rather be up a mountain than in the museums'
A PORTRAIT of the artist as a young man would have to include Conor Walton as the loner among the boarders of Castleknock College. His nickname became, not inaccurately, Space Cadet. He would have been more suited to orbiting the moon in a tin machine than the private school on Dublin's northside.
"I was going to an aggressively middle-class Catholic Irish school," says the cowboy hat-wearing Walton over coffee in Dublin, "where, when the question is asked by the career guidance teacher, 'what do you want to do when you leave school', the answer is, 'I want to make money'. I found that attitude very strange."
Looking at Walton's work, it's easy to see why. His grades had not been great at his previous school, and his father, Patrick, thought that boarding school "might be the thing to sort me out". It was anything but. "It was just awful. I hated it. So they took me out after six months."
During that time in boarding school, however, Walton decided he wanted to be a painter. He used to draw his classmates. "One class was a doss because the teacher was useless," he claims, "and I used to have a sort of portrait section going on down the back row. I would also do caricatures of the teachers. That went down well." His big sister, Eorna, 13 years his senior, whose work now illustrates LIFE's restaurant reviews, was in art college ahead of him, so there were lots of art books around the house in Sutton. He can remember as a 12-year-old copying the nude drawings and figures from Michelangelo and drawing them up in space-age gear.
Space Cadet was born in 1970 as the youngest of seven children. There was seven years between him and the next child in the family. His father ran Walton's Music Instruments. "A lot of my family went off doing arty things or had an interest in the arts," he says. Therefore, Walton wanting to become an artist wasn't frowned upon.
He decided to become an artist because he knew he was good, rather than because he was moved to tears by art. "That wasn't my approach. I didn't start from the point of view of art as a religious calling. It was more the expression of a skill that I developed and of course your aesthetic sensibility developed alongside it. But my starting point wasn't a great love of art or hanging around the museums. I am still reluctant to do that. I find that work, so to speak. I would much prefer to be off in the mountains."
He has a bit of previous where mountains are concerned. In 2000, he met his future wife at Tiglin Mountaineering Centre in Wicklow.
Carney, a mountaineering instructor from Bolton, was his teacher.
Clearly Jane (who "was very different to me culturally; she was working class, brought up by a single mum") doesn't buy into it either. If he takes her to the Tate Modern in London, "she is raging by the time she leaves because she thinks it is all bullshit. She can't understand what she's supposed to get out of it because she still has an idea of art as essentially craft and beauty. The modern sense of art is essentially the opposite, which denigrates craft," he says. "What I do is the old-fashioned stuff."
It is hardly that. Looking around his new exhibition at the Jorgensen Fine Art gallery in Dublin, there's a painting of a monkey skull nestling in the image (The Discovery of the Future) beside a book about evolution. Cyclops has a human skull beside a lamp. Most striking of all is a mask floating in a deep blue ocean with four fish of varying sizes (Deeper). Along the wall is another mask on a weighing scales (Still Life With Judgement VII).
Oscar Wilde said we all wear masks. What mask are you wearing? He smiles and says it is all in the paintings.
In Studio View, there is a painting of a view from a window -- someone looking out at a figure walking in a garden framed by two sun-dappled trees.
"That's Jane," he says.
They and their kids live in a wing -- "just three big rooms, basically," he explains -- of a Georgian mansion in Wicklow.
"It is a precarious living as a profession. It was a big gamble. It was a big bet, but it is a bet on freedom," Space Cadet says looking back.
Landscape and Still Life exhibition runs until March 14 at Jorgensen
Fine Art gallery, 29 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2.
- Barry Egan