The Irish Times Features, April 30th, 1998
Deeper into the Paint
Interview by Eileen Battersby
Felim Egan - 'It's like making something more profound by using less words.'
It is the ideal setting; a satisfied if anxious artist pacing in his studio with a
roomful of lyrical abstractions ready to be packed and transported to a gallery for
an opening. The new work reflects a constancy of themes. Felim Egan, artist and
flautist, continues to explore the line; geometry and music remain dominant. But a
new openness appears to have emerged; the paintings, mostly acrylic and mixed
media on canvas, are less reticent, more relaxed. Familiar motifs - the boxes,
bars and triangles - have become more rebellious and are battling through the
paint; the shapes are going out towards the edges. It is rhythmic.
This new energy is also expressed through the diversity of scale. The small
works on paper refuse to be overshadowed by the large canvases. His colour
ranges from sky to water to night as well as earth. The texture is created by
building up layers of paint mixed with plaster and bits of stone.
Meanwhile a work in progress continues to preoccupy him. "It's for a friend; he
asked me to do it," says Egan, nervy and direct.
Few artist's studios are as tidy. His workplace is like his paintings; ordered,
meticulous, formal and deliberate, even streamlined. It is also full of light. A
computer sits on the desk; papers, notes and catalogues are filed away. A few of
his smaller sculptural pieces are lined up along the window. He is highly efficient,
quick to print out information. His computer plays an active role in this studio.
One wonders where he keeps his paints. The floor is very clean. As he says, "if
anyone dropped a button in here, I'd know".
Outside, in the garden which separates the house from the studio, two dogs are
barking. These are more than mere pets. He describes them as "important, close
members of the family" and having had a dog killed by a car on the road, lives in
fear of them being run over. "Dogs have always been a part of my life," he says,
"I need them around me."
Married to the painter Janet Pierce, he has three step-children but none of his
own. True to his slow, careful way of approaching questions, he agrees he knows
about the intimacy of parenting as well as having experienced, at times of crisis,
the distancing to which a step-parent can be subjected.
The new exhibition opens at the Purdy Hicks Gallery in London this evening.
Some pictures have already sold. When asked about the space, a couple of days
ago, Egan appeared delighted - "it's warm and intimate but big. It can contain the
large works. It's a comfortable size for a commercial gallery".
Recognised as one of Ireland's leading artists as long ago as ROSC '84, Egan
has represented Ireland internationally both in group and solo shows and has
shown in Germany, the United States and throughout Britain and Ireland.
Next year, a major solo exhibition will be mounted in Amsterdam's Stedelijk
Musuem. About a year ago, Rudi Fuchs the museum's director approached Egan
about the possibility of such a show. Though based on new work, it will also
include selected works from the past three to four years.
Each step in Egan's career has been carefully plotted; as he says of any new
project, "It's something else for the CV".
The life of the professional artist requires an utterly professional approach. On
entering his studio, through the garage at the side of his house, in Sandymount,
Dublin, one also enters a professional, determinedly unromantic world.
Now 45, Egan is a thin, worn-looking man; soft spoken, emphatic, intense,
intimidatingly organised and, apparently, a career smoker. The first thing one
notices about him is a vague sense of muted anger. He has had his share of
ghosts and in recent years has worked hard at confronting them.
At his happiest when explaining his work, he gestures as he speaks about
"building and constructing the painting slowly".
Although driven and practical he also values the mystery of painting. "A picture
might have begun yellow and then gone red before ending up blue."
He walks from picture to picture, explaining them to himself as much as to his
listener. It is all about the act of scraping the paint away. At several of the big
works he pauses and recalls the layers of paint, the steps which led him to its
completion. Surfaces have a dull sheen. Everything is highly worked and finished.
He didn't come from a family of artists nor was there any interest in art in the
household. Egan grew up in Strabane, Co Tyrone.
He seems fairly noncommittal about his early life, aside from pointing out that the
art classes at school were always on Saturday so he had to make an effort -
particularly as school was in Derry, some 15 miles from his home.
