Printmaker who made his mark as an artist

James O’Nolan obituary: His enduring legacy is as a teacher and mentor, and as an interpreter across different media for some of the country’s most distinguished contemporary artists

James O’Nolan Born: October 16th, 1952 Died: July 4th, 2018

In his work with his business partner David O’Donoghue at the Stoney Road Press (SRP) in Dublin since 2001, James O’Nolan created an internationally renowned fine print press, counting among its clients some of the most prominent names in contemporary Irish art, and setting a globally appreciated standard of excellence which has seen its products displayed in leading galleries throughout Ireland, the UK and the US.

O'Nolan, who has died aged 65 from injuries sustained while cycling in inner-city Dublin, was a self-taught printmaker, and made his mark as an artist in woodblock and carborundum, examples of which are held in public collections such as the National College of Art and Design and the Arts Council. They are described by James Hanley, Keeper of the Royal Hibernian Academy, as having "an intellectual purity of geometric and colour-filled abstraction."

It was not really as an artist that O’Nolan left his enduring legacy, but rather as a teacher and mentor, and, above all, as an interpreter across different media for some of the country’s already most distinguished contemporary artists.

He worked painstakingly with artists including Patrick Scott, Brian O'Doherty, Richard Gorman, Dorothy Cross, Donald Teskey, Blaise Drummond, Louis Le Broquy and Anne Madden to transform painting, photography and sculpture into hand-crafted prints of the highest quality. As James Hanley put it to The Irish Times this week: "James was very good at knowing what mix of media would work for a particular work of art; that was his innate skill, his exact genius."

A well-known artist said of the experience of working with O’Nolan that he brought both “a very particular style and finesse,” when re-interpreting artistic work in another medium to print, and “an extraordinary beauty . . . to the conversation and presentation of the work, which [he] would accomplish with absolute perfection. It could not have been better [done],” adding that “I am absolutely shocked we are never going to see him again.”

Personal loss

The quality of personal loss felt by the Irish artistic world that the comments above reflect springs partly from O’Nolan’s time as a teacher and mentor to a generation of students at the NCAD, where he taught from 1983 until 2003, and at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (DLIADT), where he also worked as a part-time tutor who was careful to encourage self-expression and was tolerant of the perhaps natural restlessness of young people.

At NCAD, he was part of a group of teachers providing first-year students with the “Core Studies” module, which his widow, the artist Taffina Flood, explained this week had “an interdisciplinary philosophy based on the belief that an idea came first, with art history and creative thinking, and the choice of medium afterwards, [the student] seeking out the appropriate medium, not being a slave to a particular discipline.”

In his eulogy at O’Nolan’s Humanist funeral service in Dublin this month, Hanley gave a pointed example of this in practice:

“Thirty odd years ago, one student [of O’Nolan’s] vacillated and said she had picked textiles, but really wanted to do fine art. James told her firmly, ‘Go . . . and change to fine art.’ The art student concerned was Rachel Joynt, today one of Ireland’s greatest sculptors.”

An outstanding feature of O'Nolan's life was his modesty. He both detested and avoided the limelight. In the words of artist Richard Gorman, quoted by Hanley in his eulogy, O'Nolan was a man "having no ego." Flood recalled this week that when the SRP appeared on a recent edition of architect Dermot Bannon's RTE TV show Room for Improvement, in which artist Majella O'Donnell was visiting the Press to complete some work there, he had to be persuaded to go on the programme, and, even then, despite it attracting an audience in the hundreds of thousands, didn't afterwards even want to watch it.

Renowned family

O’Nolan came from a particularly renowned Irish family. His father, Kevin, was a Professor of Ancient Classics at University College, Dublin and one of his uncles was Brian O’Nolan, the writer Flann O’Brien, aka the satirist Myles na gCopaleen, columnist with this newspaper. His mother, Maureen Dwyer, who died when he was aged six, was the matron at Glenstal Abbey School where her husband was teaching when James was born. Kevin O’Nolan later remarried, his second spouse being Marie O’Connell, a noted novelist of the period.

Before joining the NCAD, O’Nolan had worked for the Setanta Gallery, Dublin, and the Graphic Art Studio, the capital’s oldest co-operative artists’ print studio. O’Nolan collaborated at the Graphic with colleagues including Maria Simmonds-Gooding and Mary Farl-Powers in introducing a Visiting Artists scheme. He continued to work at the Graphic for many years after commencing his teaching career.

O'Nolan was educated at Blackrock College and University College, Dublin, he took a degree in Art History and English, and later at Trinity College, Dublin, where he obtained his Higher Diploma in Education (H Dip). Although no linguist, he wrote about art superbly well, displaying what Hanley describes a "great skill with language" most recently in an article on Felim Egan for the Irish Arts Review.

James O’Nolan is survived by Taffina, their daughters Molly and Sadie, and by his sister Maeve.