Drawing on a former love


A New Life:The chance to become the 'new face' of RTÉ meant Thelma Mansfield had to defer her career as an artist until now, writes Michelle McDonagh

Since Thelma Mansfield began painting full time eight years ago, the life of the former TV presenter has been transformed and she has become totally absorbed in the creative world.

Ironically, if Mansfield had not been plucked from school at the age of 16 years to become the "new face of RTÉ", it is highly likely that she would have become an artist at a much earlier age.

While she thoroughly enjoyed her years with RTÉ, Mansfield becomes so completely absorbed in her work in the peaceful, sunny studio at the back of her Dún Laoghaire home these days that she sometimes has trouble remembering what her days in RTÉ were like.

"When I'm painting, I focus so hard on what I am doing for hours that I become almost brain dead. It's such a solitary activity. I can't have the same personality that I used to have as a TV presenter, I almost have to learn how to talk to people again," she remarks.

Mansfield's career as an artist may have come to notice only five years ago, but her talent for art and love of the aesthetic go back to her teens when she showed a lot of potential as a painter, winning a number of prizes including the Texaco Children's Art Competition.

Both her brother Keith and sister Louise are professional artists as is her own son, Michael, so it would appear that this artistic streak runs through the veins of the Mansfield family.

She was born on the seafront in Dún Laoghaire overlooking Scotman's Bay only a couple of yards from the elegant home where she has lived with her photographer husband Johnny Morris for the past 28 years and raised her family. Mansfield feels the sea is in her bones and she never likes being too far away from it.

The couple have a second home in Spiddal, Co Galway which is right on the sea and Mansfield's new studio there overlooks the Spiddal River Estuary.

Mansfield claims to know every inch of the beautiful bogs that surround her Spiddal studio, every blade of grass and wildflower. Indeed, she has fallen into her fair share of bog pools over the years when out wandering with Johnny, who is "a falconer first and photographer second".

It's not surprising that the inspiration for so much of Mansfield's impressionistic work comes from beaches and the sea, skies, fields, bogs and the people and wildlife that inhabit the landscape of both the east and west of Ireland.

This is no bored former TV presenter dabbling in painting to pass the time, but a serious, dedicated artist who has already built up quite a body of impressive work.

"I am inspired by nature; I love the outdoors and am fascinated by skies and the sea. If I can paint a combination of those things, I am really happy," she explains.

After a number of years as a continuity announcer with RTÉ, Mansfield presented Good Afternoon with Derek Davis for three years before going on to present Live at Three for a further 12 years.

Very few TV presenters leave the business altogether, most retain some form of involvement, but when Mansfield left, she was determined to make a clean break of it. She had started painting again during her last year with Live at Three (not knowing this was to be her last year) when she went on an art course at UCD with a friend.

She left RTÉ entirely about eight years ago after Live at Three had ended and became more and more absorbed in her painting. While Mansfield "absolutely regrets" that she did not start painting full-time at a younger age, she wonders if she could have done it when her children were small.

She also muses that she may never have met her husband if circumstances were different and she was not in Dublin on that particular day working for RTÉ.

"Being creative has been the most satisfying thing for me, I think I lacked this on TV. I tried to be as creative as I could in my garden, in my home and in cooking and even in the presents I gave to people to help satisfy this need. Since I discovered painting full time, my life has been transformed and I have become totally absorbed in the creative world."

Sitting in her studio, a converted orangery at the back of her garden with the sun streaming through the windows, Mansfield does appear to be the picture of contentment.

She still takes pride in her appearance and keeps in shape by eating healthily and walking. Her permanent companion, Seafee - short for the sea field in Spiddal where Mansfield found the dog wandering in an emaciated and maltreated state - follows her everywhere adoringly.

Once her household chores are finished, Mansfield heads into the studio around mid-morning each day and works until the light fades in the winter or until about 6pm in the summer. She then moves on to her next big passion which is food and starts preparing the evening meal.

Thelma Mansfield has been selling her work in the RDS twice each year and exhibiting in group exhibitions over the past five years. She is currently in the middle of her first solo exhibition entitled Beaches, Boats and Bogs, which runs at the Kenny Art Gallery in Galway until June 28th.