INTERVIEW Poems, paintings and passion


Poems, paintings and passion

Poems, paintings and passion

Áine Ryan

If we look closely,
wonder awaits us hidden
in the smallest things.

IT is unlikely that Japanese artist Hokusai was aware of the existence of holy mountain Croagh Patrick when he undertook his series of woodcuts, entitled ‘Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji’ almost 200 years ago. The ukiyo-e woodblock-print series – which included the internationally famous The Great Wave of Kangawa – clearly inspired Louisburgh-based artist, Anthony O’Brien, whose newly published  book, ‘36 Views of Croagh Patrick’ is, indeed, much more than a ‘homage’ to Hokusai, even if it is enhanced by another Japanese form of (written) art, the Haiku.
This beautifully produced book of paintings and poetry reflects the intimacy of O’Brien’s long love for the imposing mountain and its daily and ever-changing impact on his life.
This is a love affair that has existed since childhood when, his late mother, the acclaimed artist Kitty Wilmer O’Brien, began bringing her children to Old Head on summer holidays. In fact, Wilmer O’Brien, some of whose works can be seen in the National Gallery, was famous for her paintings of Westport and Mayo.
A ceramicist, potter, painter, poet, meditator, Anthony O’Brien moved full-time to Louisburgh eight years ago with his partner, Diana.
 “My earliest, happiest childhood memories were of Louisburgh. My mother was a painter and she had a friend, Pat Wallace, who owned the Old Head Hotel and used to lend her a cottage he owned,” Anthony O’Brien tells The Mayo News.
The genesis of the book is based on a series of small ceramic pictures, exhibited in the Sea Sky Shore gallery in Westport some years ago. He explains that ‘the pictures were originally in stoneware’, using glazes which combined ‘glacial sedimentary clay from Old Head’ and ‘wood-ash from Tully Lodge’ with ‘powdered rock’.  
“For most of my professional life I made tableware – ceramic mugs and jugs – and sold them in craft shops up and down the country.  I used to sell them here through the late Annie Brennan’s shop (The Waterfront Gallery) and in O’Reilly and Turpin’s,” he says.
On closer examination though, O’Brien’s curriculum vitae sweeps through a busy life of painting, drawing and modelling in clay to graduating from Trinity College Dublin in 1970 with an MA in English, as well as performing early music and making viols and violins.
His lifelong interest in meditation is juxtaposed in the evocative but ‘parallel’ relationship between the paintings and the poetry in this new publication.
“I’ve been writing haikus for years . They just pop-up as I go for long walks along the beaches of Mayo. I find poetry and walking go together. The poems in the first half reflect a journey through an outer landscape and the ones in the second half,  are about my own inner journey,” O’Brien says.
The book is divided into two main sections:  ‘36 Views of Croagh Patrick, Poems and Pictures’ and ‘The Pilgrims’ Path, 15 Stations On The Way To The Peak’.
While he muses that the poems and the paintings ‘are really separate’, their connectedness seems compelling in their juxtaposition on the pages as the reader and observer is drawn-in to a sentient and solitary gallery, evoked through word and image, where all those fundamental existential questions are posed.
In the first section, for the picture entitled ‘Ballor Moonrise’, he writes: “The moon rises full/ over the Reek, cloud curtained,/ streaked sunset purple.” For ‘Crow Reek’, he writes: “Silence is calling,/ urging me to test my wings/ over the abyss.”
Then in the more ‘internal’ pilgrim pathway meditative section, where in each picture the mountain dwarfs a human figure, he writes for ‘Looking Back’: “I am just a wave,/ and you are a bigger wave?/ But when the wind drops?”  For ‘Nearing The Top’, he writes: “We build sandcastles,/ desperately, separate./ Then the tide comes in.”
And for ‘Near The shoulder’: “There are no limits/ to my own infinity/ except my beliefs.”

Painting technique
“I would make a flat sheet of clay and then draw into it,” O’Brien explains. “After its first firing, I apply the glaze with a brush, and usually the colours before the firing look nothing like the finished product. The technique is addictive; it’s like alchemy and its magic is endless. Sometimes the outcome is disastrous but you discover that the mix can work for another aspect of the painting.”

Dr Eleanor Flegg writes: “Time is sliding backwards like a landscape from a moving train and the future gathers in storm clouds over the western sea, trailing strands of weather. The mountain looms in your rear-view mirror but it is not the same mountain. It is bigger now, and darker, its shoulders hunched against the rising wind.”

‘36 Views of Croagh Patrick, Pictures and Poems’, by Anthony O’Brien, will be launched at the upcoming Rolling Sun Book Festival in Westport in November. It is published by Covie Publications and Recordings and is on sale in Louisburgh, Murrisk and Westport for €12.99.