Monday, October 29, 2012
Art was probably inevitable. His father was a blacksmith by trade who came to work on the Curragh in 1958, from Cushendall in County Antrim. He was returning to a place where he had served as a soldier during 'The Emergency'. "Working in Harland & Wolff, he'd been offered a promotion. But it wouldn't have been easy for a Catholic, so they also offered to transfer him to Liverpool. A bigger job in England or less money on the Curragh? He came down here." Noel was one year old, youngest in a family with three girls.
His father was also a very good cabinet-maker, in fact could make almost anything requiring skilled hands. "I only remember him drawing once, a paintbrush. Just to show that he could do it." His memories of his mother are that she was always knitting. "She was very industrious, and my three sisters were all visually creative. There was always stuff around the house, paint, pencils, plasticene. In retrospect I realised that I had four art teachers from the beginning."
In Senior Infants in Newbridge his teacher called him up one day. She handed him a small box of coloured pencils, said he had won a prize in the Texaco Childrens Art Competition. "I didn't even know she had entered me in the competition, but I still feel that same sense of magic today when I open a box of pencils."
In Newbridge College the late Fr Henry Flanagan provided a similar ethos of 'allowing art to happen' for those showing interest and talent. When Noel said he was considering the National College of Art & Design, Fr Flanagan said he would be 'insane' to consider anything else. Such encouragements were laying a foundation for Noel's own later career, where he has earned a reputation as someone who encourages artistic talent. "You do adopt the styles of people you admire. Like Henry Flanagan, and Paddy Byrne and Tim Ryan (other teachers in Newbridge)." Today, Noel's favourite church is the one in the College, which he describes as a gallery for Henry Flanagan's work. "There's quite a parallel between galleries and churches. Both are places of contemplation and quietness where one can be in awe of art. In the Middle Ages, churches were the only places ordinary people could see visual art."
Noel began at NCAD in 1974 as an evening student, largely because there wasn't much money available. The general aim was to become an Art Teacher, the only art-related leaflet in the career guidance material available. "Two of my sisters had become teachers, and I was conscious that I'd have to find some kind of employment." He found that there was an internal scholarship scheme, involving the study of History of Art and the production of a portfolio. He put that together, and won a five years scholarship. A Diploma in Fine Arts in 1979 and a related hDip the following year and he was ready to earn his living.
At NCAD Noel and his contemporaries had been told that there were only about five people in Ireland making a living as artists, but he still nurtured a wish to do the same. "I said I'd give the teaching a year. Now, 32 years later, I'm still at it. I still have that wish, but if it doesn't happen, I won't care that much. Life is what it is."
He got a job in Cross & Passion College in 1983, part time. Subsequently the job became full time, but for the past five years he's been on a shared job system that he says is working out quite well. "The idea was that I'd have more spare time to do the things I wanted to, especially as a single parent. Though there's not as much spare time as you'd think." But in very practical terms, he reckons stress levels are about a tenth of what they'd otherwise be. "It may be a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. You work with so many individuals constantly changing, growing and developing. And you can sometimes learn as much from the pupils as they learn from you."
He can spot artistic talent pretty well immediately. "Sometimes it's just seeing them draw without looking at what they're doing. They see what's in front of them and just do it." The percentages are high, on average two from every Leaving Cert class of 25 will go on to Art. In one year, there were 13. "Probably the biggest problem is convincing them not to look at other pupils' work. They all develop at different rates, and it may well be that the ones who don't shine early are those who shine greater later on." Whether they do continue with Art or not depends on a number of factors, including 'environment or context'. Or whether parents will encourage it. As much as CPC can do, or its art teachers, is create the space. "And if something goes a little off-curriculum, allow it."
These days, Noel says art brings him to 'probably the better place in my head'. There are continuing high points. "When a new idea unfolds in a studio, or any environment of creativity it's a huge, uplifting, thrilling and motivating experience." Because his main interest is sculpture, many of those ideas have to wait to come to fruition. "I have a backlog over maybe 15 years. From here I can look at them and see if they're still worthwhile."
Mostly, inspiration evolves from just getting down and starting something. "Less often, I get flashes of finished stuff. Classically when I'm just about to fall asleep." Most times he has been blessed with ideas working out, but he says he has to trust his own aesthetic barometer. "Make exactly what pleases you. I have one piece on my wall that I like a lot, but when people come to my home and look at it, well, they don't say very much."
The most public of his works is the centrepiece of the Dun Ailinne Interpretive Park, based on a spearhead found in the excavations of the ancient royal site in the 60s/70s. Commissioned by Kilcullen Community Action, it was his first major outside work after a decade or more trying to break into the One Per Cent public commissions. "I was trying over that time to get to where I could teach less. And now I look back and feel that it was such a waste of time. When I saw the light, it was that I would have been much better off just making what I wanted for my art. A lot of that public stuff is designed, and I'm not a designer."
As for the Dun Ailinne work, which nobody passes without giving it a glance of appreciation, he says he is 'simply, and humbly, satisfied' with it. It will always, though, have a bittersweet context, as the commission and the diagnosis of his late wife Brenda's cancer came about the same time. At what should have been its highest point, his world crumbled.
"I had recovered from a bout of depression some years earlier and learned enough about myself to stop that happening again. We had built an extension to the house. Financially we were stable after scraping for years. The kids were at a wonderful age. But I remember saying to my brother-in-law that it could all be tested, wondering if this could be sustained if circumstances changed?"
He was thinking vaguely then about external changes, war, earthquake and the like. Not a phone call from a hospital to where healthy, vegetarian, non-smoker Brenda had gone for a check-up. "There were tumours in her brain. We got a brilliant oncology surgeon who convinced the radiation guy to give it a go even though there was no expectation. And the tumours disappeared."
The cancer came back elsewhere, though, and Brenda died three years later. But not before she had pushed him back to his art, which he had temporarily abandoned. "For months after the diagnosis I forgot about art. I had no other inclination than to look after the house, go up and down to the hospital. I remember being surprised at one level that this had completely overwritten my urge to create. But eventually she made me go back to it."
Art helped him through the years of grieving. He had been practising meditation since his depression, though that stopped working. "But the art is almost the same. It becomes a point of focus. It expands the aloneness and fosters things good for the body. And if you look after the body, the mind stays good." He strongly believes there's a spirituality in creative works. "I'm very conscious of that. Without a doubt there has to be an element of creativity being a humble way of reflecting something greater."
He often ponders on that at home, in his workshop under the shadow of the tower of Old Kilcullen. "That was a monastic settlement, where ancient Celtic crosses were carved. I'm very aware of the similarity of my position in that location and landscape."
And with his and Brenda's two sons, Joe and Jack, also taking the artistic journey, one training to be a painter, the other doing Theatrical Studies, it's that balance thing again. Crossing centuries, cultures, and generations.