Judith Henihan

Artist behind a new exhibition of Irish literary figures at Mary I

John Rainsford


John Rainsford

Judith Henihan

Judith Henihan the artist behind a new exhibition of Irish literary figures

Born in Limerick, my parents moved to Dublin shortly after I was born, however, the former city remained formative nonetheless.

Indeed, I have many happy memories of playing in the fields near Mungret, where my Mother’s family lived, and of visiting elderly Grandaunts in town. As far back as I can remember, I have always painted or drawn on paper bags, torn envelopes, under drawers, on the back of wardrobes, behind my cousin’s bunk bed or sometimes, more conventionally, in sketchbooks. The malady persisted throughout my schooling, and eventually, I went to the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), in Dublin, where I read for a degree in Fine Art, specializing in painting.

The condition of being an artist is, in my experience, usually there from birth (or shortly thereafter), patiently awaiting diagnosis and type specific nomenclature.

No matter what you do, the symptoms will become apparent in time, so therefore, support, understanding and acknowledgment, are vital palliatives, though not always to be had. In saying that, it is very tough trying to make a living from art, specifically painting. Passion, enthusiasm and that constant pursuit of the unattainable keeps the artist searching. In fact, as I get older, my obsession with painting has only grown. It is my method of communication, of tapping into my particular quest. The narrative ability of an image, namely the ability to visually express stories, feelings and emotions, is what interests me most. It is that sense of what it is to feel, and how that can be expressed through a drawing, that is so all encompassing.

For many years I painted landscapes, cityscapes and regularly studied life drawing, however, about seven years ago, I turned my hand to traditional print making.

This opened-up a more playful, narrative aspect of image-making for me. Drawn mainly from childhood fairytales, the style was so different to my normal work that I decided to invent an ‘alter ego’ to go with it. Composed of my middle name, Ann, and my married name, McKenna, having two 'voices' gave me greater artistic freedom. The resulting themes included; Celtic mythology (‘In my Mind’s Eye’, an exhibition, at Newgrange Interpretive Centre), legend (‘Faoi Gheasa’, an exhibition, in Rathcoole Gallery, Kildare), Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare (‘The Romantic Tragedy’ exhibition at Birr Arts Centre) and even Lewis Carroll (as per the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ exhibition, in The Moat Theatre, Naas).

You don’t take the path of being an artist in a single stride.

The road from childish scribbles and stories to that of serious painter (of whatever school) is taken in a thousand tiny steps. Eventually, you reach a point where you realize that Art is not a career choice so much as a calling. It is, in fact, a vocation of sorts. I would not, however, rush to dismiss those childish dreams. As much as anything else in my life, they were formative. So, I can trace my early interest to serendipitous encounters with the images of often unknown artists. Indeed, I would happily spend my time as a child, gazing up at the Aubrey Beardsley prints which peopled the hallway of my parents’ house. Even today, with the ever increasing layers of electronic tablets, and ever-growing tiers of computers, in all their myriad forms, there remains a constant: the human being. The soul, if you like. I see the artist as both image-maker and interpreter. I don’t mean in the sense of the Google translate. Ultimately, the artist is a craftsperson, with a very particular set of skills and sensitivities, who uses them to evoke the essence of the human condition.

‘Voices from the Past’ is an exhibition of portraits of Irish literary figures from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It will be hanging in the Foyer of the Foundation Building in Mary Immaculate College (MIC), from early November. Its genesis lies in MIC’s decision to hold a series of events commemorating 1916. MIC’s ‘Decade of Commemorations’ will thus celebrate our national heritage, language and culture, while also remembering past alumni, as well as the students of today. In this capacity, and most especially as my mother, Margaret McKeown, is a past pupil of Mary I, it was a privilege to be invited to participate in this year’s events. My artistic contribution comprises some nine portraits including; Oscar Wilde, Countess Markievicz, Peig Sayers and Samuel Beckett. In this centenary year of 2016, I found myself looking through so many old photographs, often dim, monotone renderings of faces and places, long gone. I felt enthralled by a sense of the past, while being made painfully aware of how removed we are today, from the ideological struggles of that era.

Portrait painting demands a dialogue between painter and sitter.

The portrait, in essence, is a manifestation of that dialogue, through the eyes of the painter. The directness and intimacy of a live sitting lends itself more easily to this dynamic painter-sitter interplay. However, with a live sitting being impossible, (in the absence of time travel!), I had to find an alternative means of establishing this interplay, which is so crucial to the portrait ‘narrative’. I, therefore, gathered as many images as I could of the subjects, in order to build a sense of what it might have been like, to be in their presence. Undoubtedly, the understanding, or connection, which I felt emerge, is illusory in that it is my sole interpretation. Nonetheless, as I painted each portrait, and as the numbers grew, I felt very keenly engaged in a ‘conversation’ of sorts. These ‘Voices from the Past’ were very much speaking to me!

‘Voices from the Past’ runs at Mary Immaculate College from Monday, November 7. For more information about the artist, email: judithhenihan@gmail.com or see: www.annmckenna.ie