Thomas Higgins with one of his paintings at his debut exhibition in Johnston Central Library, Cavan Town.Photo: Damian McCarney

Artist makes an impression

Thomas Higgins lights up when discussing his heroes, the French Impressionists. You could view the Drumalee man’s debut exhibition in Johnston Central Library almost as an homage to those pioneers who smashed the artistic conventions of their times.

Amongst the titles are ‘After Monet - Poppy Fields’, ‘Water Lilies after Monet’, ‘After Alfred Sisley’. Some have familiar landmarks and the Cavan countryside and streetscapes painted in that distinctive, shimmering style. Others have subject matters dear to the hearts of those rule-breakers such as ballet dancers and sunflowers.

“I would follow French Impressionism, the likes of Claude Monet, [Alfred] Sisley, [Camille] Pissarro. I always liked to see if I could get inside their heads and paint the strokes the way they painted.

“In Impressionism the idea of the broken lines in sky or tree foliage, maybe even people and their clothing - everything had a type of a broken stroke feel.”

Thomas is full of admiration for the approach.

“In 19th Century France - especially Paris - for an artist to get exhibited in the French Salon there were strict criteria that a painting had to meet in order for it to get shown. One criteria was that the painting would be all blended: the sky, trees, everything had to have a harmony.

“But for the first time these young French revolutionaries come along and go, ‘No, we are going to paint the way we see life’. And that’s what they did!”

Thomas is clearly still enraptured by their achievement. But his own achievements are worth noting too. Thomas suffered and aneurysm 12 years ago, and a stroke followed. He lost the power of his right leg and had to relearn to walk again.

He found art a great solace during his rehab, and even had his easel brought to him in hospital.

Joining Thomas when he chats to the Celt is his sister Lavina Gilsenan, a constant support for her brother. It was Lavina who encouraged him to submit his work for the Connecting Artists Collective, which focuses on helping artists with disabilities gain recognition and opportunity. Thomas’ submission impressed the panel of judges and a group exhibition at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons came soon after - still running, open to viewing until April 28.

“Without my sister Lavina none of this would be happening. I really owe it all to her,” he says modestly.

One stand out painting from his collection portrays a beautiful old farmhouse with whitewashed walls and outhouses.

It was composed from a photograph taken by a relative, the late Pat Argue, who was a keen photographer.

“He was an odjus man for the camera,” laughs Thomas.

“I thought that would make for a lovely painting.”

He was correct.

Asked how he feels to have his own exhibition, Tom lights up once again.

“I’m in seventh heaven. It’s something I’ve wished for a long, long time. I feel like how the French Impressionists when they exhibited their first show in the 19th Century. I’m over the moon.”