How my mother’s art won over the boys in hoods
The grey boys gave her a thumbs-up and applause, then went back to their ruminations
The launch of Bealtaine earlier in April. As part of the festival, 40 or so painters, all over the age of 55, some novice, some experienced, have been chosen to be hung on the walls of the Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun. Photograph: Eric Luke
The lord mayor of Dublin, Oisín Quinn, stood at the base of the stairway under big sprouting Ikea lampshades in his eye-catching neckwear and congratulated the contributors, the 40 or so painters, all over the age of 55, some novice, some experienced, whose work had been chosen from more than 100 entries to be hung on the walls of the Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun.
The exhibition, part of this year’s Bealtaine, an annual festival that celebrates the creativity of older people, is called And Catch the Heart Off Guard, from Seamus Heaney’s poem Postscripts, and opened on May Day as Ballymun blackened under a deluge of rain.
I’ve been to the occasional exhibition opening over the years and have stood around ignoring the artwork, watching instead women with asymmetrical hair fold bony arms over vintage drapery, rest terse spines against gallery pillars, wave away the tofu rolls and whisper their hostile verdicts to men with ironic neckties and complicated desires.
There was nothing quite so operatic going on in the rainy, fractured landscape of northwest Dublin on May Day, and few were saying no to the tea and chocolate biscuits on offer (some with entirely unironic pink jellies on top).
“Have you been painting long?” my octogenarian mother asked an elderly man, a fellow exhibitor, whose atmospheric painting of three mellowly senescent men map-reading in the sunlight had caught her attention.
“Not that long,” the artist replied. “Just the 40 years.”
Painting from memory
My mother started painting after she was widowed more than a decade ago. She does so most days now, the radio on, in the small turpentine-scented council flat she moved into shortly after my father’s death.
No longer able to get down to the sea or navigate coastal paths, she paints from memory and photographs, corrals remembered views onto small canvases.
She was grateful to move into the new flat when the offer was made, was one of the first occupants on the hurriedly finished housing estate. Like many that mushroomed up around Dublin at the end of the boom, the estate seemed to appear almost overnight, built by developers hungry to consume any available acres of wasteland and scrub around the city’s suburbs.
Outside the window of her ground-floor apartment there is a narrow road that leads to open ground. Teenagers, heads burrowed under grey hoods, sometimes come and sit on the railings of her thin front yard, hunched like cold gulls, grimly occupied with the business of their long windswept days.
One day, while painting, she heard a knock on the window and looked up with some slight trepidation to see the hooded boys gesturing at her through the window. They wanted her to turn the canvas around so that they could see her picture. When she did so, the grey boys gave her a thumbs-up and a smattering of soft applause, then went back to their ruminations.
As the months went on, the Vietnamese children who lived upstairs, whose mother spoke no English, would come down, sit around the table and draw with my mothers coloured pencils and pastels. Her neighbours bought her pyjamas, and one evening she was gifted with a reclining chair. In return, she painted cards for them, for Christmas and birthdays.
By the time some of the new flats began to show premature signs of wear (the family upstairs were flooded and had to be rehoused, the balcony of the flat opposite crumbled, and one of my mother’s own walls bowed like a rheumatic knee), she had found a community that was stronger and more resilient than the buildings that housed it.
Sense of community
That sense of community and support was manifest also in Axis last week, and while the paintings on display probably won’t turn up in someone’s attic in 100 years’ time masquerading as masterpieces, they are nonetheless powerful missives from an important community, older men and women with a durable passion.
When my mother thought she had missed the deadline for the Axis exhibition adjudication, she was disappointed but resigned. Then there was a knock on the door; one of the staff from Ballymun had stopped by on her way to work to pick up the painting that is now on show.
It was a small, thoughtful gesture that showed how just a little practical support can enable purposeful creative contact for and between older people with so much to give and to gain.
Bealtaine Festival, with events countrywide, continues throughout May; bealtaine. com