As for the artist he says, "I was always good at making things. I remember we
had to make a model of a lighthouse out of bits and pieces, old toilet roll, I can't
remember. Mine was the best." There was also a Sugar Puffs competition his
class entered. "We were supposed to make a picture. I made mine out of tinsel
and coloured cellophane - you know? - the kind sweets come wrapped in." He
won first prize which included a Sugar Puffs bear and presumably a year's supply
of Sugar Puffs. "I can't remember that either; maybe I got one of those variety
packs?" He pauses adding, "I would have been about eight at the time".
At school he played football and was "good enough at the running" to compete at
cross country. He certainly has the ravaged face and build of a former middle to
"I also remember running sprints on the track but nothing serious. I was only a
In reply to being asked was it a big family? Egan replies: "No there was only
myself and my sister. We were both adopted."
It seems to explain Egan's self-image as an outsider. "I felt an outsider in
Strabane as well as later as an artist there. I think I was told I was adopted when
I was about six or seven. I can't remember. But it was a strange feeling and the
nuns made you feel as if you really belonged to them."
As a baby he had been cared for in an orphanage in Donegal. "I was nearly two
before I was adopted."
He shows me an old photograph which has been restored. In it an attractive
woman holds a big handsome child.
"I can hardly remember a thing before I was six or seven," he says and adds that
he finally found out who his real parents were. "They weren't Italian. My mother
was a Donegal Catholic; my father was a Northern Protestant. Nothing exotic," he
says with some irony. "I was a bit disappointed as it removed the sense of
fantasy. Up 'til then you fantasised about Arabs. There had been a sense of
mystery. Suddenly, it was very mundane and ordinary. Of course, it was also a
shock finding out the truth."
How do the facts of his early life make him feel? "Angry and sad."
A more theatrical person might make more of his life experiences. Egan however
speaks as if the effort of facing these difficulties has made him more confident.
As if in passing he mentions having finally seen his original birth certificate, which
bears his date of birth, November 1952, but a different name - and with it, an
entirely new identity.
His school career in Derry ended when he stood up to a teacher/priest who had
acquired a bad reputation as a bully. Egan's stance resulted in expulsion. Moving
to the High School in Strabane, he discovered a new sense of freedom. "I was
certainly free to be an artist."
Aware that a listener may have decided it seems an extraordinarily liberal
establishment, Egan quickly qualifies his remarks. "It wasn't a grammar school.
And you must remember Strabane had the highest level of unemployment in the
North. Everyone went off to England to work. The town was 99 per cent
Having settled at his new school he did well at maths and chemistry; "I did
advanced maths for A Level." Mentioning those exams encourages him to offer
one of his rare personal anecdotes. One of only two pupils taking A Level art,
Egan recalls being unable to sit the exam on the day because a gunman was
"It was a nationalist school in a nationalist area. There tended to always be
trouble. A bit of stone throwing was almost a daily happening on the way home
from school. I was part of a group; we would go home together. We weren't really
part of the trouble. We usually ended up at the chip shop."
Having described the general atmosphere, Egan returns to the day of his art
exam. "Right outside the gym there was a gun battle. They couldn't get the paper
in to us so we were marked on the basis on the other papers - the ones we had
already sat. The other boy didn't pass - he used to call himself Michelangelo. I
was Picasso. Anyhow he always went about got up as an artist."
He smiles at the memory. Egan's humour tends towards the blackest. On
finishing school, Egan was aware of the traditional career expectations being
placed on him. "I came from a world where the great thing was to become a
teacher. All you needed was five O Levels and off you went to a Christian
Brothers training college in Manchester."
There was no question of this for him. He knew he was going to be a career artist
and started the foundation course at Belfast College of Art and Design - later
Ulster Polytechnic - in 1971.
