A brush with Terry Bradley
Belfast artist Terry Bradley talks to Audrey Watson about his surprising new exhibition opening this week and why he spent some time in jail
Visitors to Terry Bradley’s latest exhibition, which launches on Thursday, may be a little surprised when they view the most recent work from the Belfast-born artist, famous for his dramatic, vibrant paintings of Sailortown dockers, tattooed women and voluptuous, burlesque dancers.
“I’ve painted some pictures of girls in watercolours, which is something completely different for me,” explains the 44-year-old.
“I started working on them during a trip to France because I had no access to other types of paint at the time and found I loved it.
“It’s another side to what I do — there are the heavily-tattooed men and women that I’m best known for and now there are these lighter, calmer works.
“They’ll be on display for the first time in the old Northern Bank building on Waring Street, which is a perfect setting.”
Completely self-taught, Terry was a relatively late starter when it came to forging a career in art — he painted his first canvas 14 years ago as a present — but his work is now held in private collections all over the world and fans include Madonna, The Bee Gees, Michael Flatley, Bono and Ronan Keating.
As well as famous patrons, Terry has attracted new admirers in the most unexpected place — Northern Ireland's prisons — and he recently spent time behind bars with male and female inmates.
He explains: “Earlier this year, I received an email from Magilligan Prison saying the inmates loved my work and would I have any brochures or anything I could send to them. Then I heard that a prisoner had committed suicide and decided to go and speak to them in person.
“When I walked in there were seven really tough looking guys in the room.
“The biggest came over and introduced himself and then I noticed that they had all produced their own versions of my work.
“We sat down and started talking and like me, they all come from a working class background, so immediately, we related to one another.
“I spent all day there talking about my life, their lives and everything under the sun. I discovered that one guy was actually doing an A-Level on my art.
“He has since sent me lots of his work and I'd love him to be able to come to the exhibition, so I can show people how good he is and what he has achieved.
“I also went to Hydebank Women's Prison and the inmates had pictures on the wall of their versions of my female paintings.
“Again, I just spent time talking with them about their lives, art and about why and how I do what I do.
“There were bare canvasses in one corner of the room and as I knew a few of the women were soon to be released, I did some drawings and gave them one each. I told them that they would be worth a few grand and that it would give them a start, or they could just keep the sketches for themselves.
“They really appreciated that.
“Meeting people like that does as much for me as it does for them. It really lifts me up.
“Art is a great thing. As therapy, it's been hippie-fied a bit, but it is a very rewarding thing to do and a great way of expressing yourself.
“When my father died earlier this year, I received flowers from the prisoners, which was really touching.”
One of four children born and bred in the Oldpark Road area of north Belfast, Terry began his working life as a model in Dublin.
Although he had been sketching and drawing since his days at Newtownbreda High School, it wasn't until a nightclub owner spotted his potential that he entertained the notion of art as a career.
“In 1995, I did a piece as a present for a friend who had always looked after me when I was broke,” he recalls.
He owned a club called The Pod in Dublin and I painted a picture of all the regulars. He loved it and asked me to put on a show.
“I declined at first, but after a few more drinks, I agreed.
“I was astonished when it sold out and things progressed from there.”
Married to former medical photographer Ashley, who now helps him with the business side of things, Terry divides his time between homes in Kircubbin and Dublin.
He admits that combining the solitary life of an artist with being dad to Zak (10), Hal (7) and Etta Blue (5) can sometimes lead to unusual living arrangements.
“It's sometimes difficult. We live in two separate houses — not all the time!” he laughs. “When I'm in a real working mode, the kids will stay with Ashley in one place and I will work in the other. It is different, but works for us.”
Although his paintings now sell for thousands of pounds, Terry insists that becoming successful was far from easy.
“Nothing comes to your door. You have to put yourself out there and get your work seen. I may be doing ok now, but it wasn't always like that.
“Everyone thinks it's a glamorous existence, but they don't see what goes into it and the personal sacrifices.
“For instance, yesterday I worked all day and then all night until 4am, full-on. And I've been doing that for years.
“Yes, there are nice things I can do now, but it's taken a long time and as well as drive, an awful lot of luck was involved.
“For a young artist starting out today, it's beyond tough. I can see why people opt for illustration and computer design because you can make a decent living from that.
“I know a lot of computer designers who are resigned to being artists on the side.
“There are a lot of facilities available and a lot of talent out there. But the local art scene and the funding in Northern Ireland is all very closed shop, ‘who you know' and ‘let's not rock the boat'. It's terrible.
“There isn't any help or support for someone who is outside the ‘clique'.
“And the money spent on that sculpture in Cornmarket — The Spirit of Belfast. What is that like? It's rubbish, just rubbish. It upsets me.
“What thought went into that? How can the public relate to it? It looks like an explosion in a railway yard!
“That thing will be an eyesore in no time. If you think it looks bad now, wait till you see it in a year or two.
“It was a complete waste of money.”
Terry has had to develop a thick skin himself to deal with the snobs who look down on his unique style and self-taught status.
“Art is for everyone, but the high-brow art world tends to close itself away in rooms and have nothing to do with people on the street.
“I avoid that whole scene. I do what I do and freely admit I have no idea about other artists or art history.
“I do admire Jack Vettriano though, simply because of the way he is. His commercial success and style is sneered at by critics, yet people love his work.
“That's the way I am. I'm just a guy. I do what I do and if people like my paintings and buy them, I'm over the moon.”
Terry Bradley's new exhibition will be unveiled at a private showing in the old Northern Bank building, 2 Waring Street, Belfast, on Thursday. The exhibition then opens to the public at Eakin Gallery, Lisburn Road, until November 27