As one of contemporary Irish art’s best-kept secrets, Richard Hearns’s star is in the ascendant. But the story of the Dublin artist’s origins in war-torn Lebanon is just as remarkable, I discovered when we met in early winter. Here’s the Sunday Independent feature that came out of that interview.
Darkness to light through love and inspiration
‘THE younger one’s a messer,” Richard Hearns laughs. His outstretched hand is nuzzled by a donkey foal which has ambled over to say hello in the paddock behind the artist’s house. Back beyond the pasture, the rocky face of the Burren is lit indigo in the last wisps of the Clare sunset. Here, vistas can take on 60 mannerisms in a minute, all cast on a landscape that trembles with primordial beauty. Although I already know the answer to the question, I ask Hearns why it is that he and countless other artists, photographers and writers have made their home on the western seaboard of this country.
“Apart from the light, the lines of the Burren are also so beautiful,” Hearns enthuses, scanning around. “Very feminine. We lived in Kerry before and the landscape there is more masculine. There is something magnetic about the Burren.”
You may not have come across Richard Hearns very often and that is because he is the best-kept secret of contemporary Irish art. The large kinetic abstracts and masterful figuratives by this Dublin artist sit in collections right across the globe. He is the kind of painter about whom you might use words like “big” and “serious”, somebody who can pay annual visits to New York, Paris or LA to stage heavily subscribed one-man shows. There, a knowing fan base turns up to buy his works while they are still (relatively) affordable. He has achieved all of this largely outside the gallery system through that old-fashioned golden recipe of inspiration and perspiration.
But the story of where Hearns is going is as remarkable as that of where he has come from. He had used the word “messer” with as much casual Dub gusto as a Roddy Doyle character (he grew up in Malahide) but there is something in his eyes that is not of this land.
The warm, deep expressions and sallow skin are too pronounced to be Armada hokum and there is a fascinating engagement to his tone that speaks of some subconscious sense of wonder about things around him.
The truth is that Hearns’ place of birth could not be more different to the rocks, mosses and hazel woods of north Clare. He was adopted in Beirut at the age of 11 weeks.
The 35-year-old knows very little about how he came to be put up for adoption because meticulous record-keeping tends to be a victim of civil wars. He does, however, know that it was at the tail end of the Lebanese civil war that killed 120,000 and scattered many more.
Hearns’s father, Frank, was a UN Commandant who led one of the first-ever peace-keeping missions to the country in 1978. Both his older sisters are also from the Middle East – the eldest, Sarah, came from Bethlehem (the first-ever middle-eastern adoption to Ireland), while Claire was born in the Lebanon in 1976 at the height of the civil war. The adoptions came about via a Donegal nun working in Beirut at the time.
“I think it was on his last tour that my father went to meet Sister Patrick one day and said that he and my mother, Margaret, were thinking about adopting another girl.
“Sister Patrick said, ‘I think you have enough ladies in the family. What would you do if I got you a boy?’ He said, ‘Well I’ll have to ask the Commanding Officer (his wife Margaret) at home about this!'”
Six months passed before Frank ran into the nun again. Things were very bad in Beirut by that time and Sister Patrick began to lean more heavily on the Commandant to make a decision. An old-age home that she oversaw had been shelled, forcing her to relocate to Mount Lebanon outside Beirut.
She pressed Frank for a possible name for the potential adoptee, insisting that he would have to be christened as quickly as possible because the situation was deteriorating rapidly. All she needed were the names of Frank and Margaret’s fathers to secure the deal.
More time passed. Frank finished his tour and returned home to Malahide. And then the phone rang one day. “Richard Cornelius will be in London in two days’ time,” announced Sister Patrick.
Today, the only real sense that Hearns has of Beirut is from one sole visit and the poetry of Khalil Gibran, but he remains “intrigued” by it. He takes a slurp of coffee before recounting travelling there in his early teens with Frank and how the aroma of local spices awakened deep layers of memory that had only had 11 weeks to take hold in his consciousness.
“I think I am very Lebanese,” he frowns. “Dad tells me I have very Lebanese traits. They’re very open, affectionate people. There is a lot of artistry there. They’re mathematicians, very good writers, they’re passionate people.
“I’m very passionate – I can lose the head or fly off the rails very quickly but I make up straight away if I do that. I know that’s a Lebanese trait. And the people are like the Irish. They’re dispersed all over the world as well. They’re a scattered people. I’d love to do a residency there sometime and actually make work.”
More than a million Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon since conflict broke out four years ago in that war-ravaged country. Hearns finds the TV images of children caught up in the horror “too distressing” to look at as they can often bear a resemblance to his sisters’ children. He can only shudder to think of what his life could have been had he not won the lottery of being adopted to a first-world country.
“It’s kind of a miracle,” he finally says, gazing out the window. “I do feel like it was an absolute blessing. I mean, what would have happened to me if I had stayed in Beirut?
“I was born as a Maronite Christian and guns were put into the children’s hands at very young ages. Dad would have seen very young Lebanese people with rifles shooting across at Muslims in other buildings. I could have easily fallen into that.”
