‘Limerick School’ calls in some of its star pupils

John Shinnors has put together a showcase of creativity at the City of Culture’s school of art and design

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

The artist Jack Donovan has a special place in the history of Limerick School of Art and Design. A student there from 1951, he was appointed its head – “a full-time job that I did not want”, as he later remarked with characteristic directness – in 1962, at the age of 28. His reading of it was that he was appointed because Limerick’s conservative vocational education committee did not want a “foreigner” in the position.

Donovan, who is now 80, was head until 1978. Among his students was John Shinnors, who remembers Donovan as a generous and free-spirited presence who taught largely by example, having established an impromptu studio for himself in a wide corridor to the rear of the school’s premises at the time.

Shinnors was particularly impressed by Donovan’s ability to tune out the movement and clatter around him and get on with painting, becoming irritated only when summoned to the telephone.

The two have remained close, and Donovan is one of 20 artists, former students and teachers at the Limerick college who make up an exhibition that Shinnors has curated, Personal Choice , at its Church Gallery.

Donovan’s mid-1970s painting Suzannah and the Elders occupies pride of place at the show, dominating one of the gallery’s end walls. Juxtaposing the gracefully nude Suzannah with a pair of lecherous clerics, it remains powerful 40 years later. Donovan’s work is generally rich in historical and autobiographical references. Although not religious, he has said he has no particular gripe with the church. But this painting seems to anticipate the tenor of the clerical scandals that came to light in the intervening decades.

Limerick School of Art and Design, which is now part of the city’s institute of technology, has become a large, bustling, multidisciplinary institution, with a strong reputation that reaches beyond the traditional fine-art disciplines of painting, print and sculpture and into areas including ceramics, fashion and lens-based work.

Shinnors concentrates on the older core disciplines, and it inevitably lends the show a retrospective quality, but it feels in no way tired or dated. Rather, as with the Donovan painting, there’s a feeling of continual relevance and reinvention.

The show also offers an insight into the school’s reputation for dynamism in the wider cultural life of the city and, indeed, the country. A large number of artist-practitioners have worked as lecturers, for example, and students present and past have engaged in such enterprises as Ormston House, the gallery and cultural resource centre in the city.

Personal tribute
The current head of school, Mike Fitzpatrick, is a case in point. He is an artist, a former director of Limerick City Gallery and, at the moment, interim head of Limerick City of Culture, after the abrupt departure of its chief executive and artistic director.

Personal Choice grew out of a conversation between Fitzpatrick and Shinnors. The idea was for an exhibition that would be a personal tribute to the school. It could be anything Shinnors had in mind. “Essentially,” Fitzpatrick says, “John said he could get a van, set off and round up an exhibition.” Which is not far off what transpired, in a more formal way – and with a substantially larger van.

After minimal negotiation, a list of 20 artists emerged. Once he had issued the invitations, Shinnors stood back. Artists could put forward whatever they wished, and he abstained from including himself.

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