Virginia artist MICHELLE BOYLE is the first Irish painter to have work purchased for the renowned Ruth Borchard exhibition in London, and it seems she’s on the verge of breaking into the national consciousness.
A Syrian injured in a bombing in Aleppo, a homeless person in Dublin, a fighter in the Ukraine, dispossessed children in Brazil favelas, a Nigerian schoolgirl who escaped the clutches of Boko Haram, a homeless mother and daughter protesting outside the Dáil.
“I suppose they are people on the margins,” Michelle says of the paintings from her Incidental Icons series, inspired by press photography. They’re wonderful.
“Oh thank you!” She seems both pleased and genuinely surprised by the compliment. I’m surprised by her surprise. She has work in galleries around the world, has been selected by the curator of the Tate to show work there, and also the RHA annual exhibition, and this week Michelle, who is of Irish/Indian origin, will set off for Kerala, India for the Carpe Diem residency. In short, her CV is hugely impressive. Michelle should be used to relentless compliments by now. Seemingly not.
For want of a better word, Michelle’s the most established artist in Cavan.
“I’ve never had a solo show in Cavan,” she counters instinctively, still flummoxed... “that’s gas you would say that”.
“Because I’m self taught, I haven’t come through the college-university set-up, you are slightly out of the conversation in terms of art in Ireland.”
Michelle suspects her outsider status is amplified by her rural base on Virginia’s outskirts, and also as a mother of four.
But surely that makes her art more interesting?
“Absolutely,” she insists.
It seems to nag at Michelle that while she’s had an exhibition at the Helix DCU, she’s never had a solo show in a “dedicated gallery space”.
“I’ve never really been able to afford the time to put together thirty, forty paintings,” she explains.
That’s all about to change with an invitation from Farmleigh to exhibit her work in September 2017. Her day job of commission works, tutoring drawing at the national gallery, and running workshops in her Whitethorn home studio will have to take a backseat for a period.
While Michelle suspects she is ‘out of the conversation’, she’s certainly beginning to generate quite a lot of chatter. She recently received an email from a Sunday Times arts critic politely wondering how she had never heard of her before, and yet the illustrious Ruth Borchard exhibition have purchased a self-portrait. This is quite the big deal.
Borchard fled Nazi Germany and settled in Britain in the ‘30s. Her husband offered to splurge out on a work by Goya, but instead she used the money, 2,000 guineas, to commission self portraits by leading British artists. Between 1956 and 1971 she bought a hundred self portraits, and the collection is now in state ownership. In the 21st century a new collection was started called The Next Generation Collection and two years ago it was opened up to Irish artists. From thousands of applicants, Michelle’s self-portrait was one of just ten purchased for the biennial collection, which runs at the Piano Nobile Gallery until September 24. She is the only Irish artist.
An unpleasant experience at an open painting session in Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy provides the inspiration for the artwork entitled What Painting Is.
“One of the academy members came around and took my palette and held it up in front of everybody and said: ‘Who taught you how to paint? This palette is a mess.’
“I remember being quite taken aback. I was shocked, and I didn’t say anything... I painted this painting because I felt that, well, you can be a self-taught painter. Because the Academy has to hold a certain tradition of painting, it doesn’t mean that you can’t become a self-taught painter. A lot of Ireland’s best known painters are self taught.”
Armed with this story, her palette and brush are almost transformed into a sword and shield.
“This is me holding the palette, quite confrontationally, I suppose in one way... saying, this is my palette which I am very proud of, because it was made by Jim McCabe at the end of the road. This is my palette and all the colours laid out, are the colours in the painting,” she says, twinning the various blotches from her painted palette with the brush marks of her cardigan, dress and jester-esque hat.
An unusual element of this not particularly flattering self-portrait, painted from the mirror, can be found in Michelle’s hands.
“You don’t usually paint the hand that’s painting,” she explains. “I switched the brush and painted with my other hand.”
It transpires that her left handed painting proficiency was born out of motherly necessity.
“I started painting when I had children. I often was holding the youngest, Sean Óg in the studio, so I would have to swap him over from side to side. I started drawing with my left hand, and I do it now and again.”
Such unorthodox techniques wouldn’t have been taught at art school, had she attended. Instead, growing up in Ballymun, art didn’t seem like a viable career path, and so she quit, aged 17. A degree in cultural anthropology and history in Maynooth eventually led to her arrival in Cavan, where she worked on the opening of the County Museum.
Her artistic epiphany came as she was writing about the architecture of County Carlow for a heritage publication - a fellow historical architect asked her: ‘Which architectural period are you most passionate about?’
“I remember going: What’s he going on about? I’m not passionate about buildings. I remember feeling, okay I can do this work but I’m not passionate about it.”
She retrieved her brushes from her mam’s attic 13 years ago and has pursued her artistic passions ever since.
“It’s taken until now to feel a sense of knowing where I’m going with my work,” she says, looking ahead to her future exhibition, the first painting of which she has commenced in her spacious studio. At 10ft square the composition with the working title, In This House There Are Many Rooms is outlandishly big compared to Michelle’s other works.
“I have a friend, a painter in New York and she’s always saying, ‘You should paint outside yourself - paint bigger than yourself’,” she explains.
Idly I observe that Michelle loves dolls, as they recur in her works.
“I think I’m probably drawing myself when I’m drawing my dolls,” Michelle reveals.
She adds that a core theme of her work is identity.
“Those people [Incidental Icons] are nameless. They could be anybody and they could represent anybody, and I think for me, paintings are about anonymity and identity and my own past.
“I think it’s about exploring that visually for myself but also I have a curiosity for other people... what makes people the same and what makes them different - both across time and across cultures.”