Charlie Whisker: ‘The coolest dad, a rockstar, with a different way of looking at the world’
One of Ireland’s finest painters has died aged 71, having lived with Alzheimer’s since 2014
Charlie Whisker, photographed for an Irish Times interview in 2007. Photograph: Eric Luke
Charlie Whisker, who has died at the age of 71 in the Fern Dean nursing home in Blackrock, was one of Ireland’s most highly regarded painters whose work is in the collections of the Arts Council, AIB and the Ulster Museum and in the private collections of U2 members, Steven Soderberg, John Boorman, Paul McGuinness and Henry Mountcharles.
He had solo exhibitions in the Kerlin, Solomon and the Hendricks galleries in Dublin and the On the Wall Gallery in Belfast. His work, known for its dreamlike, often nightmarish, enigmatic quality and occasionally stark graphic effects, was deeply personal and drew from his northern background, extensive reading and love of poetry, literature and music.
“I tend to litter my paintings with sweet and sour images, tragic and joyful,” he once said. Notable paintings included Flying Into LA, Red Shoes, Trouble in Mind and Ship of Dreams in acrylic. He loved the sea but of his seascapes he said: “I want more than prettiness, but the sea in its various forms, its primeval force, that mystery, that trap, that danger.”
Born in Bangor Co Down in 1949, he was a graduate of Belfast College of Art and taught painting in NCAD for six years before moving to Los Angeles in 1994 as a video director working with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
Married to the fashion designer Mariad Whisker and the father of their two daughters, India and Domino, he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 63 in 2014. At this point he had separated from his wife and moved to a new partnership with the writer Julia Kelly, with whom he had a daughter Ruby Mae now 12. That relationship ended as his health deteriorated.
Ruby Mae “was his last masterpiece”, according to his daughter Domino who has always been very public about the fact that she took on the role of caring for her father with daily visits to the nursing home. She spoke about the distress and the grief – and rare moments of joy – involved.
“Towards the end I gave in trying to control things, and we just moved by his schedule so if he wanted a hot whiskey and ice-cream in the morning he got it. “
She remembers his love of animals – he had two iguanas Skippy and Zippy, a lurcher called Mr Blue and was an animal rights activist, anti-coursing and member of the hunt saboteurs.
“One of the most important things about him was that he was a true teacher who had a different way, a more empathetic way, of looking at the world. He would force you to pay attention to the slightest thing, to notice how flowers grew through concrete and noting light on trees, finding beauty in the smallest things.”
His final paintings were completely white – after his last exhibition at the Peppercanister Gallery in 2013, he painted over every single one, destroying them.
Domino remembers “the coolest dad, dropping me to school in his skater shoes and motorcycle T-shirts, high-fiving my friends. He looked like a rockstar. He was a rockstar. He was an erudite and artistic man. I will forever be his daughter and he will forever be my brilliant old dad.”
Greg Delaney, now living in Paris, summed the feelings of many of Charlie’s former students in a message to the family. “He was very important to me as a young adult. He was important to a whole generation of us at NCAD. He was the very essence of what we all aspired to be”.
Charlie Whisker is survived by Mariad, his three daughters, Domino, India and Ruby Mae, former partner Julia Kelly, his brother Bill, sister Joan, and grandchildren James and Suki.