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Westport hosts Owen Walsh retrospective

Living

‘Woman in Looking Glass’, by Owen Walsh

Ciara Moynihan

0705 owen-walsh 390A retrospective exhibition of paintings, pastels and drawings by the Westport artist Owen Walsh (right) will be launched at the Town Hall Theatre, Westport, on Thursday, May 9, at 6pm. The exhibition will be opened by Cathal Hughes, a first cousin of the artist, and Mayo Person of the Year 2019. On the night, Father Micheál MacGréil SJ – a lifelong friend of Walsh’s – will formally gift one of the artist’s works, ‘The Mall, Westport’, to the Town Hall Theatre, where it will remain permanently.
Owen Walsh’s career spanned almost half a century, and he has come to be recognised as one of Ireland’s leading figurative artists, a master colourist and a skilled draughtsman. His work ranges from heavily impastoed oils to delicate watercolours to vivid landscapes, both of the Mayo he loved and the cities at home and abroad where he lived and worked.
The second son of William and Delia Walsh, Owen was born in 1933 and raised in Westport. In 1946, Walsh was sent to boarding school at Dublin’s Blackrock College. Like most of the boys at that school, he took a healthy interest in rugby. However, it was during his time at Blackrock, and on the sports field, that his debilitating epilepsy first emerged. Perhaps it was this that turned the young Walsh away from the rugby ball and towards the paint brush.
He went on to study at Dublin’s National College of Art (now NCAD) – but only after  winning over his mother, who was initially dubious about her son taking such an unconventional career path. She worried desperately about his epilepsy and thought he should take a ‘safer option’. Her worries were soon replaced by pride, however, as he excelled as a student and, later, as an artist in his own right.
At the National College of Art he studied under Seán Keating and Maurice MacGonigal, and he was awarded the prestigious MacAuley Prize for Painting in 1954. He went on to study in Spain, Italy and France, countries that inspired him and deepened his love of vibrant, rich colours. While in Paris, he won the Medaille d’Or at the International Salon of Art at Juvisy.
Much of Walsh’s work is marked out by its use of strong colour, and it has been noted that his art, particularly his figurative work, is reminiscent of Post Impressionism – especially Henri Matisse, who was a huge influence on him.Baggot Street, where he lived, was at the heart of the lively artistic, literary and theatrical scene. With James McKenna, Elizabeth Rivers, Noel Sheridan, Patrick Pye and Charles Brady, he founded the Independent Artists group in 1959, an avant garde movement of younger artists dedicated to creating an intellectual and imaginative space outside of the mainstream.
Just as his outlook was independent and spirited, Walsh’s paintings reveal a singular approach to landscape, urban scenes and the nude figure. From the early scenes of Westport to the strong, almost abstract colour harmonies of his later work, Walsh’s career was one of intense attention to the visual world, to questions of representation, to the relationship between the different elements of a work and to the act of painting itself. But even a free spirit must eat, and Walsh also worked as a graphic designer in the 1950s, reflecting a lesser-known aspect of the creative careers of artists in mid-20th-century Ireland. During the ’50s and ’60s, he was commissioned to design for fashion magazines such as ‘Creation’ and advertisements by McConnells Advertising. These designs reveal his strikingly accomplished, innovative vision and style as both a designer and illustrator.
Eventually, towards the end of his life, he returned to his beloved Mayo. He died in Louisburgh in 2002, at the age of 69.
A beautifully designed book on Owen Walsh’s life, ‘Colour and Light’, will also be launched on May 9 at the exhibition opening. The book, which includes over 50 full-colour plates of the artist’s work, will be available at www.owenwalsh.com from May 15.