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
Although Carson’s work has engaged with recent history in the North, he doesn’t see it as a defining element. “You work with what you have. You do what you do. I don’t think about expressing the Troubles in my writing,” he says.
Ballard operates at a further remove. “I lived through it. I painted through it. I didn’t paint about it,” he says, with finality.
Carson adds: “I don’t think that painting or writing is for making simplistic statements. It’s to show you that the world is not simple. It shows you that it’s hard to explain.”
The beauty of happenstance
One day, as Carson sat for a portrait in Ballard’s studio, he took out his notebook and started writing, “scrawling a few ideas”, as Carson puts it, about painting, art and the beauty of happenstance – “things that happen, on the hoof, because you just happen to be there at that time” – and the idea for the book was born.
Sitting in the same studio today, it’s clear that both men place a great deal of value on spontaneity and the power of the serendipitous accident. Whether in painting or writing, neither likes to have things pinned down or safe, and they strive for the honesty and authenticity that comes with taking a risk.
“We believe that we don’t know what we’re doing until it happens,” says Carson. “This is what it means to be a writer. You’re doomed to a life of anxiety because, if you know what you’re doing, then it won’t be any good. Each time you do it, it must be fresh.”
Ballard agrees: “It’s a case of biting the bullet, coming to a crisis – either you lose it or you find it. The danger comes when you know you have a facility [to paint], because you’re stymied if you rely on that. If you do, then you just have to start all over again.”
Carson says: “You have to be ruthless. When you’re working on a poem, you have to strip it right back, slash and burn.”
Does the confidence to do that come with age and experience? “Well, if you start with assurance, you just fall into the same trap of looking impressive on the surface,” says Carson. “So I would say that as I grow older, I’m learning to go with uncertainty.”
Another example of serendipity was Ballard’s encounter with Michael O’Neill of Northern Star Books. At the time, O’Neill was director of the Belfast Print Workshop. When he heard about the nascent plan for a collaboration between Carson and Ballard, he was keen to make it happen.