WHAT LIES BE­NEATH

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - ARTS -

Niall Mac­mona­gle

Orla & Sparkey Kelly in the New Home by Blaise Smith RHA

Oil on gesso panel Cour­tesy of the artist

BLAISE Smith, from Rath­mines “painted my­self into a cor­ner at school, was more or less ex­pelled for con­stantly draw­ing”. He never sat the Leav­ing Cert. At 17, Smith won “the over­all prize in the Tex­aco”, and prize money paid for his first year NCAD fees. Thrown out, 10 lost years fol­lowed: he got “re­ally nerdy about com­put­ers, worked in mul­ti­me­dia sys­tems and in­ter­face de­sign”. Com­put­ers are bril­liant but Smith be­lieves that a paint­ing is “a won­der­ful piece of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy. You hang it on the wall, it gives back in­for­ma­tion for sev­eral hun­dred years and it works per­fectly EVERY DAY. Show me an­other piece of IT that will do that...”

Now based in Kilkenny, Blaise Smith paints still lifes, land­scapes, farm ma­chin­ery, Water­ford’s cityscape, por­traits — Bernard Far­rell, Lord James Blythe, Pro­fes­sor Paddy Lynch, Women on Walls: Eight Women Sci­en­tists — and this one, from 2003, of his wife Orla and their dog Sparkey.

It’s an oil on gesso panel and prepa­ra­tion is “a pain in the ass”. The board must be “de­greased with meths, then sized with warm rab­bit skin glue, then six coats of gesso which is hot rab­bit skin glue and whit­ing”. Then sand­ing, then a layer of “alkyd or gela­tine”. And why? “Be­cause this is es­sen­tially the same as Hol­bein’s sys­tem and his paint­ings from Henry VIII’S time are hold­ing up rather well.”

Orla & Sparkey Kelly in the New Home, is one of 25 por­traits by 25 Ir­ish artists at Ranelagh Arts Cen­tre. Cu­rated by its di­rec­tor, Car­o­line Can­ning, Fam­ily, Friends & Lovers ex­plores if close-up and per­sonal por­trai­ture dif­fers from a com­mis­sioned work.

For this por­trait, Orla took a week off work — a friend minded their small chil­dren.

His wife “would have to be stand­ing — she does not gen­er­ally en­joy sit­ting around, she likes to be do­ing, and man, she loved that dog.

“Sparkey died aged 15 so this is a nice paint­ing to have. The an­i­mal in this paint­ing was in some ways more bid­dable than the adult. I only had to prom­ise Sparkey a treat.”

He’s also painted chil­dren but younger than eight it doesn’t re­ally work. “De­gas used to nail lace up boots into the floor and lace the child into them.”

Body lan­guage is cru­cial. Orla stands in the light-filled ex­ten­sion — which his chil­dren called the new home. For Smith, “ev­ery­thing in a paint­ing is de­lib­er­ate”. Is that a stern pose? “I would say strong, firm. The pose is a state­ment but I sup­pose hav­ing the dog stand in the same way un­der­mines the se­ri­ous­ness of that stance; they are both ready to go — tense with a kind of an­tic­i­pa­tion.”

Through the win­dow, the coun­try­side; on the walls a Lars Ny­berg print, a paint­ing by Claire Kerr.

Not a fan of big head por­traits, “Hol­bein’s Am­bas­sadors”, says Smith, “is first and fore­most a doc­u­ment of how they dressed and pre­sented them­selves. No one in 500 years time will be in­ter­ested in an iso­lated head”.

His ideal viewer for his own paint­ings is a so­cial his­to­rian in 400 years time. And Blaise, pa­tron saint of wild an­i­mals and sore throats? “There are eight mil­lion John Smiths and my mother is a French teacher.” And he has since blazed his own dis­tinc­tive trail.

Fam­ily, Friends & Lovers A Cel­e­bra­tion of Con­tem­po­rary Ir­ish Por­trai­ture is at Ranelagh Arts Cen­tre un­til Oc­to­ber 20. www.blais­e­smith.com

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