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From creative hermit to best-selling artist

[ 22 June 2011 | Print This Post ]
22 June 2011

There must be something in the water in Maryhill, given that the north Glasgow district’s artistic talent pool takes in Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz, actor Robert Carlyle and troubadour Donovan.

Now, in his new solo exhibition at Glasgow gallery, artist Joe O’Brien shares his view of a typical tenement upbringing in Maryhill in the 1960s.
Fragments of a Scottish Childhood, is far from reflecting his childhood in dark brushstrokes of misery and deprivation, O’Brien offers an unsentimental portrayal of an area that was changing before his eyes. In his painting Leaving Fleeto Land, women and children huddle together as their former homes are pulled down to make way for a new development, echoing the artist’s childhood home which was also demolished. He is emphatic that these recent paintings are not a sepia coloured view of his childhood, but rather stem from a time when he used his imagination to reinvent his surroundings.
Joe, who ended up disappearing into the east end of the city, and using a prison cell in a former jail in the Calton district as his studio, spent five years living and working in complete isolation, paring things down and having time to develop and be creative.
When asking him if he was scared at all, he simple says: “I wasn’t afraid, in fact a life spent unfulfilled would have been far more scary.”

During the five years working in his ‘cell’, Joe’s work progressed from small landscapes to more surrealistic and figurative pieces. When he emerged from his creative cocoon, Joe took his work to a couple of galleries and it wasn’t long before he was earning a living as a fully-fledged artist.

He recalls that when his first painting was sold, he felt like shouting it from the rooftops. Although discreet about who buys his work, Joe says he rarely meets the buyers or the sellers, but has heard that actors Sean Connery and Ewan McGregor are couple of his fans.

O’Brien, was one of four brothers and the son of a railway worker, and says that inspiration for the exhibition came in fragments, from dreams, memories and experience.
He said: “It was a sort of Peter Pan world for us, and in those days, there weren’t so many footbridges linking Maryhill across the Kelvin to the west end which we regarded as the ‘other side’.

“It was a breath of fresh air skiting through Kelvingrove Park of a Sunday and into the art gallery. Even then, the textures, colours and narratives of the paintings gave me a feeling of awe, not that I knew anything about the technicalities at that time.”

“It feels as if the River Kelvin has been coursing through my life.” concludes Joe.

Exhibition previews on the 30 June and runs throughout July at scotlandart.com’s Glasgow gallery.


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