WHEN artist John Collins played the role of two characters in the hit play Pigtown he didn’t imagine the work would manifest itself into other parts of his life.
In fact, his life over the past two years has been consumed by the Mike Finn play, which was staged in the then Belltable Arts Centre, nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award and later put on at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. The story revolves around Tommy Clocks, who takes the audience on a whizz through 100 years of Limerick history.
A play he describes as “Limerick through and through” , it is a tale of old industries, characters and shops that consistently struck a chord with those who have seen it - and especially for John, who played the roles of Keanie, a returning war veteran, and Peter, a member of the Limerick Soviets, which transported food around Limerick when transport was cut off at the bridges by the British Army.
Since then the lines in the play have been etched in his consciousness, and he has been struggling to get them out - and onto the canvas.
“A place can be a scar on your heart”, is one of the lines in the play, which is now one of the titles of his series of paintings for an upcoming exhibition in the Bourn Vincent Gallery in the Foundation building in the University of Limerick. It’s entitled The Wild Watery Heart of the City, another line of inspiration for this exhibition, which will feature some 20 paintings, including a triptych which measures three feet high by 10ft.
“The play ran for three weeks, one of the longest shows ever to run at the Belltable. Working as a artist first and foremost, I was drawn to the words and drawn to the lines. I wanted to see what I could do with it, and turn it around into something that I do. It’s an abstract show - none of the paintings are literal, and it’s not literally dedicated to the text of the script, even though the titles are literal to the text.”
“It’s what comes to me when I read the passages, and that’s what inspires me to do the paintings. There was always certain lines that stood out for me in different acts, that I took and went from there,” he explained from his home and studio outside Cappamore.
It’s not something, he admits, “that’s generally done or done at all”. Mike Finn, he says, “has been behind it the whole way”, and they’ve been in constant touch, with the pair teasing out the play even further, mutating words, feelings and messages onto canvases big and small.
Part of thrill and trepidation of the creative process is that he doesn’t know how or where the work will end up. “I’m an early starter; I’m up at seven generally every morning, and straight into the studio. It could be two or three in the morning when I get out of the studio, which is a lot of time invested in something that you may not get paid for.
“You need to be pretty dedicated to give yourself over to something like this completely. It has nothing [as a starting point] - there is no representation there to follow. You have to get a feeling for it and you have to nearly allow the painting to paint itself.
“It’s pretty precarious work – but that’s what the job of an artist is. You don’t know until you hang them up, and you’re hanging your soul up. The work is your reading of life, and you’re basically hanging up your interpretations of things.
“It’s a metaphor for your life really, and people can see exactly the way you see things when you paint abstracts because you have to give yourself to the work. You have to translate it in your own way, and allow people to judge. Not everyone will like your work, but everyone will have an opinion.”
John pours his paint onto the canvas, “letting the canvas play with the work”, in a similar style to Jackson Pollock - except that he only has the use of one arm.
As a result of a motorcycle accident coming out of the city about 17 years ago, the 46 year-old lost the use of his left arm, “which makes the work more intensive and a lot harder”. And it was after this that he concentrated on painting even more.
A self taught artist, he went to Limerick Senior College to do a portfolio course, and “did well enough” to get into the Limerick school of art and design. However, he dropped out because he wanted to paint and was already selling his work at exhibitions.
“It has a great honour to get in here, but at the same time I needed to paint,” he said.
The work of the Glasgow born artist, who grew up in county Limerick and who counts artists Brian MacMahon and Richard Slade as huge influences, has been described as “haunting, poetic with a dark approach”.
It is a mood, which is similarly reflected in his poetry. Take The Bridge, for instance: “a man is what he makes himself, is what he makes his own, the road that leads down to the bridge, was once his pathway home, he holds his book, he tries not look, as grey crows set to lay, through empty eaves and dying leaves, where the bridge stands in decay.”
His work can be founded hanging in galleries across the country; has sold work privately in LA, France and England, and he has previously exhibited alongside Charles Harper, while John Shinnors opened an earlier exhibition of his.
Prior to this he spent five years in London, where he worked as a carpenter and a tattooist, the latter only partially fulfilling his love of art. Ironically, it was the crash, while temporarily debilitating him, that ultimately propelled him forward. And then the ‘wild watery heart of the city’ called him back home.
The exhibition will be opened by Mike Finn on Thursday December 11, at 5.30pm.