AS IRELAND’S MOST RENOWNED CONTEMPORARY SCULPTOR JOHN BEHAN’S WORK OFTEN REFERENCES IRISH HISTORY. IN HIS NEW EXHIBITION “MIGRANTS” AT SOLOMON FINE ART, BEHAN LINKS THE IRISH FAMINE WITH THE CURRENT PLIGHT OF MIGRANTS IN EUROPE …
Now 82 and showing no signs of retiring, John Behan lives and works near Galway city, having started his career with an apprenticeship in metalwork and welding before continuing his studies at Ealing Art College in London and the Royal Academy School, Oslo. On returning to Dublin he was determined to disrupt the elitist Irish art scene in the Sixties and increase opportunities for contemporary artists. As part of this mission, he co-founded the innovative Project Arts Centre in Dublin in 1967 and established the Dublin Art Foundry with Peter O’Brien in 1970.
Behan’s work has garnered many accolades including a Gold Medal at the Oireachtas Exhibition, the ESB Silver Medal and the Ford Spirit of Art Award and his numerous public art commissions include the National Famine Memorial in Murrisk, Co Mayo, the Flight of the Earls in Rathmullan, Co Donegal, Arrival: A New Dawn ship outside the UN Headquarters, New York and Wings of the World at Shenzhen Airport in China. In addition, Behan’s work can also be found in the collections of the National Gallery of Ireland, IMMA, Dublin City Gallery: the Hugh Lane, the Ulster Museum, Belfast and the Crawford Municipal Gallery, Cork among many others.
Behan’s work is recognisable for its references to classical civilisations (particularly Greek) as well as Irish history, with ghost ships, bulls and mythical figures all recurring motifs. His distinctive bronze sculptures have evolved and most recently they are defined by their “spiky” style – showing both strength and vulnerability, poetry and poignancy.
In the last few years, Behan has made frequent visits to Athens to volunteer at Camp Eleonas, a centre for migrants arriving from Iraq, Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. Behan has given art workshops to adults and children at Camp Eleonas, with whom he hopes to work in the near future on a public sculpture commission to highlight their plight.
Photograph by Amelia Stein
What was the inspiration for your new exhibition “Migrants”?
The impulse emanated from my experience of meeting migrants at Eleonas Refugee Camp and meeting migrants in Athens over three or four years from 2017 – 2019. It brought home to me that the bigger picture was of an extreme nature of which we in Ireland had a very limited knowledge.
What was your starting point and how long have you been working on the pieces?
The making of the bronze sculptures has been in progress for four years. The starting point goes back to the 1990s and my keen interest in the Irish Famine, which I see as parallel experience.
How and where do you work?
I work from sketches, from memory and photos of actual migrants/refugees, and from media images. All of the wax models I make in my Galway studio which are then cast in bronze in CAST Foundry in Dublin and in Foxford, Co Mayo.
Do you have any favourite pieces in the exhibition or ones of special note?
Each piece is a unique creative experience and each piece means as much to me as another; all the sculptures are special to me.
Need to Know: John Behan’s “Migrants” exhibition and the Winter Group Show is currently on at Solomon Fine Art, Balfe Street, Dublin 2. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 10am – 5.30pm, (and 7.30pm on Thursdays) and at the weekend from 11am – 4pm. www.solomonfineart.ie.