IT’S a long way from Brighton to Belmullet (via Bandon and Birdhill) but for Jean Beard the ebb and flow of the ocean ensures her artistic muse feels right at home now in Co Mayo. A self-taught artist, her exhibition, ‘Belmullet Real and Imagined’, which is on show in the state-of-the-art Áras Inis Gluaire gallery for the month of July, also includes paintings and drawings of some of the tiny little harbours and scenic countryside that surround the Erris’s urban outpost.
“Painting the buildings within a town is my way of getting to know a place. Shopfronts are often an under-appreciated art form that define the town’s individual character. My pictures, which strip the streets of cars and people, seek to highlight this,” explains Jean, over coffee, in the civic centre’s coffee shop.
But with a background in economics and history, how did such artistic endeavours become part of her lexicon?
“I always liked drawing and after I was confined to my house for eight weeks after an operation, I bought some watercolours and started painting,” Jean says.
She subsequently converted a building adjacent to her home in Birdhill, Co Tipperary, into a gallery in the early 2000s called, ‘The Picturehouse’.
“We held a lot of exhibitions and I received great support from the artist Henry Morgan. I was able to hide my paintings in among those more well-known artists. I also held classes and taught children how to draw as I believe it is a skill, not a talent.”
Some time later she closed that gallery and, in 2010, opened ‘Quay Arts’ in Killaloe, on Lough Derg, with Rosaleen Rainford. Rosaleen still runs the centre and, naturally, you will find some of Jean’s work there.
In the meantime, the journey towards the wild west coastline had already begun when Jean and her husband, John, a meteorologist, bought a site near Ballyglass Harbour, on the outskirts of Belmullet, and built a holiday home in 2003.
“Both my husband and I come from Brighton, and we loved the sea. The day we bought the site it was raining and misty and we didn’t even know we could see Benwee Head from our house, but it just felt like it had all the nicest bits of old Ireland, if you know what I mean,” Jean continues.
The final and full-time move was made in 2015 – with their five adult children having flown the coop and their retirement time all about painting and fishing.
“So coming to live in Belmullet about three years ago, I was taken by the buildings and the town’s commercial life. I explored the concept of ‘What makes Belmullet unique, with its mixture of town and country, past and present’,” she explains.
As part of her process, she has visited the town very early in the morning before its street become clogged with traffic so that she can get a clear and clean view of its rooflines, its contours and curves.
When living in Birdhill, she showed a comparable exhibition in Nenagh library called ‘Home Town Nenagh’.
“The questions I ask myself are: “Is it a shop front, or a name over it, or the adjacency of the sea that makes it special?” For example, in her native Brighton, it is the pebbles on the beach that make the city special for her.
“So what is that unique quality in Belmullet?” The Mayo News asks.
“Well, that is for other people to tell me, and perhaps my exhibition will help them to identify that.”