, my left hand lightly resting on the arm of the chair, my gaze inclined in the direction of Benbulben, drifting across at intervals towards Glencar.

 

Hundreds of watercolours, sketches, etchings, portraits and paintings - some of epic proportion  rested against three of the walls in the upstairs studio on the Strandhill Road. On a bench lay stacks of photographs, and several jars, jam-packed with paintbrushes, each brush telling its unique story.
 

When I entered the room, my eyes were immediately drawn to a blank canvas on an easel, and the pallette of colours by its side, ready to somehow, magically, recreate this face for posterity. I  had, of course, never before sat for a portrait artist, and early on in the session I was aware that I was exhibiting an awkward and embarassed smirk. A few months previously, the Director of the Sligo School of Landscape Painting  Bernard McDonagh  had surprised me with a call, asking if I was willing to 'sit for him'. He was planning an exhibition entitled "Portraits of Sligo Personages". Somehow, I qualified.
 
Portraits can come in the form of a painting, photo or other artistic representation, and are one of the greatest forms of expression in the visual arts. Portraits are not usually over-elaborate, and ought to portray a likeness of the subject, also offering some insight to the subjects personality. A good portrait artist is ever-inquiring and observant, studying what it is that creates a look, posture or feeling. In a persons hands alone, an artist can discern age or social standing. A photograph can reproduce a persons image perfectly, but a portrait has the ability to offer added insight to that persons psyche.
 
Leonardos "Mona Lisa" is undeniably one of the most celebrated portraits of all time, revealing the enigmatic smile of an unidentified lady, whose eyes supposedly follow the onlooker around the room. The day I saw her in 'The Louvre', there was such a crowd around this tiny painting, that her eyes seemed tired from the constant following. Surely the eyes of most successful portraits follow you.

Bernard was hugely influenced by the great portraitists - Rembrandt, Velasquez, Van Dyck, and our own Sir William Orpen. A graduate and multiple-scholarship winner from Dublins National College of Art, Bernard went on to study throughout Europe. During an extensive period of study in Rome, his flatmate was my first singing teacher, the 'larger than life'  Dr Veronica Dunne.

Since those early student days Bernie has exhibited extensively throughout mainland Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and at home in Ireland. Often these exhibitions carry an inevitably Yeatsian or Sligo theme, for example his London exhibition opened by the late Lord Louis Mountbatten.
 

One of my earliest Sligo memories is going to choose my 'Enid Blytons', and on each visit to Sligo Public Library, being awestruck and somewhat transported by the vast McDonagh fresco. Murals and frescoes are possibly what Bernie is most famous for, and again, his work is on display from UCC to the Vatican to California. Some of the artists work is inspired by Sligos Armada history. His first portrait exhibition was opened by his former Professor, the inspirational Seán Keating, at the RDS in 1972. Some who have sat for Bernie include Lord Mountbatten, President Hillery and Charlie Haughey!
Like most other modern portrait artists, Bernard began by photographing me (for later added detail), but the groundwork and the face was done at one sitting. Often the background takes time. We broke for coffee after an hour or so, chatting to Bernies wife, Grace. I was disappointed that their dog was not called Caravaggio or Vincent. After a short but welcome break, the afternoon light was fading, and I was able to snatch sneak previews of how I was turning out, in the reflection in the window. Conversing with your subject helps, according to Bernie, but can also impede. After almost three hours, I was invited to take a look. I was more than pleasantly surprised. Thankfully, I had only one chin, and I was not smirking, but rather pensive, as I can be at times. I immediately understood why this man is, probably, Sligos most renowned living artist.

Go along to Sligos Art Gallery, at the Yeats Building on Hyde Bridge, between March 9 and April 2 (10am  5pm). Admission is free.