I don’t give a damn what age I am, I want to do this...’
As he approaches 80, sculptor John Behan is busier than ever. A new show, a sculpture of Arkle, and work in a refugee camp in Greece all keep him busy, writes Emily Hourican
IF, as George Orwell believed, we all have the face we deserve at 50, how much more is that true when we reach 80? The face that sculptor John Behan, who will be 80 on November 17, turns on the world seems decades younger; open, curious, almost seraphic except for the hint of mischief, with a pair of sharp blue eyes and a shock of soft white hair. Certainly, it is not the face of someone looking to take life easy.
“I’m as busy as a little bee,” he tells me over lunch. As well as the solo exhibition, Seven Ages of Man, currently at the Solomon Gallery, John is working on a life-size statue of the legendary racehorse Arkle — built from the bones up, based on Arkle’s skeleton which is in the Irish National Stud museum in Co Kildare — for Galway Racecourse. And, in his spare time — such as that is — he is travelling to and from Greece, where he is working with migrants in a camp outside Athens. “At this moment in time I probably am too busy, but no, I manage.”
Of the Greek odyssey, he says: “It’s my own idea. I’d been working on this idea of immigrants for a long time” — it’s a theme that surfaces in his work again and again; one of his most significant pieces, Arrival, a Famine ship, was a gift to the UN from the Irish government, and stands outside the UN HQ in New York; it is where Varadkar, along with Bono, recently launched Ireland’s bid for a place on the UN Security Council — “but I’d never met any. So I said, I’m going to get off my butt and go out here and meet some real people.”
How did he go about it? “I just went to the Irish embassy in Athens. The Irish government has always talked about how important culture is in Irish society so I said, ‘I’m going to try this, find out if there’s any truth in this…’ That was part of it. It was my own personal thing — to see if this portrayal of Ireland as a cultural country supported by the government, was an actual fact or was it just propaganda?” (There’s John’s mischievous side at work). “So I went and I said, ‘this is who I am, and I want to meet some refugees’. And, he says: “It all worked out very nicely. I found the ambassador and her staff were most helpful.”
The camp John has been visiting, Eleonas, is around 12 miles outside Athens and is, he says, “not a decrepit place, it’s a very well-run place. They are well looked after. I was shown maybe the best of things — I wouldn’t say that what I was seeing was the absolute truth of things, but I did meet people who are real refugees — not just bright people set out in front so they make a good impression. I spoke to the people themselves, and started doing very basic teaching, making pictures and drawings, with a project in mind — to erect a big boat, depicting their flight, and how close it was, in my estimation, to the Irish situation during the Famine. People trying to flee their country because there was no sustenance for them. Drowning in their thousands — the same things happened to our ancestors on the way to America, they got within sight of shore and a storm came up and the people were lost at sea. It’s the same thing.”
It was not, he says, “what you would call a happy experience, but it was a good, positive experience for me.” The plan, he says, is to work with Bill Shipsey, from Waterford and founder of Art for Amnesty, and make a large piece of work representing the experiences of the refugees in the camp, built with them, and get a site in Athens to display it.
Did he ever think he would be doing this, working like this, at 80? “I didn’t think about age,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t give a damn what age I am, I want to do this’. And I really don’t think of myself as… as long as I can move around without discomfort, and I can, then it’s OK. I didn’t think I’d get here, to 80. I just took life as it came. Philosophically speaking, I was an existentialist by the time I was 30, and that philosophy means you take what’s there in front of you and you deal with it on a daily basis. That’s the way I interpreted it anyway.”
And his energy is undiminished? “I hope so,” he laughs, then stresses: “For me, doing this is a very positive thing. It’s not an ego trip; I don’t want to be part of anything like that. Who would go all the way to Greece for an ego trip?” he laughs, adding, “You’d get one closer to home!”
If you’re John Behan, you certainly would. He is among the best-known and most respected artists working today, with pieces in the National Gallery, the Hugh Lane, the Crawford, and collected by Mary Mcaleese, Mary Robinson, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Bill and Hillary Clinton. And yet, when I ask is he happy, he says with complete candour: “I wouldn’t call it happiness, though there is a certain fulfilment.”
John’s partner, Dr Emer Machale, died just over five years ago, and the tragedy of that loss is still with him.
“To lose your life partner — which Emer was... I miss Emer an awful lot, but there’s nothing much I can do except honour her memory. You can’t bring people back. A life that ends too soon — it’s their loss, it’s not your loss. If you consider it logically, it was their life, and it’s grossly unfair to them, first and foremost. I have more than enough work,” he says, “it’s the emptiness of living on your own without your partner. It’s as simple as that.
John, who married and had three children before separating, and meeting Emer in 1987, lives alone now. “I haven’t any new relationship,” he says, “I’m working on my own now,