'Get your coat off and get stuck in'

John Behan, sculptor

Sculptor John Behan. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Sculptor John Behan. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

It was something of a red letter day at Kenny’s Gallery last Friday with the dual launch of a major new exhibition by sculptor John Behan, and a terrific book celebrating the artist, by NUIG’s Adrian Frazier, entitled John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street - The Life and Work of an Irish Sculptor and published by Lilliput Press.

A few days before the launch, Behan met me in Freeney’s bar to chat about his life and work which, over a long career, has brought him from inner city Dublin to international renown.

John Behan was born in 1938 on Sheriff Street, Dublin, where his family ran a corner shop. It was during his early childhood that his interests in both art and the figure of the bull, which has been an enduring theme of his work, began. “They were salt of the earth Dubliners,” he says of the community where he grew up. “They were very united, I was very happy there. One of my big memories was as a small child, when I’d go to school in the morning there was nothing but cattle on the road coming down to go on the ships, it was like a scene from the 19th century; there were thousands and thousands of them being herded onto the boats. It was a highly industrialised area, one of the most industrialised in Ireland outside of Belfast. There were coal yards, steam mills, it could have been in the middle of Birmingham or Sheffield.”

As well as witnessing cattle being shipped to England, Behan was also a keen observer of animal life during frequent visits to his grandfather’s farm in Laois.

“That was a huge contrast,” he recalls. “Every opportunity my father had he took the bus down to his home place where his father and grandfather - whose name was also John Behan - lived. There I saw animals in a different context, not being herded onto boats but being cared for and living a natural life. Those two things were big impressions on me as a child and watching things grow. When I got older I used to work in the fields with the men, there was tillage and cattle and pigs, livestock of all kinds, turkeys, hens, ducks, guinea hens. It was a very rich environment for a child to sample.”

The seeds of Behan’s passion for art were sown not by a family member but a lodger. “My mother took in lodgers and one of these was a French polisher, a lady called Margaret Cummins,” he tells me. “When I was three and four she used to let me mess around with her colours. That’s where I picked up my early interest in art. In school, extraordinarily, at St Laurence O’Toole’s, they were teaching art which also started me off at drawing and painting. Nobody in the society I lived in had any artistic feelings so it was all my own world until I went to technical school where there was a teacher called Bill O’Brien who was very encouraging.

"Then I met blacksmith Paddy McElroy who taught me how to make little pieces of sculpture. The technical school was more important to me than an academic education, there I learned from working with men who were in their seventies. I was a 15 year-old apprentice. They were extremely skilled and I learned from them and then put my own tuppence ha’penny to it. I went to NCAD at night and got the rudiments of drawing and so on. When I was 21 I decided I’d give up working for other people and I’ve worked for myself ever since.”

'I’m more like a blacksmith'

John Behan 3

In the early to mid sixties Behan was part of a rising wave of new Irish artists, and was instrumental in the founding of the New Artist Group, the Project Arts Centre, and Dublin Art Foundry. “What we did was form groups,” he says. “I was doing mostly painting at that time. The New Artist Group was set up by Charlie Cullen and we were all painting. Then the Project gallery came along which did visual art and theatre when Jim Sheridan came along and started doing film. It was a huge transition in Irish society at that time which hasn’t really been written up by historians.”

In 1970, Behan featured in a group exhibition of sculpture at Kenny’s which commenced his long association with the gallery, that ultimately led to his moving to Galway in 1980. In the ensuing decades he has become firmly established as one of Ireland’s most esteemed sculptors with his work in collections all over the world. That work receives fitting tribute in Adrian Frazier’s book, an informed, compelling personal account of Behan’s life and career.

“Myself and Adrian have known each other for about 10 years,” Behan tells me. “I first encountered him through his book on George Moore. We then became neighbours and used to meet nearly every evening in the Bierhaus. One day he said ‘I’d love to do a book’ and I said ‘OK’ because I knew he is a considerably talented writer, so that was that. Adrian’s uncle was a very good figurative sculptor so he had seen him work and had a real interest in sculpture. I was a different kind of sculptor of course because I work in metal, I’m more like a blacksmith!”

'Small sculpture aspires to be monumental'

John Behan 2

Behan outlines the content of his new exhibition, also entitled The Bull of Sheriff Street. “The show is a touchstone of all the work that has gone on in the past, since the nineties in particular. Some of the work is based on Yeats’s poetry, then there are bulls and things like that that I have always worked on. There is a section on iron sculpture that I made in the nineties, a dog, a cat, an iron Venus, there is a whole section on Ted Hughes’s Crow which I have illustrated with big etchings and sculptures. There is also more modern stuff that I have done this year.”

I ask what inspired him about Ted Hughes’ Crow. “Crow is a savage poem, one of the most savage ever written in English I’d say,” he replies. “I was attracted to it because I do think through our own humanity we have to deal with animals as well, and the crow was a powerful symbol in society since time immemorial. Hughes recognised that and he also saw it as an aspect of the Apocalypse and that would coincide with my own views as well.”

Behan is also renowned for his striking public sculptures, such as his Famine Ships in Murrisk and New York. He explains how he approaches these commissions. “It’s a public audience, unlike doing something for a gallery. I just go with my feelings. I do take into consideration that it has to be understood. With public commissions I found that I like working on a big scale, all those small sculptures I made were actually models for bigger works.

"Somebody once said that all small sculpture aspires to be monumental. It wasn’t difficult for me to make big work, we built up the Dublin Art Foundry from 1970 onwards and we only took people who were fanatical about sculpture. Sculpture is dirty, heavy, filthy work and is not for the fainthearted," he says with a chuckle. "I understood that background having worked in it when I was 15 and it was no problem to me. I’ve never had problems about things like that - get your coat off and get stuck into the work, whether it’s welding or casting or riveting or hammering or at the furnace - it is all grist to the mill for me.”

The Bull of Sheriff Street exhibition continues at Kenny’s until November 20. Adrian Frazier’s book is now available for €25.

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