A STORM in a desert, a bewitching ‘fairy’ tree or ancient dolmen - Tommy Barr has held them all up to the light for scrutiny - and innovative interpretation.
Not long returned from a trip to Ruelle in France as guest artist of Banbridge District Twinning Assocation where he demonstrated his skill with a brush (and bottle of sand, but more of that later), he is ready to pack his bags again in the name of art.
This time he is heading East to exhibit at the Mission Gallery in Sofia at the invitation of the Bulgarian Government - but first he must get down to the serious business of chucking about some oil on canvas.
His technique literally involves “chucking and swirling about” paint with a knife and then, when the colours, texture and atmospheric effect are just right, he will paint a fine, faint, shadowy line drawing on top.
The resulting effect is ethereal and abstract in outlook; a very modern ‘take’ on something that started life usually in a conventionally normal setting - a tree in a field, a stone at a sacred burial site or stained glass window illuminating a beautiful old church.
Stained glass windows are, in fact, one of the Banbridge artist’s favourite fascinations, although he draws inspiration from everything around him after first being introduced to art by his art teacher at Dromore High School, Jim Campbell, who encouraged him to help paint the scenery for a student production of ‘Wizard of Oz’.
Entirely self-taught and refreshingly modest for a painter invited to show his work in Italy, China, Jordan, Turkey, Romania, Germany and, most recently, at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Tommy is the first to admit he never really had a ‘plan’.
His ‘real’ job is in IT (he works for Belfast City Council and is currently involved in managing the ‘Super Connected’ project to upgrade the city’s Broadband infrastructure) and he didn’t go out of his way to be a successful artist - especially a ‘post celtic symbolist’ one, which is the unofficial label with which he has been conferred.
A down-to-earth Banbridge man at heart, the father-of-three seems slightly bemused at the pretentious-sounding title, although he reckons it’s probably fair enough, since he openly embraces our rich heritage of distinctive motifs and symbols in his simple but stylised compositions.
It is a style which slowly evolved and bears little resemblance to his early output when he dabbled in painting portraits or traditional scenes to give to friends at Christmas.
And, with regard to the aforementioned sand, he has bottles of the stuff, all in descending tones and hues and from everywhere from Morocco, to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan (where he dined with Princess Wijdan Ali, founder of the Royal Society of Fine Arts and the Jordan National Gallery, when representing Northern Ireland in the 2006 EU Exhibition).
He collects it religiously like another tourist might collect a fridge magnet while on his travels - and its purpose? To sprinkle generously over wet paint for added depth and texture.
“I studied science at university and started off writing computer programmes, but I always loved history, travel and art and now I am sort of combining all three,” he says. “I love the travel aspect -when you arrive in a new place and start painting, you soak it all up. It is like you have been given a fresh pair of eyes to see all the detail close-up; details that you miss in an overly familiar setting.”
It was a trip to Florence in 2003 which started it all: “I was asked through a contact to take part in an exhibition and it was amazing,” he says. “I was working alongside a restoration artist who had been tasked with ‘touching up’ a hand belonging to one of the iconic figures painted on the ceiling of the Duomo of Florence Cathedral.
“I met so many well-known artists, including David Hockney, and that trip really made me ‘up my game’ and gave me a foot-hold outside Northern Ireland.” Today, he gratefully acknowledges the support of Graham Coulter, former Chief Finance Officer with Banbridge District Council, who helped make that first trip possible. It’s also why he now volunteers and is deputy chair of the council arts committee - “to give a little back”.
Since his Italian experience, Tommy has exhibited in countries all over the world, but, significantly, always without ambition and always without that all-important ‘plan’.
Serendipity seems forever to be at play, leaving him free to “paint what I like and then see where it takes me”.
Certainly, it seems he has the knack of just randomly meeting people “who know people” and then, before he can shake some more sand over his canvas, some ambassador somewhere, who just happens to know a curator of a national gallery somewhere else, whose friend Tommy got talking to while in the corner shop, has booked him for an exhibition.
One notable occasion when he was sketching the famous Glastonbury Thorn tree, the curator of Glastonbury Abbey just happened to come over for a look - and that led to another exhibition.
“It really has been a bit like that,” he laughs, good naturedly. “I made a lot of good contacts from being part of the ‘Connecting Art’ group which was formed after the Florence trip and it has brought together artists from Croatia, Germany, Greece, USA and Brazil.
“Then, about a couple of years ago I was on a caravan holiday in Waterford and I was visiting the Municipal Art Gallery which is in an old Gothic church, and I was admiring the stained glass windows when I got talking to the gallery manager.”
To cut another long story short (he has loads), the end of the conversation resulted in Tommy Barr, post celtic symbolist painter from around these parts, being booked for yet another exhibition.
“Originally, we had talked of me providing travel paintings for the Waterford venue, but then things became really interesting and took off in an entirely different direction,” he says, smiling enigmatically again. “I had just discovered my mother was a Hugenot and the gallery manager started to tell me how this old church I was standing in was steeped in Hugenot history…”
The upshot was the beginning of a series of Hugenot symbolic images for galleries in the six places the French Protestant reformers had settled in - Waterford, Cork, Portarlington, Dublin, La Rochelle in France and Lisburn in Northern Ireland.
“Probably, out of everything I have been involved in artistically, I was most pleased with the Lisburn exhibition which was held in the Island Arts Centre,” Tommy reveals. “There are 18 paintings in total and I depicted three images from each of the six cities for the travelling exhibition.
“I sold a few here and there which have had to be replaced and I am hoping to complete the Hugenot series with exhibitions in the remaining venues of Cork, Portarlington and Dublin at a later date.”
Meanwhile, it is back to the drawing board, or more correctly, studio table, at his Graceystown Road home where, away from the banausic world of computers and Broadband, he is getting creative in readiness for the forthcoming Bulgarian adventure.
“I have 14 paintings to complete, with the theme pre-historic symbolism from both the Celtic and Thracian traditions, so it will be a challenge,” adds the affable Banbridge man who, this time, may just have a plan…