"We didn't finish the course because the foundation course building was blown up
and we had to camp out in the main college. Essentially we lost our studio
About 6 o'clock one evening, the alarm at the college went off. Nothing overly
unusual about that - he remembers it going off most days. The students left by
the front entrance. But Egan and a friend left by the rear door as they happened
to be nearer it at the time. As they walked out, a soldier shouted "quick, quick"
and he remembers seeing a large Coca Cola truck. "It exploded; I think it was a
2,000-pound bomb. No one was hurt but a student who had been in the building
walked out in a daze."
It is a dramatic story but Egan's telling of it is characteristically laconic. Before the
bombing occurred, Egan the art student had been concentrating on simply
investigating colour. "I made colour charts when I was there and I know one of
the tutors still uses it as an example."
Having applied to several art colleges in England, he was offered a place at
Portsmouth Polytechnic where he stayed for three years, achieving first-class
honours in his final assessment.
By then he had already studied longer than most artists. Egan agrees he is one
of the most academically qualified artists working in Ireland. On his results at
Portsmouth, he was advised to do post-graduate work and applied to the Slade
School of Fine Art and also Chelsea College of Art. Offered places at both, he
choose the Slade. Arriving there in 1975, he found himself becoming increasingly
aware of his Irishness. Again it emphasised his outsider status, an element which
has informed his life. Physically located at the heart of London University, the
Slade occupies an elite world of its own.
"I began playing Irish music and I suppose became more aware of my Irish
identity. I know it's now very fashionable to be Irish in England but it wasn't then,
not in the 1970s."
In addition to the outsider status conferred by his Irishness, Egan was a student a
state which he sees as being somewhat removed from ordinary life. "It's very
protected, you are in a sheltered environment. So yes I was aware of being an
outsider. It's funny when I come back to London now - which I do often - as an
How does he feel about the North? "I'm happy not to be living there but it is very
much of my psyche and is very much part of me. It is a sort of love/hate
He says of the Belfast Agreement, "It's better than anything we've had so far and
it has the making of a reasonable starting point."
Although his work is so obviously influenced by his internal world, he does
believe the ever-changing seascape of Sandymount has influenced him. The
place is central to him; he even illustrated a book by Seamus Heaney, The Strand
(1995). (He bends down and removes from an ordered drawer or shelf, a small
card with a copy of one of the abstract but extraordinarily evocative watercolours
from the book.)
"I walk out there with the dogs all the time; it has become very important to me."
He seems unlikely to move from Dublin.
"I don't need to change my surroundings. But although I'm not a landscape
painter, and I don't need to go off to the countryside, I do have a strong sense of
While he taught painting at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, he
spent a year working as a technician before becoming a lecturer there. During his
time teaching at NCAD, he also had a year-long scholarship to the British School
at Rome. Egan and Pierce then lived with her children in Edinburgh for five years
before returning to Ireland. He did not enjoy his time in Edinburgh, "I found the
attitude towards the visual arts to be very philistine."
As is expected from his work, William Scott is the Irish artist Egan most admires.
It could be argued that Felim Egan entered the Irish art scene as a fully
developed professional artist. Recognition may have proved slower than
expected. As early as that Rosc '84 he appeared to have reached an
international level. There has always been an austere elegance about his work,
muted colours often hues of the same tones. Not surprisingly he is interested in
contemporary classical composers such as Cage and Glass and his work could
be seen as the visual equivalent of their music.
Central to his development has been this gradual move towards a more pareddown
vision. Initially drawn to incorporating wood, metal and neon strips into his
paintings, Egan is working more exclusively with paint. "It is now more
uncluttered." He feels it is a greater challenge to work with the purity of these
materials. This refined simplicity presents has its own challenges.
"It's like making something more profound by using less words. And that reflects
back to music - some of the most potent, memorable melodies we've inherited
are generally the most simple."
Of his sculptural work he says, "I've always liked making things, but at the
moment, I am concentrating on paint."
Looking around his studio, he half smiles when asked about the forthcoming
show. "You have to sell of course but I don't really like seeing them (the pictures)
go. It's good to be in collections . . . I suppose I think of them as my children and I
don't want them to leave home."
© The Irish Times