Jim Savage obituary: A generous and passionate artist and educator
The Manchester-born drawing specialist had a major impact on the Irish artistic landscape
Artist and publisher Jim Savage, who died suddenly on August 14th
Born: October 29th, 1950
Died: August 14th, 2019
The artist and publisher Jim (James) Savage, who died suddenly on August 14th, was born in Manchester to an English mother (Hilda née Wright) and an Irish father (Frank Savage, from Dún Laoghaire). He showed an early aptitude for drawing and sculpture and studied at Manchester School of Art, and then Chelsea and the Slade in London. Throughout, he maintained a friendship with fellow Manchester art student Joe Wilson. They shared an interest in hill-walking, a pursuit that brought them regularly to Ireland from about 1973.
Savage worked as a part-time lecturer at several art schools. Wilson moved to take up a full-time position at Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD) in 1979 and a few years later suggested Savage as a visiting lecturer. It worked out well, and Savage eventually ended up taking a full-time job in Limerick (Wilson moved on, meanwhile, to NCAD in Dublin). He met his wife-to-be, the sculptor Sarah O’Flaherty, at LSAD. They set up home at Dromatimore, Aghabullogue, Co Cork.
A soft-spoken man with a busy mind and a thoughtful demeanour, Savage was an empathetic, constructive teacher and a calm, quietly determined planner. Besides pursuing his own work, which was, unusually enough, centred on drawing, as an educator, curator and publisher he initiated and delivered numerous projects that gave scope and prominence to others – evidence of a real generosity.
He was genuinely passionate about drawing. In 2006 he and Charles Harper established the annual Drawing Awards Exhibition at LSAD. The aim was to highlight, showcase and encourage the appreciation and development of drawing in the student population and in the wider community, at a time when emergent digital technologies were perceived as undermining the practice. Painter John Shinnors, a notable artistic benefactor in Limerick, financed an annual commission award of €1,000.
While he made ambitious figurative drawings in the 1980s and 1990s, together with collages, Savage is best known for his large-scale, immersive, meticulously detailed drawings of expansive landscape vistas. As images they are usually low-key, eschewing dramatic incident or landmarks, but infused with an all-over, bristling energy. The sustained, physical process of making the drawing, mark by mark, comes across.
In 2006 Savage established Occasional Press with friend and fellow artist David Lilburn. They wanted the freedom to realise arts publishing projects that appealed to them personally. The same year, poet Peter Fallon wondered if Ballynahinch Castle Hotel in Recess, Connemara, would be interested in publishing a number of poems he’d written while staying in one of the houses on the grounds. Des Lally and Patrick O’Flaherty of Ballynahinch Castle Hotel consulted Lilburn and Savage (O’Flaherty’s brother-in-law) on the project. The result was Ballynahinch Postcards, published in 2007.
It led to Occasional Press’s Connemara Project, a sequence of books involving artists, poets and writers, published in collaboration with Ballynahinch. In the meantime, Savage had long mulled over the idea of producing an anthology of John Berger’s writings on drawing. Berger was immediately and gratifyingly responsive to the proposal and the result was Berger on Drawing, edited by Savage. As well as many essays by Berger, it includes his correspondence with art historian James Elkins on drawing. It was published in January 2007 and quickly reprinted. Its success subsidised subsequent projects.
More recently, Berger co-operated on another project with Occasional, a kind of visual biography, John by Jean: Fifty Years of Friendship, consisting chiefly of personal photographs taken by his close friend and collaborator Jean Mohr. The Connemara Project led to a series of adventurous publications, including a remarkable two-volume, slipcased work by Dorothy Cross, Montenotte and Fountainstown, a kind of visual autobiography and a work of art in itself.
Many publications were linked to informal residencies at Ballynahinch. Over the years, those involved included Donald Teskey, Mick O’Dea, Joe Wilson, Colm Tóibín and Sue Hubbard. Most recently, This Flight Tonight, a bold amalgam of verse, text and documentary material by Tony Curtis, with illustrations by Lilburn, marked the 100th anniversary of Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight.
Jim Savage is survived by his wife Sarah, daughter Alexandra and brother Peter.