Ben Hennessy makes big bold paintings that excite the senses and disturb our perceptions and today (November 25th) he opens a multi-venue retrospective exhibition of his 40 years of work from 1981 to 2021. Some 75 paintings can be enjoyed at GOMA Gallery of Modern Art, The Theatre Royal and ARTFORM Gallery 44 The Quay in Ben’s native Waterford City.
Ben Hennessy is one of Ireland’s most exciting and vital contemporary painters. His work is at once joyous and challenging, expressive and compelling. He has been at the forefront of creative activity in Waterford for over 40 years. His incredible body of work has literally inspired thousands to explore their own creativity and gave many artists a first start through his workshops and his role as Artistic Director at Red Kettle and Little Red Kettle.
Elpis which means ‘Spirit of Hope’ in ancient Greek will showcase examples of Ben’s paintings from his early exhibitions alongside a new body of work completed in the last three years, much of it inspired by his work in Team International Assistance for Integration (TIAFI) in Izmir, Turkey.
TIAFI is the community centre for Syrian Refugee Women and Children. During the COVID lockdown when Ben’s work in theatre was not required he became inspired to take action on a long-desired goal, to help the Syrian refugee crisis. Ben travelled to Izmir to help, there he has established an art room for the children and an artists’ studio for visiting artists and has spent months teaching and working with the children and artists there.
Ben says, “During the Covid lockdown I participated in an online exhibition hosted by the Imagine Festival here in Waterford. As part of that, I gave an interview from my studio and mentioned my Boat paintings and their referencing of Alan Kurdi and the Syrian Refugees. Anne O’Rorke, the founder of TIAFI [Team International Assistance for Integration], saw the interview and got in touch. I had known Anne for many years.
I knew I wasn’t finished with the concerns I had had when making the Boat paintings from the 1980s. I met and worked with an amazing community of Syrian people, heard their heart-breaking real-life stories, and saw, at first hand, their tremendous difficulties as displaced people struggling for survival, with barely enough food and in the worst of housing conditions.
When I came home my immediate response in terms of the new paintings I had been working on, was that they were too tame. I’m not sure how to describe it, but the application of the paint needed to be more aggressive, more visceral, like I had seen in the Clemente paintings. The other huge eye-opener was the joy that the painting in the art room brought for the children and indeed the women. I wasn’t sure initially if what I was proposing to do was even useful.
You can’t eat paint crossed my mind. But some of the children had never seen markers, let alone paint and none of them had heard of Van Gogh. The war in Syria is ongoing for ten years now and most of these children haven’t known any other life and suddenly they were laughing and painting up a storm. I felt that giving them the opportunity to draw and paint gave them a little bit of humanity back and it utterly reinforced my belief in the creative act. Being creative is part of what makes us human. When I returned for a second spell at the centre my remit was to bring a bit of joy and in my own paintings the concerns I had – that creative spirit being part of who we are, that primal instinct to make marks – was pushed further and became even more central to the paintings I was making. And this led to Elpis.”
His compelling exhibition paintings are both complex and dramatic. Ben’s sources of inspiration are in the mythical, the magical and the dream space, he also leaves lots of room for the individual imagination to garner its own truth. The ELPIS exhibitions can be enjoyed from November 25th to January 2nd at GOMA Gallery of Modern Art, The Theatre Royal and ARTFORM Gallery 44 The Quay. For further details see: https://www.facebook.com/ben.hennessy.752
Ben’s achievements can be seen from his prodigious beginnings with his first solo exhibition, Fiddiliwinks, while still a student in 1981, his campaigning for an Art Centre as part of the Arts for All Project, his over 80 theatre stage designs, his legendary ‘Big Colourdee Creative’ workshops for children, his extraordinary work with Red Kettle and Little Red Kettle as a writer/director and designer, his 14 plays, a puppet show to an opera for children. His work has been seen from Enniskillen to Edinburgh, South Africa and Adelaide to the South of France, London to New York, Japan to John’s Park and through it all, he has painted. He is, as he says himself, ‘a painter that does some other stuff!!’