By Fergus Ryan
In the summer of 2013, I had the privilege of participating in a Masterclass with the noted Israeli painter Israel Hershberg, based in the ancient Italian town of Civita Castellana at the intersection of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria. For two sun-drenched months, we followed in the the footsteps of the famous 19th century landscape artists—Corot, Turner, Bertin—who made the Grand Tour, stopping to paint the spectacular orangey-ochre and silvery-green gorges that surround the town.
The Masterclass was a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime experience, not least because of the intense heat (41ºC) and - its main purpose - painting the landscape en plein air. Having to ‘schlep’ a heavy palette box and art supplies usually required painting in the cooler first light after six o’clock, often finishing a boldly-brushed canvas before breakfast. For a 65-year-old, more accustomed to ‘slow painting’ in a studio in Ireland’s moderate climes, this was just beyond the edges of my comfort zone!
Sarah and I drove from Ireland, our Land Rover piled high with easels, paints, brushes and canvases. Arriving in Civita Castellana, our startling introduction to the programme (before Sarah returned to Dublin) was the open-air briefing.
“I’m an atheist,” the American ex-pat administrator announced unexpectedly, “and probably the only atheist in town. But everyone needs to hear a rational alternative. Okay?’” For some reason, I expected she and I would have some interesting conversazione at the café-bar in the piazza! By the end of the summer, I was being invited to soirées at her palazzo apartment, where Corot had his Civita studio.
The larger group of painters here were either Hershberg’s Israeli students or American professional painters, including my friend, world-class figure and portrait painter David Kassan (who later gave his own masterclass at the RHA in Dublin).
The approach of the masterclass was to get out into the landscape and paint every day. Hershberg and his wife Yael Scalia, also a very fine painter, wandered around the town, advising painters at their easels to avoid chasing detail and instead capture the essence of what was before them: the major forms, the values and chroma. “Don’t keep finishing,” said Hershberg, “keep starting.” I found that a challenge.
The townspeople were bemused at all these strange people painting odd corners no one had ever taken notice of before. As at home, we often don’t know what great events happen around us.
The culmination of each week’s work was the group critique. We each laid out our recent efforts while Israel and Yael moved around the studio commenting on each canvas. The critiques had a creativity and colour of their own. These were professional artists and students and often the most valuable comments were the ones that enabled the painter to see some fault and so to make progress.
It was all about that wonderful light of Italy whose enveloping vespertine glow had enticed our artist forebearers and so, when one Israeli student produced a somewhat grey painting, the master asked pointedly if he had painted this in Ireland! At that, my national pride, taking this as a compliment, led me to shout ‘Well done!’, after which order was gradually restored. 65-year-olds can say things like that!
There was one magical moment as I was drawing the Duomo at the hilltop town of Nepi. From an open window high in an adjacent building, the sound of an oboe filled the courtyard and I could just see a patrician, grey head moving rhythmically with the sounds. It was a hauntingly-beautiful rendering of Gabriel’s Oboe, and I remembered this was the theme music for a wordless Aer Lingus TV ad from the 1980s, featuring the majestic Boeing 747, which I had flown for five years.
My young American painting companion, Lauren, had a spiritual journey similar to my own and, standing there, I was overcome with tearful emotion as the various strands of my life were woven together by the music—flying, art, and the community of faith. The anonymous musician and I shared a wordless visual exchange and the slightest acknowledging gesture of the hand. Nothing needed to be said.
Every Thursday, there was a long coach journey to see the works of the great Italian painters of the Renaissance: painters such as Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Filipino Lippi, with many biblical themes including Piero’s famous Resurrection (claimed by Aldous Huxley to be “the greatest painting in the world”) and the Flagellation of Christ. Our excursions took us to Florence, Siena, Bologna, Urbino, Arezzo, and Sansepolcro. Sitting beside Israel on the bus was an art education in itself.
“Fergus, you’re one curious guy,” Israel told me at the final group critique, “dogged, adventurous, ambitious…and curious.” I think that was a compliment. On the long drive back to Ireland, I had time to reflect on how this time in Italy would affect my painting at home, with the changing light of its rain-washed landscapes.
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In contrast to Italy’s warm terracotta stillness, the salt-moist Atlantic wind on Ireland’s western coastlines searches the mystical and melancholic landscape for old memories, sweeps along stone-walled grassy lanes and breathes through broken windows in abandoned houses. But the ancient landscape is far from empty: it is filled with what I sense as the tangible “presence of absence”, a bittersweet visual melancholy, the drifting surging sound of a distant sean-nós lament . It is beautiful but, not for the present, a perfect beauty.
I experience this ‘absence and presence’ in two ways, and it becomes the creative genesis of my Irish paintings. It may begin in some unexpected encounter in which time itself seems to stand still, perhaps as an abandoned artefact that becomes a portrait of its now-absent owner. These encounters are transitions between our world and a narrative that might otherwise no longer be accessible.
In Passing Rooks, it was the silence momentarily disturbed by a chattering flock of passing rooks before settling again to its vast emptiness. In Terminus, the rusting ‘high Nelly’ bicycle abandoned against the great ‘erratic’ Burren boulder once belonged to Sarah’s mother, and it became her ‘portrait’. Terminus is the end of Europe, the end of the bicycle, and the end of its owner’s journey to another shore.
If the first ‘absence’ bears a melancholy sense of loss, the second carries for me a wistfulness, a yearning, a longing for what is to come. Nature is groaning, the apostle says, as in labour pains, waiting for its deliverance at the coming renewal of all things. This restoration accompanies the final, redemptive revealing of the new humanity in Christ. My paintings resonate with this dual sense of loss and hope, in the midst of a wild beauty. This cosmic rhythm between nature and humanity means that people, despite their ‘in-betweenness’, are also invested with great dignity as bearers of the Imago Dei.
My figure paintings aim to capture a very private reflectiveness in this space between two worlds, as in Liminal, a silent threshold between two experiences and Dreadlocks, which portrays a thoughtful figure in her own creative and artistic expression.
Our lives are a mosaic. We are comprised of all the experiences we have had, and the people we have known, the tiny tesserae of which form the mosaic image of our lives. I am grateful to have known Israel Hershberg and the artists I encountered in Italy and I am grateful, too, for my first encounter with the American painter Andrew Wyeth’s work at the MOMA in New York in 1970. It was in Wyeth I first understood that painting is about more than an arrangement of beautiful forms. Beneath the surface of things there is always a depth, another presence. That is what I aim to explore.
Fergus Ryan was an Aer Lingus pilot from 1966 to 1994. He has an MA from Trinity College Dublin in theology and was senior leader of Trinity Church Network in Dublin until 2011. In recent years, Fergus has exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy. His painting “Lightkeeper” is in the President’s personal selection at Áras an Uachtaráin. See his work at www.FergusARyan.com.