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


In these days of e-readers and smartphones, when reading has become just another screen-based activity, the visual and tactile values of the old-fashioned book – its appearance, texture, smell, the rustle of each turning page – are often eclipsed. Yet there is a magic and a presence in real books, especially those printed and bound by hand, that cannot be replicated by technology.

That’s the thinking behind a new Belfast publishing company, Northern Star Press, which has just produced its first volume, Happenstance, a collaboration between two formidable figures in Northern Irish art: the painter Brian Ballard, and the poet and writer Ciaran Carson.

Prints of 20 of Ballard’s vigorous, rich-coloured paintings spanning more than 20 years are presented alongside a series of evocative responses by Carson.

A work of art in its own right, Happenstance is also an honest, moving meditation on time, memory and the nature of what it means to write or paint by two men who have spent their lives continually testing themselves against the boundaries of their own creativity.

“The doubling of our initials – BB, CC – leads me to think that in painting or writing we double ourselves endlessly, as we continue to make paintings or pieces of writing,” writes Carson. “By doing so we fetch ourselves into other selves. Everything we do is a version of ourselves, a signature of everything we do. Hence this book.”

Ballard met Carson in the 1970s when they both worked at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, then at Riddel Hall in south Belfast. Carson recalls it as an idyllic time, in the good old days before bureaucracy took hold of arts administration. “The extensive grounds contained a semi-derelict clay tennis court,” he writes, “where a good many of the staff were wont to indulge in games of tennis during lunchtimes which sometimes extended well into the summer afternoons; wine was sometimes taken. BB might then go back to his painting; he had an easel set up in one of the corridors of the hall.”

Carson noticed and admired the similarity between the way Ballard played tennis and the way he used to paint, with his “racket held deftly like a brush, brush like a racket, making elegant, rapier-like gestures at ball or canvas, all hand-eye coordination”.

It was the start of a friendship, and a conversation, that has lasted many years. “We’re both Belfast lads,” says Ballard. “Ciaran’s from the far side of the Falls and I was born in Taughmonagh [a predominantly loyalist estate in south Belfast], so I suppose you could say we’re from different sides of the fence.”

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.

Even at that stage Ballard had a clear idea for how the publication would take shape. “So many books on painters are full of pretentious writing and bad reproductions,” he says. “A horror of mine is having too much detail in a book, so I wanted to choose pictures that would let the book breathe a bit. I wanted something you could digest and enjoy.”

No ordinary book
Happenstance, which was launched in Belfast recently, is no ordinary book. Published in an edition of 30 copies, 25 of which are available for sale at a cost of £1,500 (€1,750) each, it is a remarkable object with a price to match. Each painting has been hand-printed, using a four-colour silk-screen process in which screens of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink are overlaid to create a full-colour image.

Ballard worked closely with printmaker Jessica Hollywood to ensure the prints are faithful to the mood and spirit of the original works, while allowing them to take on luminous new identities of their own. The letterpress setting of the text, in which every letter is individually cast, is special, too.

O’Neill has a long-standing passion for the printing and publishing traditions for which Belfast was renowned in the 18th century. The company’s name echoes the city’s famously radical and liberal Northern Star newspaper – and he hopes to keep these skills alive in creating volumes like Happenstance.

Paying tribute to the company’s investors, who include actor Adrian Dunbar and chef Richard Corrigan, O’Neill says their generosity echoes the spirit of patronage that liberal businessmen in Belfast showed in financing the Northern Star, at a time when Belfast was celebrated for its respect for learning and open-minded attitudes.

“A book is still a wonderful thing,” says O’Neill. “We are not Luddites, but there is something about taking the time to produce a book slowly and carefully that has a peace and serenity too often missing from our lives.”

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