I don’t give a damn what age I am, I want to do this...’

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - R14EVIEW -

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,

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