Lunch with Colin Davidson: The art of doing business
Colin Davidson is in reflective mood. He always is, even in front of banks of cameras and journalists. Calm, analytical and private. But relaxed, generous and curious, too.
His latest exhibition, Silent Testimony, a collection at the Ulster Museum of 18 portraits of people affected by the Troubles, has been well received - not least by those who agreed to sit for him.
"People say all sorts of things about the arts, how pointless it might be, how much of a burden it is and so on, but when I saw the reactions of the subjects first and then the public's response to the portraits, I felt that now the message was becoming clear - the arts matter enormously," he says.
Colin is one of the most successful artists in Northern Ireland. He wears his talent lightly and finds it hard to talk about himself.
Over a dish of pan-fried seabream, samphire and lobster sauce in the Old Inn, just half a mile from where he lives with his wife and two daughters, he reveals his journey from commercial graphic designer to painter.
"I knew I had wanted to paint ever since in P3. I drew a picture of a house in a field with trees and a fence and everyone, myself included, was surprised at how good it was. I've been trying to recreate that sensation and surprise ever since," he says.
After leaving Belfast's York Street Art College he became a graphic designer but by 1999 decided to follow his heart and become a full-time painter. He moved from cityscapes to portraits and it was Duke Special's face (now hanging in the Lyric alongside Seamus Heaney) which launched his successful career.
His work is in demand, yet the Silent Testimony exhibition was uncommissioned and something for which he refuses to take any payment. He has already been approached by other galleries and museums who want to show it.
"I am happy that the work is seen as something helpful and whose impact is positive because it shines a light, as art should, on aspects of life which should be more widely acknowledged," he says.
This exhibition is also a clear statement about the role of the viewer in the arts process, how the viewer understands and interprets what they see. It is also a testimony to the resilience of people and I feel very privileged to have been able to be part of the process."
But what of art and the economy? Is it an expensive luxury indulging the educated elite and excluding the masses?
"Unfortunately, that is how it is viewed by those who don't want to engage with it," he says, slightly irritated. "Yet the fact remains that organisations like the Royal Ulster Academy, backed by Arts & Business and private money from KPMG, strive to make the arts accessible to everyone.
"And anyway, entry to the Ulster Museum is free - what could be more democratic?"
Davidson just completed two years as RUA president. In this time, the organisation has become more focused on outreach programmes and promoting the arts.
"The Belfast School of Art at Ulster University is producing graduates who are in demand. Their employability is high and we underestimate the economic benefits of an arts-aware workforce," he says.
"Hundreds of graduates from fashion, fine art, photography, textiles are employed in projects in the film, advertising and marketing sectors," he says proudly.
We finish lunch with orange parfait for him and a trifle for me and he returns to his studio to continue his pursuit of that elusive P3 reaction.
The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn
Joris had: Sea bream: £12.50
Glass Chardonnay: £4.95
Orange parfait: £4.50
Double espresso: £3.25
Colin had: Sea bream: .£12.50
Glass of Sauvignon Blanc: £4.75