The Fine Art of Going Forward

Sunday Independent interview with John Behan

the fine art of going forward


Although approaching his 75th birthday, sculptor John Behan has the round, cherubic face of a man far younger. More than just youthful, he looks innocent, as if his path through life has carefully, deliberately, skirted anything that might tamper with the purity of his seeing. "I go back over and over again. I'm the kind of sculptor [that] the themes come back again and again," he tells me, over tea in the Shelbourne Hotel, in the run up to his exhibition at the Solomon Gallery. "Maybe over 10 years. There are images I come back to again and again. Even one idea can take that amount of time." And so, in his work, we get the images, myths, legends and history that are the Irish identity – bulls, famine ships, Cuchaillain figures. The style of expression changes, but the fundamental themes are consistent. As he says, quoting Joyce, "life and art go in cycles."


Right now, the cycle of Behan's life is a sad one; his usually clear blue eyes are clouded by pain. Just before Christmas, his partner, Dr Emer MacHale, died from lung cancer. They met, years ago, at a party; "After that we just got together. It was as simple as that. It wasn't at all complex," he says. The house where they lived together, in the middle of Galway, John now inhabits alone. "It's terrible," he says, without attempting to hide the truth of this. "Just terrible. I often wake in the middle of the night, and realise, she's not here, she's gone. That's the worst bit. This time last year, we were planning to go down to the South of France. We knew Emer was not well, but after October of last year, she just went" – he makes a sharp-declining motion with his hand – "and she died on the 18th of December, just a week before Christmas."


Grief so often closes people over, restricts their sight, narrows their focus. Not so with Behan, who remains completely open and alive to the world. It seems that long habits of attentiveness and instinctive sympathy do not desert, even in a dark hour of need. "The really bad part of it is, it's not the lost years of you yourself, it's the loss for your partner. Her life is gone. She will no longer be there. And it's their loss – people say, 'it's your loss,' but I don't see it that way. I see it as her loss. It's a huge blow."


We talk about Caitlin Thomas, wife of Dylan, and the book she wrote after his death, Leftover Life to Kill. It is, we agree, a chilling title. "To lose your life partner is unbelievable," says John. "You don't shake off that kind of deep, emotional attachment that's been broken." And he is extraordinarily honest about the lack of comfort in the knowledge that this is common human experience; "It's happened to other people before now ... although there's no consolation in that."


There are, however, other sources of comfort. In the most natural way – nothing glib or forced – Behan is inclined to look for whatever positives there are. "I have really close friends," he says. "And the consolation was that in the last three years, there were two little grandsons born. That's really nice, for me. There's a famous essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says there are always compensations, no matter what. You have to see the consolations. If you go into a state of morbidity and collapse, you'll probably never get over it." And, because he is who he is, there is work. "If I hadn't got work, I'd go mad. I think I would anyway. I get up as near to 7am as I can, every morning. I just keep going. If I didn't do that, I don't know what would happen to me. I get up and I work every day, that's my rule, to myself. I work to honour the memory of Emer." Recently, he completed a garden sculpture, which attracts birds to it every day. "That's a memorial to her," he explains, "and I'm doing a thing for the hospital where she worked, of birds again. In relationship to her, I think of birds," he adds, simply. "I've come through it ok, but you know ... you can't forget it."


"I've plenty to do. It's a strange thing, I'm making a good living at the work I'm doing now, that's going well, but it's pretty hard to be thinking about the other aspect of life." So does now, on the eve of his 75th birthday, seem like a good time to look back, to reflect on his remarkable life so far? "I don't do too much looking back," he says. "I try to look forward, not back. The past is a different country, they say. You can get lost in the wrong aspects of nostalgia. If you are a creative artist, you want to be doing something new. As Ezra Pound says, make it new all the time. Even if it's an old theme."


He is adamant that old and new can exist together, that an image from ancient Ireland – the Morrigan, say, depicted by Behan as a scrawny crow – can say plenty about the contemporary world; "for an artist, anything that's made now is contemporary. You could write a novel about Hadrian in Roman times, and make it modern." And indeed, Arrival, his seven-metre long bronze sculpture of a famine ship that stands outside the UN headquarters in New York, is every bit as much a poignant reference to the tragic displacement of Syria's desperate refugees, for example, as it is a tribute to the starving Irish of the 1840s. It is the physical manifestation of the heartbreaking image Auden created in The Shield of Achilles; "they were small/And could not hope for help and no help came".


