Sunday Independent Life Magazine: John Short

Short stories... in artist's south County Dublin home

John Short lives in a semi-detached house in south County Dublin dating from the 1960s, but it's fair to say that the interior bears little or no resemblance to its original state.


When John and his wife Helen Pomphrey bought the house in 2008, they redesigned the whole layout and imbued it with light, space and height, adding interesting details like large expanses of glass, concrete flooring and vivid panels of colour. And lots of fabulous art.


Both John and Helen are artists, so it's to be expected that they would have some design skills; however, it's a really confident redesign and it comes as no surprise to learn that John - who enjoys a highly successful career as an artist, and indeed has a new exhibition opening on Thursday - actually intended to become an architect.

However, his art teacher in Scotland, back in John's youth, had other ideas. "I wanted to do architecture, but my art teacher decided that I should do art and that's how it turned out," John recalls, slightly enigmatically, elaborating only a little: "He drove me with my portfolio to the art college in his car, in a rage. I got a place in the college and took it."

If John was initially a reluctant student, he soon realised that he had talent and embraced his calling.


Originally from "a wee, unspectacular, unremarkable village called Leslie" between Edinburgh and Dundee, John graduated from Edinburgh College of Art before going on to do an MA in London. After a year or two freelancing, he answered an ad for a lectureship in the School of Art and Design in the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and has been here ever since.


He had met Helen, who teaches art in Bray Institute of Further Education, in Edinburgh; they got married in 1983 and became parents to two boys, Charles and Alexander, who are both now in their late 20s. "I'm longer here than I was in Scotland, but I think of myself as Scottish," John says. Nor would anyone mistake him for anything else - he still has a delightful Scottish burr.


In his 32 years here, John has continued to lecture at DIT and has built a significant career as an artist in tandem with his day job. He started by doing newspaper illustration in his spare time, but then he moved on to more creative work. In retrospect, he has had three phases to his creative art, and all three happened by accident. The first was his portrait phase, which started one year when he and Helen were holding a birthday party for one of their sons and, instead of a bouncy castle, he gave the little guests their portraits to take in their goody bags. "I told the boys to sit still, I drew these wee turnips in watercolour. There was one little boy, looking over my shoulder, watching as I drew, and next thing he shouts, 'hey guys - look, it starts off crap and ends up cool'," John laughs, adding: "That's so going on my tombstone."


After that, he did a whole series of portraits for families all over south County Dublin. "During the boom, that was the thing to have, and watercolour portraits were perfect. Irish people don't like stuffy, self-important statements about themselves - the more informal, especially with kids, the better."


He did a lot of portraits over a certain period, but it was extremely time-consuming and soon - again by chance - he found another phase. "One of the boys' schools had a fundraiser and somebody said: 'Would you ever give us a couple of drawings for an auction?', so I did two Forty Foot pictures. And the guy from the auctioneers who was doing the auction, said to the organisers later, 'if I had a dozen of those, I could have sold them'. I thought, 'whoa, I'm on to something here', so that then became fun." John recalls.


He has since gone on to paint numerous scenes of the bathers in the Forty Foot in the different stages of going for a swim: undressing, donning the swimsuit, tugging the edges down over the buttocks, taking the plunge, drying off, rinsing out the swimsuit. Some are fit, some are fat, all against the backdrop of the familiar bathing spot.


"The Forty Foot is an icon. You see buses of tourists and the tourists can't believe what they're seeing - 'people swimming in the sea, they must be nuts'," John laughs, adding, "but the prints really appeal to people; you can buy them on my website and I send them all over the world."


For the third phase of his art, John himself actually travels all over the world; it started with an art project for his students in 2010. "We had a post-graduate student from China who suggested we take our students to China, and so we did an exchange programme with Shanghai. Since then, we've also travelled to Morocco. Tom Kelly, who lectures in photography, always comes with us," John says. "On each trip, we ask the students to do a project based on their experiences, and Tom and I do the project as well." John also sketches constantly on his personal travels with Helen; they've spent a lot of time in Australia over the last few years, as both of their sons are based in Sydney. "The wildlife in Australia - you couldn't find anything weirder," John says.


John, who has won numerous awards for his art, will include many of the Forty Foot pictures, and Chinese, Australian, and Moroccan scenes in his forthcoming exhibition in the Solomon Gallery; it will be opened on March 19 by Barry Devlin, ex Horslips' frontman and screenwriter. "Barry's son was at that portrait party, and Barry went on to commission a family portrait. He calls himself an aging rock god, and I call him my lucky charm," John explains with a laugh.


In addition to the watercolours and sketches, John plans to include life-size figures of his bathers encased in Perspex; the figures are cardboard. "When we moved house, there was a lot of cardboard left over from Ikea. I thought it was too good to bin, so I made 3D figures with it," he explains.


The mention of Ikea should not mislead - John's house is a classy make-over, and while certain things did come from the Swedish giant, no expense was spared in creating perfection.


The couple already had a lovely house in the area but they wanted a bigger garden, and, according to John: "Helen likes a project, and it's a challenge to try and beautify a 1960s house."


It was a challenge they took on with gusto. He and Helen re-designed the house with the help of structural engineer Michael Rogers; in the process, they added light and space everywhere. They increased the square footage by adding a studio and bedroom at attic level, while the most significant changes downstairs involved raising the ceilings in the kitchen/dining room, widening the doorways from the hall to the various rooms, installing new floors and the addition of very large expanses of glass.


Fortunately, there are still ample wall expanses to display John's wonderful art.


'John Short - New Works' will be at Solomon Fine Art, Balfe Street, D2, from March 20 to April 18, see Also see

March 7, 2015