Exhibitionist: Road to the RHA – Teaching us all how to appreciate life as art.

With over two thousand five hundred works submitted, of which only three hundred being submitted, the Royal Hibernian Academy’s annual call for new pieces really is competitive and a make or break life changing event for those who are chosen to exhibit their work. Exhibitionists: Road to the RHA, shown recently on RTÉ followed seven people from different backgrounds all over Ireland as they responded to the RHA’s open call for new artworks for an annual exhibition. As one person is seen to say, “The harder it is to get in the more people seem to want it”. This statement seems to exemplify the calm, quiet sort of passion with which artists as a whole view their work. The work of these people isn’t done in full view for all the world to see, but in the back rooms, kitchens, work sheds and garages all over Ireland. The opening scenes display people queued out the door on the morning of the opening of the exhibition, such is the popularity of the exhibition. This opening part of the documentary trails off with the scene of a bare white exhibition room which within months will be crowded with works and people.

From the hustle and bustle of a busy Dublin gallery we are taken to the wilds of coastal Kerry, Dingle to be exact. At work is the first of the hopefuls, who at the moment remains unnamed. This artist normally works with stone but in recent years has begun to collect old tyres. The artist states that he loves working with recycled materials in particular. He states that he submitted to the RHA before but was rejected, giving the audience something to hang a gleam of hopefulness, human interest stuff. He is self taught and has had an interest in art since his teens, taking an interest in welding about four years ago. Because of this and his recent interest in recycled materials he is now working on a rather gothic looking goats head, also displaying numerous sketches of his subject. When you are an artist and working on a particular subject matter you begin to consume the subject wholly, almost to the point of obsession. To emphasis that this is mostly a passion he states that he did a couple of years of art school but doesn’t think that it is necessary.

The documentary very quickly moves on to the scene of an elderly woman putting on Nat King Cole singing, Let There Be Love, a change of scenery and a change of style and pace it would seem. Margaret Irwin West states rather casually that she loves being ninety two because you don’t have to be beholden to anyone. At this point a mixture of feelings from inadequacy to awe come across the viewer, having turned on this programme in the first place to merely lounge in front of the television and “turn off” for an hour or two. Margaret has been very moved by the loss of life with streams of immigrants tragically loosing their lives on the shores of the Mediterranean. This is to be the inspiration for the piece that she is to submit. She will work on some preliminary sketches from photographs first and then will transfer the sketches onto sheets of metal. Margaret was always interested in art from a young age but wasn’t allowed to continue studying in it because her family didn’t see it as being profitable. She has been submitting work to the RHA since the 1950’s, with varying degrees of success. The production team seem in a hurry to fit in all the entrants into one programme however, and move swiftly on.

The third of our entrants is seen in a small studio flat working on his piece. Rather half nervously he states that his family didn’t want him to study art because of the fact that there is no money in it. Something which is becoming a common theme among the entrants. He hopes to paint his girlfriend. Salvatore of Lucan, as he self styles himself, lives with his Mother, Grandmother and sister. Salvatore is half Bangladeshi, illustrating the richness in diverse identities that Ireland has gained as well as the diversity of people entering the RHA award. This is reflected in Salvatore’s own words, “I’m obsessed with identity, (indeed Culture Journal Ireland would go as far as to state that he espouses our ethos in the multitude of identities and talents within one relatively small land mass). It is obvious however that Salvador, as with many artistic people, is riddled with self doubt. “If it’s as good as it is in my head I’ll be alright, but sometimes I can mess up”.

The parade of artists is paused as the Director of the RHA Patrick T. Murphy explains the importance of the scheme om that it gives a means to a living. In other words, it helps artists realise that they have more than just a talent and puts finance and recognition behind it.

Next we are taken to Abbeyfeale in Co. Limerick where we meet Brian O’Rourke where strangely enough the C word is first overtly uttered, “Because I’m working class, this sort of environment was unapproachable, it was only for the middle classes”. Indeed throughout the programme we learn that the various people submitting work are from various different backgrounds and it has to be admitted that Culture Journal Ireland was left feeling a little more than naïve for assuming that art and the arts are a classless pastime and something which can be participated in and consumed by all. This aside however we find Brian O’Rourke’s work reflecting his love of fishing. The piece he is submitting is to be called fish out of water, perhaps reflecting Brian’s identity of himself. By creating the piece he hopes to argue against the need for increased urbanisation and champion the cause of ruralisation and a return to the land. Brian states that the fish will never survive on the streets, with an added use of calligraphy to make people stop and think rather than just looking at an image. We as the audience learn from Brian that he gained his passion for art while in prison, again illustrating the diverse backgrounds from which the entrants are gathered, his passion is further illustrated when he states, “if you told me that I couldn’t paint you may as well take my hands because they’d be of no more use to me”. In fact what this illustrates, given Brian’s already previously stated attitude towards art is that the most unlikely people can become passionate about things that they might not even imagine themselves being passionate about.

