At just 24, Bartholomew Beal became the youngest artist in 138 years to stage a solo show at the Fine Art Society with his critically acclaimed paintings based around TS Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. This September will see the artist return to the space with his third solo show, ‘Drive Out West’, a series of dynamic paintings inspired by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. These are not literal renditions of poetic compositions, rather Beal takes the written word as a point of ignition, using his own reactions, realities, and the unpredictable process of painting to arrive at each work. Beal is not only pushing the expectations of traditional media, but also pushing the limits of word and image in his painterly exploration of the their relationship.
Ahead of the anticipated opening of ‘Drive Out West’, we catch nine minutes with Beal to talk about the careful balance between the design and serendipity of inspiration…
How much does happenstance play a part in helping you settle on the poetic works which inspire your paintings?
“Deciding which literature to work from is always very considered, and I spent most of 2016 making that decision. I had decided that I would go for poetry again, because I could burrow into the decisions of every word and the meaning of each line would be unique to each reader, leaving my paintings more open to interpretation. That was one of my struggles with King Lear for my last set of paintings for the Fine Art Society; there were simply too many words to get to grips with, and each word or phrase had been studied through the centuries, meaning every one of my paintings took on a definite figure or moment.”
As well as poetry and words, what visual imagery, such as photographs or video, do you look to for inspiration?
“The images I work from are almost always photographs, and I have been trying with these paintings to find some more models, so I scribble out an idea for a composition before finding the figures to work from. These paintings have 4 different models featuring in several paintings, and sometimes they are the top half of one and the bottom half of another. Some of them also reference some old black and white photographs, several of which I found in Ireland on a research trip.”
How much does travel and location play a part in your creative process?
“I have ventured on a couple of research trips to Ireland and Northern Ireland, which have been very fruitful; the Seamus Heaney centre in Bellaghy was full of photos, films and facts but the paintings are very rarely set in a definite location. I like to impose a couple of suggestions, but leave it at that, so the painting might be set in a different place for every viewer.”
What artists are currently inspiring you and why?
“Adam Lee, Nigel Cooke and Peter Doig are the painters that really excite me at the moment as they all manage to take it that step further, using their confidence to make paintings set in a new place created by the artist. The figures still feature in most of their paintings, and they have imposed such a personalised style with confident brushstrokes that each painting is completely absorbing. This is something I am always trying to push with my work – keeping it untidy and unfinished as an attempt to persuade people to finish it for themselves.”
What is it about the medium of painting which you find most appealing?
“I think it must be that a complete mistake, or even a dropping of the brush/canvas can sometimes come up with my favourite part of the painting. I try my hardest to keep my brushes overloaded, so it is canvas and gravity making some of the decisions.”
Your latest body of work takes inspiration from Seamus Heaney. How did you come across the poet and his work?
“Finding an Irish girl last year meant that I was suddenly surrounded by the Irish, and my regular trips to Ireland were filled with Heaney references which I was very interested to look into. She gave me a small book of his poems; one of them called ‘Postscript’ which seemed to be a perfect summary of our drive along the Irish coast.”
Which poems of his are you particularly focusing on with these works?
“‘Postscript’- a memory of a moment- written in a hour. ‘Requiem For the Croppies’ – a sonnet written on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, based on the 1798 revolutions, thwarted by the British. ‘Digging’ – a poem about changes through the generations of his family. I picked these as three contrasting examples, to spread the net wide across his work.”
Can we expect self-portraits or portraits of family members within these paintings?
“Two of these paintings are focused on my father, surrounded by small objects and clues, as a reference to ‘Digging’ – a poem about Heaney’s step away from the traditional occupations of his father and grandfather.“But I’ve no spade to follow men like them” This reminded me of my own grandfather- a weights and measures inspector, and then my father- an English teacher taking centre stage in the painting. My own step out of line is symbolised by the painting itself. My only attempts at self portraits have been strangely beautiful and serene- unfortunately not a very accurate representation.”
The works are incredibly vibrant; do you have a synesthetic experience whilst reading poetry – i.e. do phrases, words and rhythms inspire forms and colours in your imagination?
“‘Requiem for the Croppies’ immediately reminded me of a painting I was working on in 2013, which was the starting point for three of the paintings in this set. There are several colours which are my initial response to the poems, which are now 10/20 layers behind the finished piece. It is instincts like these which get each painting started, and it’s always interesting to see how they develop from there.”
Would you say the resultant works are an amalgamation of both Heaney’s imagination and your own?
“His work has been a springboard for these paintings, but I hope they are no longer relying upon them. Each painting is an attempt to translate my initial reactions, and then develop them from there, so some have developed into completely different colours and compositions, but maintained throughout a reference to where they started.”