Six Colours of Black | Exhibition
Conor O’Neill interviews the artist, Sam McCready
ArtisAnn Gallery, Belfast • 01 March – 31 March ’18
‘EXTRA, EXTRA, read all about it: Belfast youth to storm art world with first solo exhibition on Irish soil!’ Well, that’s how you might like it to read. But alas, the painter is far from a youngster, in earth years anyway. Now in his Eighties, East Belfast born, writer, director, actor and educator, Sam McCready is back in his hometown and this time, he’s doing none of the above. This time it’s McCready’s artistic abilities that are up for an airing.
CultureHUB caught up with him as he finalises the details of his first Irish solo exhibition. Typically of McCready, he’s inviting us to enter into an unexpected and little-known genre of painting; namely the Chinese art of Shan Shui or ink-painting Here’s what he had to say for himself.
Sam, what brought you to Shan Shui and this Chinese style of painting which dates back to the 5th century?
“I’ve been painting for most of my life. I trained as a painter at Stranmillis College and then I went to night classes at the Belfast College of Art where I was taught by some of the most famous Ulster artists of the day. My theatre work, however, took over and I didn’t have much time for painting. But in recent years when I went to Hong Kong to judge the Speech Festival there, I went to an exhibition of Chinese paintings and when the artists who were there saw a Westerner looking at their work, they asked if they could draw me. So, I sat there with 10 or 15 people drawing me for half an hour. In the course of that sitting two of them spoke with me. They had very good English, and they took me around the exhibition explaining what was going on in each painting, something, as a western painter, interested in western art, I didn’t know much about. That really was the beginning of my fascination with Chinese art, in particular, the art of Shan Shui.
“That was about five years ago and one of them, called Yee Yuen Chan, became a very close friend and my instructor. I see him each time I go to Hong Kong.”
What were you painting after your studies in Belfast?
“Toogood and Webb (his tutors in Belfast arts college) were both landscape painters so all my work has been landscapes. I don’t do portraits. My pictures focus on nature, on landscapes; mountains, hills and lakes. And indeed, that’s where I made the connection with Shan Shui, which literally means ‘mountain and river’. Those two elements are very present in my work. Before I found this interest in Shan Shui painting, my paintings were full of colour. Now my paintings are in black and white.”
One image you sent me which will be in the Six Colours of Black exhibition is called ‘Lakes, Evening, Light’ but at the top and bottom, there are reds and pinks. Am I taking the exhibition title too literally?
“That’s the only touch of colour in the exhibition. I was exploring the subtle introduction of colour and I think the touch of red balances the whole painting but essentially, the exhibition is about black and the use of six colours of black. I’m exploring black but that doesn’t mean I can’t use other colours. The reason for that title is that my contact in Hong Kong told me that master painters can get five colours just from water and black (he used the word ‘colour’ but I think he meant ‘shade’). A Chinese painter tries to get six colours with black ink to which different quantities of water is added, but six is impossible—the most a master painter can achieve is five. Six Colours is the height of achievement and although they can’t do it, they continue to try. Six Colours of Black is their struggle.”
Which lead me nicely on to my next question: without being negative, this style started in the 5th century, what makes you think that as a westerner who has only been doing this for five years, you can achieve what the Chinese have been trying to do for centuries?
“I will never reach the six colours of black but that does not mean I shouldn’t keep trying. I am not a Chinese painter, nor do I have the eyes to see as the Chinese see but I am drawing on the Chinese influence to enable me, as a Westerner, to share my personal views and feelings about nature. Shan Shui painting is based on the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. One of the concepts is that nature is so large, so magnificent compared with human life. Man is insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe. That struck me as a very powerful concept. You will see it in my paintings. In most of them, I am looking at mountains and river from a great distance. The scene is vast and I’m insignificant. In Shan Shui, also, the artist doesn’t want a photographic image of what he sees; he wants to share what he feels.”
Can you explain a bit more about the techniques used? Your bio said there was an absence of brush strokes and that the painter’s personality must not intrude. How do you work the paint?
“I use a technique, known in English as ‘water stain technique’, where I actually paint on a sheet of porous paper but have another sheet underneath. I paint on the top sheet and the image stains through so you don’t see the brush strokes.”
And how many pieces are in the exhibition?
“I’ve 20 pieces. They’re all landscapes, all of nature; most have water in them, mountains, rivers and lakes. All of them have some element of water. For example, the titles: ‘Lakes, Evening, Lights’, Flowing River’, Mountain River’, ‘River, Cliff and Sky’, Mountain Stream’, ‘Lakeside with Tree’, ‘Riverbank with Foliage’, etc.”
And is that very much in keeping with the Shan Shui style?
The titles are all very succinct. Is that also in keeping with the Shan Shui tradition?
“The Chinese would tend to be a little more poetic with their titles; mine are more down to earth. My titles describe what is in the picture and leave the viewer to interpret for themselves.”
So, the titles come after the work is finished?
“Absolutely. I won’t start off in order to paint a picture of a mountain and rivers etc. I allow the brush and the ink to tell me what they want to say, where they want to go. I almost go into a dream-like state, a state of meditation and I don’t know what I’m going to end up with.”
Now I hate to get to the vulgar side of the business, but the twenty pictures in the exhibition, are they for sale?
“Oh yes, they’re all for sale. The prices are reasonable and cover quite a range. What’s important to me is that I share the work and it’s available to a wide range of patron.”
Finally, has this exhibition been getting any press or being talked about back in China?
“I haven’t been in touch with anyone there. My friend, Yee Yuen Chan knows it’s happening, but no, I haven’t followed it up yet. Now, let me tell you, Conor, this is my first solo exhibition in Ireland and I’m 81-years-of-age. I think that is the headline they will appreciate in China because there they appreciate longevity. I’ve had a couple of solo exhibitions in the US, small exhibitions but this is my first in a major gallery, and the exhibitions in the US all predate my interest in the Shan Shui style. When I started working in this style, I realised it was something very special to me, something that as a painter I was searching for a lifetime. Now I want to focus on that.”
From singing ‘Sir Edward Carson had a cat, it sat upon the fender, and every time it caught a rat, it shouted no surrender’ to a chance meeting with Chinese masters leading to a severe change in thinking and working, you never know what Sam McCready is going to pull out of his hat next.
Six Colours of Black has a special opening night, performed by the famous Ulster artist, Neil Shawcross, on Wednesday 28 February at 6pm. There will be refreshments and copies of McCready’s new adaptation of Robert Harbinson’s No Surrender will be available.
The main exhibition runs from 01 March – 31 March at ArtisAnn Gallery, 70 Bloomfield Avenue, Belfast, BNT5 5AE. For further information visit www.artisann.org or mail firstname.lastname@example.org for other details ring 07905 339569.
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