Thursday, 17 May 2012

The 'Wee Arty Man' remembered

When I was in the RUAS exhibition at the Ulster Museum in October I came across a painting by Ivor Coburn my old art teacher at RSD. I had no need to see the signature as I recognised his style from some distance and he’s still painting those huge flowers nearly forty years on.

Ivor was not my first art teacher, that privilege belonged to Brian Kennedy who went on to become a major figure in Northern Ireland art and in the Ulster Museum in particular. He left after my first year to be followed by Miss Buckles. I don’t think she stayed very long. She was possibly a stop gap until Ivor walked in through the door of Room 7.

There were four of us doing A Level Art, not a lot out of an Upper Sixth of ninety students. I doubt if any of our peers had a better relationship with a teacher. Raymond, Stephen, Jimmy and myself talked life with him and he urged us not to accept everything at face value but to be questioners and look all around a subject just as you would a still life to get to the answer. He was opinionated and though we didn't always agree with his views it made for lively banter and sometimes thoughtful expression. I loved to hear him rant about the education system; he flaunted the school rules and was often in hot water with someone or other. He often talked about leaving but he was still there in the early 80s as I dropped in quite regularly. He was always glad to see me if only to give him reason to air another major grievance. In some ways I think I have become like him.

I recall the day Raymond and I went up to see ‘the wee arty man’ in the wilds of Magherafelt having only a brief idea of how to get there. We drove around endless country lanes for about an hour before stumbling upon his grand country house by accident.

He had designed and built his own house on an acre of sloping land on which there had been an old flax mill and a small stream. Like most good artists he was dreaming ahead and had conjured up plans in his mind to make a waterfall and a decent size pool that he could swim in! That sounded seriously far fetched and cold! He lived on the first floor and through the bay window he assured us there was a fine view of the Sperrin Mountains out there somewhere in the darkness. The first floor was also the best place to relax and view the garden - the source for so much of his botannical watercolour interest.

It’s the fireplace I recall the most as I had never seen anything quite so beautiful. Art teachers, Raymond and I thought, must be paid well to live in luxury like this but then again we were just two lads from working class housing estates who hadn’t seen much of the world. He showed us his kiln and the studio where he pottered around with clay. His paintings were there too in varying sizes, some unfinished and others unframed. I was impressed by the lifestyle he had and by the work he had done to achieve this little piece of heaven in the backend of beyond. Why he bothered to teach at RSD, twenty five miles away confused me when he had all this at home, but I guess he had to give his pride and joy, his wee green sporty MG a run out five days a week!

When I came home from the RUAS show I checked Ivor out on the internet and came across a beautiful written article on his biography where he described his paintings as a good friend he didn’t want to lose. I have copied out the piece, his ‘philosophy‘ here.

“A certain rapport seems to exist between me and my subject; something fleeting, whimsical perhaps emotional. Something gels between ‘us’ almost demanding co-operation with the resolution of a problem - or challenge? A challenge to translate an inner feeling, impulse, into a gradually coalescing image. A symphony a composition to translate the moment to capture the essence of light and colour and atmosphere. To respond with utmost speed lest the fleeting something should fade, and the theme be lost… Then a wave of satisfaction - completion and suddenly I am tired - elated, but tired. A part of me has been transposed onto canvas now, like a good friend whom I never want to loose. A subtle relationship exists now with someone - something I have come to know, am going to know. My paintings are all friends to a lesser or greater degree, some I love and want to keep others maybe less so. ‘Parting’ surely is such sweet sorrow”

How profound was that. I felt like that with my ‘Harry Chapin’ picture and at times when I’ve finished post-processing some of my photographic images. They become my new best friend and I feel pride and achievement in that I have moulded them with so much love and attention to detail.

I was quite astounded (don't know why) that his paintings have travelled the world and hang in homes as far apart as America and Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Sweden and Israel; indeed one is even owned by the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia.

He hasn't really changed that much in the forty years I have known him. The beard is a bit greyer but he looks the same guy! He must be in his mid-70s now. He's still involved in art and from what I can see it's still watercolours. There are more landscapes than what I remembered before and from those he seems to have a passion for the west of Ireland, France and Italy. He makes me want to get into watercolours and putting brushstrokes on to paper. There he is, he's at it again, encouraging me to get the palette out and start making friends!

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