3, 3 and 3 celebrates and showcases the lives and work of creative people by inviting them to talk about some of the things they love. This month I introduce my first international guest, Irish visual artist Debi O’Hehir.
I first met Debi in 2011, when she and I were both in residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a multi-arts residential workplace in County Monaghan, Ireland. Debi’s work—arrestingly beautiful pen and ink drawings, large bronze sculptures, and figures in wire—takes as its principal subject the horse. But, as I soon discovered, the mercurial energy and intense vulnerability evoked in Debi’s horses speak as much of the human subject who creates them as they do of her animal subject. Last year she also produced a beautiful series featuring human figures—swimmers and dancers.
Debi O’Hehir was born in England, grew up in Kinvara, County Galway, and studied at Galway College of Art. Her work is held in collections in Ireland, Europe and the United States, and she exhibits regularly at the Northcote Gallery in London, as well as at various galleries in Ireland. In 2013 she was a featured artist at the Galway Arts Festival, with a solo exhibition at Norman Villa Gallery, and also took part in a group show, Open Ground, at the Clifden Arts Festival.
She currently lives and works in a wild, remote area of County Leitrim, in the west of Ireland, where I had the great pleasure of visiting her in late 2012.
Over to Debi…
3 things I love about what I do
1. I love that I have vistas of time in which to work (years ago, I worked as a chef and had limited hours in my studio). Being a full-time artist is perilous financially, but this is more than compensated for by the lack of workaday concerns and distractions—other than attending to the needs of my beloved dog, Wilco.
2. I love that I am rarely bored. I am fortunate to have some facility in both sculpture and painting, so if I feel myself becoming bored or just bogged down in one medium I can change both pace and discipline. Painting for me is instantaneous; once I put the ink down on paper, it cannot be erased and must be completed in one sitting, akin to what I imagine writing a poem might be like. Sculpture is more methodical and meditative—also more time-consuming—perhaps like writing and plotting a novel. Boredom rarely strikes when you are constantly challenged, and with every painting or sculpture I attempt I am certainly challenged!
3. Solitude is my other abiding love about being an artist. It suits me well. I feel I need it creatively and, being naturally self-conscious, I never have to worry about feeling exposed or watched until I am ready to exhibit. By that time, I have already let go of the work and also of my need for solitude.
3 places I’d like to visit or revisit
1. I spent four years of my early childhood in East Anglia, England. Four years felt like a lifetime, then. My sister, father and I lived on a remote farm, where my father had found a job as farm manager. To me, it was a magical unexplored wilderness. We children had total freedom to spend all day in nature, and I harboured an ambition (due entirely to a subscription to National Geographic) to be an explorer. It was here that my fascination with horses began. A local horseman kept some of his horses on our land and I spent an enormous amount of time sitting on a fence, just watching them with an attentiveness bordering on the obsessive. My father always said that no passion you have is ever wasted, and I have used the horse as the primary subject in my work. We left East Anglia—that place both my sister and I recall as symbolising the halcyon days of our childhood—more than 40 years ago, and it is a place I long to revisit.
2. London was the first major city I both loved and lived in. I moved there from the west of Ireland at 25. At the time, it had everything I was excited by—music and art. In contrast to the then slow-paced Ireland, London had an electrifying energy that I found exhilarating. In its galleries I found enormous and much-needed inspiration. I also found, or was found by, a gallery. The Northcote Gallery, which is still my gallery, allowed me to take my first faltering steps towards exhibiting my work professionally. Today it provides a link to London, a place I need to experience at least once a year, travelling from the remoteness where I now live to a metropolis.
3. I would absolutely love to visit Australia. I first became aware of it through avid childhood reading of Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books, then later through the novels of Patrick White and the paintings of Sydney Nolan, especially his Ned Kelly series. Since then I’ve read many Australian novelists (my recent favourites include Yvette Walker, Stephen Daisley and Amanda Curtin), and feel very drawn to visit, seduced, it seems, by Australia’s amazing literature, both past and present.
3 favourite artists
1. Marlene Dumas is an artist I feel indebted to. Like me, she uses ink and water on paper; unlike me, she makes unfailingly spectacular, seemingly effortless work that is both powerful and beautiful in its rawness and immediacy. She once said in an interview that she became a visual artist because she couldn’t play guitar and be in a rock’n’roll band, a longing I too once had!
2. I also feel indebted to Deborah Butterfield, mainly because she uses the horse as her subject. I love her welded scrap metal horse sculptures for their total lack of sentimentality, and I love that through the material she uses the beauty of the horse is present but never overwhelms the work.
3. I love the American abstract expressionist painters, and if I had to choose one today, it would be Robert Motherwell. As a figurative artist, I feel especially drawn to abstraction and feel that if I had to live with a painting long term, I would choose an abstract.
RIP my dear friend Debi O’Hehir, d. 1 October 2015
RIP Wilco, d. 28 June 2014
For enquiries about Debi’s beautiful work, contact Gavin Lavelle, Lavelle Art Gallery, Clifden, Eire. Proceeds from sales benefit the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig,
in accordance with Debi’s wishes