Ciaran Carson and Brian Ballard: Ties that bind into books
Ciaran Carson was sitting for Brian Ballard when the friends hatched a plan to create a beautiful book of art and writings
Ciaran Carson (left) and Brian Ballard, whose book of paintings and writings, Happenstance, was launched recently. There are just 30 copies, 25 of which are for sale at £1,500 (€1,750) each. Photographs: Damien Elliott
In these days of e-readers and smartphones, when reading has become just another screen-based activity, the visual and tactile values of the old-fashioned book – its appearance, texture, smell, the rustle of each turning page – are often eclipsed. Yet there is a magic and a presence in real books, especially those printed and bound by hand, that cannot be replicated by technology.
That’s the thinking behind a new Belfast publishing company, Northern Star Press, which has just produced its first volume, Happenstance, a collaboration between two formidable figures in Northern Irish art: the painter Brian Ballard, and the poet and writer Ciaran Carson.
Prints of 20 of Ballard’s vigorous, rich-coloured paintings spanning more than 20 years are presented alongside a series of evocative responses by Carson.
A work of art in its own right, Happenstance is also an honest, moving meditation on time, memory and the nature of what it means to write or paint by two men who have spent their lives continually testing themselves against the boundaries of their own creativity.
“The doubling of our initials – BB, CC – leads me to think that in painting or writing we double ourselves endlessly, as we continue to make paintings or pieces of writing,” writes Carson. “By doing so we fetch ourselves into other selves. Everything we do is a version of ourselves, a signature of everything we do. Hence this book.”
Ballard met Carson in the 1970s when they both worked at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, then at Riddel Hall in south Belfast. Carson recalls it as an idyllic time, in the good old days before bureaucracy took hold of arts administration. “The extensive grounds contained a semi-derelict clay tennis court,” he writes, “where a good many of the staff were wont to indulge in games of tennis during lunchtimes which sometimes extended well into the summer afternoons; wine was sometimes taken. BB might then go back to his painting; he had an easel set up in one of the corridors of the hall.”
Carson noticed and admired the similarity between the way Ballard played tennis and the way he used to paint, with his “racket held deftly like a brush, brush like a racket, making elegant, rapier-like gestures at ball or canvas, all hand-eye coordination”.
It was the start of a friendship, and a conversation, that has lasted many years. “We’re both Belfast lads,” says Ballard. “Ciaran’s from the far side of the Falls and I was born in Taughmonagh [a predominantly loyalist estate in south Belfast], so I suppose you could say we’re from different sides of the fence.”