I met the artist Basil Blackshaw for the first time last week. He's a hallowed name in the Irish visual arts world, but is quite contrary when it comes to interviews. I kind of respect him for it. Why would you subject yourself to endless media interviews when, as he said to me last week, "the paintings should speak for themselves". He reminded me of Van Morrison. Doesn't he always say his songs do the talking for him? In many respects the two men share a similar world view. Let me be creative, they're saying and then enjoy that creativity, be it a painting or a song. But as an arts journalist it's my job to ask the whys of their art. Not that I've ever had an audience with Van the Man. The closest I've ever got to him was going into an East Belfast coffee shop, seeing someone I thought I knew at a far table, half raising a hand in greeting and the smile freezing on my face in horror as I realised half way through smile of so called recognition that it was Morrison himself. I retreated to an even further table and proceeded to ignore him as much as I could.
Fame and anonymity are uncomfortable bed mates, but both Morrison and Blackshaw seem to have a knack for keeping themselves to themselves, a skill in this celebrity-obsessed world. Blackshaw has taken his desire for anonymity to extremes, apparently once, I'm told, pulling a paper bag over his face for a newspaper photographer at the opening of his own show in a Dublin art gallery!
At least last week we got him to stand in line with us and get his photo taken, brown paper bag free!
I have never met him before and when we arrived at the FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge to do the interview last week I was struck by his apparent fraility, but his absolute conviction as he walked around the exhibition of his work for the first time.
I eavesdropped in as he and his partner Helen talked about paintings, some of which he hadn't seen in years, others which he thought could be better lit and others he thought shoudn't have ended up in the exhibition at all. He may be about to turn 80 but his sense of aesthetic is deep. I enjoyed watching the curator square up to him, which he enjoyed back. No shrinking violets allowed in his company. What would he have been like to know 30 or 40 years ago? Portraits of old friends open the exhibition as you walk through the door - David Hammond and John Hewitt (now deceased), Michael Longley and Brian Friel. To have been a fly on the wall during those sessions. The chat, the energy, the sheer delight in each other's talents obvious.
I came to know Blackshaw's work probably best in his designs for the Field Day Theatre Company's posters. Incredible images from the figurative realism of the lamp in "The Communication Cord" to the apparent childlike drawing of a sailing boat for "The Cure at Troy" to the bold, bright yellows and reds brushstrokes of Saint Oscar. I love them all, in very different ways. Each one perfectly complimenting the play.
He tells me Stephen Rea has asked him to create new art work for Field Day's series of three new plays for Derry in 2013. But no, he says, I can't. He raises a hand, flaps it around, and says of his hands, "they're useless". I can't get them to work, and if they don't work, I can't do any of my best work. It's a gut-wrenching moment, a reality check, of a body failing a mind, but a mind so in charge that he can still articulate why. I look at the hands being waved casually in front of me, hands that created some of the most celebrated art work of recent years on these islands being consumed by old age. I know Stephen will be gutted. It's the end of an era to not have a Basil Blackshaw poster. Celebrate him while we still can, and while he still has the mischievous wit to wear paper bags on his head!
Basil Blackshaw at 80 is at the FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge until October.