And if others don't get that fact, he is easy with that. "People may not be at all interested, but that's not my problem," he says, quite cheerfully. "My problem is to deal with what people feel; not with textual analysis or cold philosophical precepts or concepts, of what art is about. My role is to create and to help people to survive in hard times, and to provide hope. That's why my work is figurative mainly, I want to create a hopeful environment around the work I do."


Partly, this desire to create hope stems from the fact that for Behan, art and life are inextricable. "Life and art are not separate, they are part of the same universe." That said, he says "you have to isolate your creative impulse from the daily bustle of life, and shake the dust of reality for a while away, and get down to the basics." Does he find that a lonely process? "Oh yes," he says happily. "Is sitting down at a typewriter a waste of a life? In the studio, on your own, with a lump of clay, a blank canvas, in my case a welding torch; what are you going to do with that, on a Monday morning?"


It is a discipline that he learned very early, as an apprentice in a metal works, where he started at the age of 15. "When I was finished, I knew an awful lot about metal and how to form it and how it functions, where it comes from," he says modestly. It was this apprenticeship, too, that gradually brought his father around to the idea that his son was an artist – because from it came something tangible, a skill he could understand and relate to. "When I decided to become an artist, my father nearly had a canary," John explains. "My mother was more understanding. My father was a grocer, who ended up working in the Customs House as a porter when his health got bad. He had probably heard the stories about artists committing suicide, the loose living, the drinking, and all the rest of it. He was worried for me. But he accepted it in the end, when he saw me, in partnership with other people, in a fairly critical area of production – making castings for other people. He realised then things were working out for me." If the solid physical grounding that John learned at the forge persuaded his father, it has also been the bedrock of his artistic vision – like many sculptors, his approach is practical, tangible, work-driven. From those early days as an apprentice, he went on to train at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin, at Ealing Art College in London, and the Royal Academy School in Oslo. As well as his remarkable public sculptures, his work is included in the private collections of Mary McAleese, Mary Robinson, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Bill and Hillary Clinton, also the Hugh Lane gallery, the Crawford Municipal Gallery and the National Gallery of Ireland.


His father, of course, was right to worry. The huge attrition rate in art would cause any parent to think twice – "we used to talk about it, John Kelly and myself, Michael Kane, the other artists, about being in the College of Art, and 30-40 years later, how many of the thousands of people who had passed through those doors, had made it. One percent? Less? The failure rate is appalling" – but against the odds, Behan has been an integral part of the Irish art scene for five decades now. In the 1960s, he was part of a loose, dynamic and visionary collective including Edna O'Brien, Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, which started what became the Project Arts Centre. Could that kind of creative explosion happen now? "No. There has to be hope – the feeling that things are possible.


"The rising tide must be there too. The economics. In the 1960s we had people with disposable income, who were buying art for the first time. Haughey came along with the tax support. He was a very intelligent, if corrupt man. He understood what was going on around him. These guys today, they don't understand, and they just have one view of politics – commodified. If they're not making money after a few years, they think there's something wrong." The arts, he believes, will start to suffer. "You create a vacuum and you try to pack the arts into that. A civil servant said to me – 'you know what your status is as an artist? You're on the same level as an off-season hotel.'" He laughs, but only a little, then adds: "All you can do as an artist is keep going every day, and work."


So will he celebrate his birthday? "I'm not going to do much," he says. "I had a big 70th, a big party, that will do me. This time, I'll just have a few friends." For all the pain and heartache of the past year or so, John Behan is a man who can still look around him and see what is wonderful in life. "It's good to get this far. I never thought I would. I've been terribly lucky, in my health too. As for what's next, Paddy Kavanagh had a lovely phrase – 'the main thing is to continue, To walk Parnassus right into the sunset.'"


'John Behan at 75' runs at the Solomon Gallery 20th Sept-19th Oct

September 8, 2013