Bringing St Patrick to vivid life


Dublin artist Maser received a commission to paint a huge wall in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and had a bright idea, writes DAVIN O'DWYER

SITTING ON on the edge of the Ozark Mountains, Fort Smith is not the sort of place you might expect to find St Patrick making a spectacular appearance. But the second-largest city in Arkansas is playing host to a unique sort of Irish invasion – a massive mural of our patron saint painted by Dublin street artist Maser, based on a design by famed Irish graphic artist Jim Fitzpatrick and featuring words by Damien Dempsey.

“It’s all pretty random,” says Maser, laughing as he explains how he came to spend four 14-hour days painting the massive image on the side wall of a new skate park in Arkansas.

A local businessman, Steve Clark, developed the facility last year as a way to occupy kids in the area. Looking to do something with the 150ft side wall of the former warehouse, the Irish fiance of one of his employees suggested Dublin’s best-known street artist.

“So Steve invited me over to paint this wall, and it’s a big wall,” says the street artist. “It coincided with Paddy’s Day, and I’ve recently read a book called Famine Diary, about people emigrating during the Famine. I read that and felt I’d love to do something on that, thinking about the Irish diaspora.”

Fort Smith was an archetypal Wild West sort of town in the 19th century, and the area is proud of its strong Irish heritage – there’s a St Patrick’s Day parade, and an annual Irish dancing festival every November. Maser’s approach to the commission certainly tied into the notion of diaspora.

“I had a sketch saved from Jim Fitzpatrick, I think he sketched it in 1997, of St Patrick, this epic sketch of him. Then I got in contact with Damo [Damien Dempsey]. I was reading articles about the ‘Plastic Paddies’, those children of Irish emigrants who come back and get insulted as being fake Irish. I explained all that to Damo and he sent me a few lines. It’s an amalgamation of me, Damo and Jim Fitzpatrick, three Irish artists trying to send a positive message. It was an homage to the Irish Americans here.”

The message is certainly positive – “Irish America hold your head high, your courage and spirit will never die” read Dempsey’s words – but a piece on this scale is nothing new to Maser. He has gone from posting messages exclaiming “Maser Loves You” all over Dublin to participating in last year’s Dublin Contemporary, but it was his hugely ambitious They Are Us project in 2010 that elevated him above the ranks of other graffiti artists.

Comprising more than a dozen pieces on walls across Dublin, featuring phrases by Dempsey and with typography modelled on the old advertising used by sign painters from the 1940s and 1950s, the project captured the zeitgeist at a time when Dublin was coming to terms with its newly impoverished status.

The centrepiece of They Are Us, as such, was a vast painting on the side of one of the remaining Ballymun tower blocks, which read “Concrete Jungle Mother Farewell to your Stairwell Forever”.

The ensuing exhibition based on the work raised €30,000 for Dublin’s Simon Community.

“I learnt a lot from They Are Us, how to manage an exhibition and make it work, because we did it all ourselves. It was a big learning curve,” he says. This trajectory, from the street to the gallery, in some ways mirrors the path that street art in general has taken in recent years. The likes of Shepard Fairey, JR and, of course, Banksy, to name just three, have become major names in the art world.

“It’s funny, I don’t ever really consider myself an artist,” says Maser. The categorisation suggested by the word, it seems, is too restrictive. And yet, with his next project, he hopes to exceed the scale of They Are Us.

“I don’t want to talk about it until I start doing it, but I want to go bigger. I intend to have a show early next year, based on the same thing, a love for Ireland and Irish history. Loosely addressing topics I’m reading about, and then adding my own feel to it.”