He describes his parents today as “amazing people” for not only taking in children that they had never seen before but raising him with the love and consistency that produces balanced and grounded people.
Although admitting to being an “average” academic in school, Hearns was always supported by Frank and Margaret to follow his own path. It was during his late teens that he realised that art was his true calling.
“I remember drawing my hand in my bedroom,” he reminisces. “It was like an epiphany. I had a moment where I realised that I could transcribe this three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional space and I could do it well. I understood line and form and everything like that.”
If we are to go along with Damien Hirst’s view that art is both childish and childlike, then Hearns fits the bill rather well.
“I am childlike,” he nods in agreement, “and I think you have to retain a certain amount of that innocence in order to make paintings. I’m not cerebral in my approach to my painting, even though I have a strong pictorial narrative or pictorial concept that I hang each painting on. But I kind of leap ahead. I want to play, I want to have fun and I want to create all the time.
“And young people create naturally – they want to make things, they have a great tactile sensibility. If you give young children in class something to mould with their hands, everything goes quiet and they all just get totally sucked in. I’ve always tried to retain that, and drawing always allowed me to do that.
“Others identified in me as a young boy that it was something that I could do well and I think that really sticks with you as a young person, if someone tells you you’re really good at something. It was kudos – I got positive feedback and pined for that attention.”
Following a degree in video and sound at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Hearns enrolled in the National College of Art and Design for a HDip in Art, Craft and Design Education, something you feel he would have excelled at, given his switched-on style of communication.
By that time, however, he had already begun to sell his works and knew in his heart that he had to pursue painting as a career.
“I love that saying ‘leap and the net will appear’,” he says. “I was very, very keen to paint. And I’d already connected with people and knew that people were interested in my work. I became hugely invested in it.”
His father, Frank (who in retirement has cycled three times from Ireland to Jerusalem to raise money for the Bethlehem hospital from where Sarah was adopted), was an 800m runner. His grandfather, Dick, was a boxer.
No slouch himself, Hearns applies the disciplines of regular exercise and martial arts that his father instilled in him from a young age to his working day. It is in such discipline that a number of creatives often seen to fall down.
The gravel outside suddenly crunches and Hearns cranes his neck. A carful of art-loving US tourists has arrived for an appointment with him. Although the leader of the group is a gallery owner back in Florida, all six are charmed by Hearns’s sincerity and passion while being transfixed by the works to which he herds them around.
Phrases like “prismatic”, “activating colours” and “anchoring” crop up as Hearns moves his brawny arms over the canvases didactically. “Great light bounce,” one of the Americans gushes by a huge smouldering abstract. Talk of five-figure sums and transatlantic shipping is broached.
He brings us all out to one of two studios where the work takes place, a brightly lit but homely space where a stunning still life of a Bramley branch sits on an easel. The group are enraptured as he describes how he stretches all his own canvases and primes them with the same rabbit-skin glue that the old masters used. Next to Irish plein airs and a bemusing self-portrait (“If I want to rest my eyes, I’ll work on that. I’m kind of taking the mickey out of myself, really!”) are the more exotic subjects from Hearns’s journeyman days.
Thailand, in particular, became his base after the HDip. He could afford to live there for long stretches while putting together a body of work. He would then sell his creative fruits back in Ireland before returning east with the proceeds and so on.
Then in 2002, he met his wife, Boo. Their passes crossed by chance on a small Thai island off the Cambodian coast through mutual friends and they hit it off. The idea of finally relocating to another small island, albeit a rain-lashed one in the Atlantic, was less of a hard sell than you’d expect, he explains.
“Boo had her college degree and was a very worldly person,” he shares later on, “because she had met people from all different parts of the globe through working in tourism in Thailand. So she knew Ireland and knew Irish people. She’s just incredibly resilient and open to new experiences. It wasn’t without its challenges, of course – being away from her family and that – but we’ve made it work. She’s so Irish now. She’s really integrated so well into the community here in Ballyvaughan. She goes to the local ‘Stitch ‘n’ Bitch’ meetings!”
A professional chef (of no mean ability, as this writer will attest) and cooking instructor, Boo makes for a receptive sounding board for an artist always pushing himself towards new challenges and spheres. He stresses that he simply wouldn’t be able to do the shows without her because she is an integral part of hanging exhibitions, co-ordinating opening nights and entertaining visitors to the studio.
“I’ll even read my blog posts to Boo – her English is perfect – for her opinion. She is probably my greatest critic,” he says with Malahide voice and Beirut eyes, “other than my Mam.”
We drift into a discussion on how life is arguably all about discovering what we’re here for. Hearns becomes animated on a subject that clearly resonates with him.
“Richard Rohr (the Franciscan friar and best-selling author) talks about that,” he marvels, “that innate in us is the seed of what we want to do but it’s our lifetime’s work to get to that kind of place.
“Not that it’s a struggle or whatever – it can happen to some people earlier than others – but that the preconditioning is already there for us and our struggle is to find our way on to that path. That made a lot of sense to me, the idea that deep within our DNA is the final thing. You’re just working your way back to it.”
First published in the Sunday Independent