The next artist we meet is a young woman in a headscarf, what some might say is a hippy type who typifies the image you might expect of an artist, typically bohemian looking. This young lady, painting in a garage turns out to be Aishling Hennessy of Portlaoise in Co. Laois, she states, “The RHA for me has been a kind of distant distant dream that I’d never speak about or talk about to anybody. The reason I haven’t submitted work before is perhaps because of my own lack of confidence. The idea of having a work of art in that space would mean the most to me. I am at the point where I am selling some work but there are times when I can’t afford paint or can’t afford canvas”. Aishling states that she has has her problems in life but that art has helped her get through them, once she has left her daughter off at school in the morning she finds inspiration by walking in the local woods among the sycamores. She feels as an artist she is constantly exposing herself to a range of different emotions.

Next we got off to Westport in Co. Mayo where we meet Hetty Lawlor, the next of the entrants. “I won the Texaco art competition last year. It was the last year I could enter so it was pretty great”. It turns out that Hetty’s inspiration is her father Jimmy, who also won the Texaco art competition when he was sixteen and ultimately is Hetty’s inspiration. “I get butterflies in my stomach”, he states as the next shot and entrant is revealed to be Hetty’s aforementioned father. “It’s an amazing feeling”. The camera moves back to Hetty, “He’s always joking that he’s going to work when he’s only going to the studio next door” Of the art that she produces and the potential competitive nature this could create with her father Hetty states that she doesn’t take it too seriously. The piece of work that she is submitting is of a young boy staring at a goldfish bowl. Her father Jimmy has opted for another play on words, it’s an image of a young person sitting on a pile of books while texting on a mobile. “I used to work as a butcher briefly and then went to art college briefly,” he emphasises the word briefly, I moved on to work in animation, the thing about animation is that you have to learn quickly because the film needs to be done on a deadline.” Jimmy thinks that there is a similarity to his work and that of Hetty but believes that her style might evolve into something else.

Returning to the behind the scenes element at the RHA, Patrick T. Murphy puts emphasis on the solitude of the artists work. “Most of the pieces are made in solitude, it’s made in the quietness of a studio over hours, it’s made by the artists by themselves. Patrick T. Murphy, Director of the RHA, always encouraging of new talent states, “As an artist my first impulse is to make, my second impulse is to be appreciated, there’s more rejection than there is rejection but I think that’s what being an artist is”.

The next stage of the programme sees the artists and how they have progressed with their work. The first artist we see is Aishling Hennessey in Laois who is working with various colours in acrylic paint. she is enthusiastic about her work and the prospect of hopefully displaying at the RHA. We then see Salvatore of Lucan yet again, working in his ‘day job’, naturally enough a paint and arts supply store, before he moves on to his studio, this time accompanied by the subject of his painting and girlfriend, “This is the first one I’ve been in that I’ve liked, she states, almost teasingly.

Next we return to Abbeyfeale where Brian O’Rourke is having difficulties ‘killing off’ his fish. “I’ve become accustomed to working in enclosed spaces, it’s reflective of my prison time. Working in confined spaces you have to have a home for everything“.

Returning to father and father and daughter artists Hetty Lawler and her father Jimmy, Hetty first states that everything is going well, you can aready see the fledgling outline of a young boy gazing amazed into the bowl of his pet goldfish; it’s easy to see that Hetty Lawler has a talent, she is however modest as ever, “I’ll be pretty happy if I get in, but I’d rather Dad got in to be honest”. Jimmy however isn’t so sure how well he’s progressing. “I’m not sure about the pose. I’m cutting it fine“, he exclaimes, but then reassures himself, “It’ll be fine, it’ll be grand".

We return almost where we began, with Margaret Irwin West, lugging around sheets of metal ad if they were sheets of paper. “Print making is seen as hard and not something a 92 year old isn’t supposed to be able to carry heavy plates but I can and I do. It’s challenges that keep me young. You can end up having a soulless picture in the end if you’re not careful. Working with plates I made so many mistakes because I was trying to go so fast”.

As is the nature of the programme at this stage we are taken back swiftly to where we began in the wilds of Kerry and Mick Davis in Dingle with his leather goat heads. “I’m kinda isolated here West of Dingle. I grew up in Dalkey, Dublin; I never imagined I’d live in the country. Myself and my wife moved down from Dublin when our first kid was born and I wouldn’t go back. I work around the kids, I get the kids off to school and work for a couple of hours, pick the kids back up again after school and work for another couple of hours at night. It turns out that Mick has a number of strings to his bow, almost quite literally, having worked on Game of Throwns as well as making some modesl for a Star Wars festival. A common theme emerges as he states, “I just earn enough to make a living. I don’t earn a fortune working as an artist but it’s something I love doing”. Mick sums up how most people involved in the creative arts feel when he states, “It’s a bit like being a drunk, you just HAVE to do it because it’s the only thing that makes you content.”

At this stage the artists are nearly completing their pieces and we follow the judging process. There are six members on the judging panel and they take a week to make their decision, which seems very little time in order to make a decision about two thousand six hundred and fifty artworks. The artists are a mixture of people who paint in their spare time, who paint in their garages and kitchens and bedrooms, sometimes after working a full-time job. All of them, through this process, are on an equal footing and all have a chance of getting through.

So who got their work though? Well either you saw this documentary when it first aired a year ago, or you watched it during it’s more recent showing. If you did neither then Culture Journal Ireland encourages you to watch the programme on the RTÉ Player if you can, failing that we encourage you to access information about each of the artists wherever you can and decide for yourselves which is your favourite. Better still, in this time of uncertainty, we encourage you to seek and if you can purchase whatever work you can by these hardworking and worthy artists.

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