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Artist Ross Wilson hopes St Patrick's mural will help overturn myths about Ireland's patron saint and his famous royal friendship

Artist has forged a remarkable relationship with Prince Charles

By Ivan Little

Published 12/03/2016

Home-grown talent: artist Ross Wilson was happy to return to Northern Ireland after studying in London
Home-grown talent: artist Ross Wilson was happy to return to Northern Ireland after studying in London
Royal seal: Ross Wilson at the unveiling of his mural in Belfast
Ross with The Yardmen
With Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin at a Tigers Bay community mural
A mural of St Patrick in a loyalist area of south Belfast
With the UDA’s Jackie McDonald at the launch of a New King Billy Mural in south Belfast
His statue to CS Lewis on the Holywood Road in Belfast

Painter and sculptor Ross Wilson thought the Royal invitation was a joke. Why on earth, he wondered, would Prince Charles want him to join him for a dinner party at Hillsborough Castle?

And only for the persistence of his wife Liz, the hugely-talented Co Antrim man might have stayed at home and his unique bond with the heir to the throne might never have flourished.

Ross was surrounded by heads of Northern Ireland industry as he sat down to dine at Hillsborough, but the gifted artist brought something very different to the table — sketches that he’d done of Donegal-based artist Derek Hill, who had taught the Prince of Wales to paint.

And they clearly struck a chord with the Prince. Five months later Ross was invited to spend a weekend with him and other guests at Balmoral.

Says Ross: “I was asked to bring my paints with me and I did some landscapes and snow-scapes over there. The Prince, who’s a very accomplished artist himself, liked some of my work, and to my surprise he offered to swap one of his paintings for one of mine. Which, of course, I agreed to do.”

Ross has subsequently been to the Prince’s home at Highgrove and the two men correspond regularly.

“He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met and I think he’s misunderstood because the Press misrepresent him,” adds Ross, who met the Prince on a public stage last year during a Royal visit to the East Belfast Network Centre, which had transformed from an old school in Templemore Avenue with a grant from Charles’ Regeneration Trust.

Ross presented him with a painting of the centre, but his Royal connections are only part of the  remarkable story of the Glengormley-born artist, who has also completed portraits of the likes of American playwright Arthur Miller, comedy genius Woody Allen and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.

Yet, this week, Ross was just as at home in the company of people from the Village area of Belfast as they unveiled one of his artworks, celebrating the life of St Patrick and embracing him into a loyalist district which not so long ago might have spurned Ireland's patron saint.

And Ross has also helped fashion tributes in Northern Ireland to everyone from tragic youngsters from the Twinbrook estate to King William of Orange on a gable end, which had been the preserve of paramilitaries.

So, his body of work, it is fair to say, is eclectic. Yet Ross Wilson's talents are outstripped by his modesty. And there was nothing remotely false about his humility as he says: "I don't really like talking about myself."

The seeds of his St Patrick's project were sewn around the time of the City Hall flag dispute and Ross was brought on board by the Greater Village Regeneration Trust, which knew his work from another well-publicised mural he'd initiated in nearby Sandy Row a few years earlier.

Ross had captured the headlines after a notorious UFF mural there was replaced by his colourful depiction of King Billy, and he jumped at the chance of helping people in the Village to explore the heritage of St Patrick.

A number of workshops were held and, among some of the participants, there was surprise that the Union flag had within it the cross of St Patrick whom many loyalists had associated with "the other side".

The very idea that St Patrick might have found himself on a mural in a loyalist area of Belfast would have been laughed out of court not so long ago.

"It is a quantum leap," says Aghadowey-based Ross - adding that he's not on a crusade to redraw the lines of history. "I'm a painter. But I've been something of a translator, helping to translate things in an accurate way that had been mistranslated inaccurately before."

Ross adds that the inspiration for the face of St Patrick was a neighbour. "He's a young man called Mark Jameson. He's a zoologist and actor who is currently working in Inverness, counting deer. To me, Mark has the look of St Patrick about him."

Ross, who failed his 11-Plus, has been passionate about his painting for as long as he can remember. "I always said I wanted to be an artist. Or a cowboy," he laughs.

But he has credited a teacher at Glengormley High School - the late Sheila Doris - with opening the door into the art world for him.

"I knew I wanted to go on from school to study art, but I didn't know how to. Mrs Doris changed my life. She helped me focus and gave me courage and she got me to university, which was like playing for Man United in the 1968 European Cup final win over Benfica.

"I loved art college in Belfast. I was where I wanted to be and I was in college at 7.30am every morning, before the cleaners."

Ross ended up completing a Master's degree at the prestigious Chelsea School of Art in London, but though tutors tried to persuade him to stay in England, he couldn't wait to come home. "I had a yearning to return. It was about the place and being here and I always believed I could do work here that would travel."

But it was Ross who found himself travelling after the National Portrait Gallery in London commissioned him to paint the acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott in St Lucia.

Ross thought that was a prank call, too. "I didn't phone them back for three months and, again, it was Liz who made me do it. The director of the gallery said it was Derek Walcott who asked for me to paint his portrait."

It transpired that Walcott was friendly with Ulster Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, whose family portrait had been painted by Ross after a chance meeting with him in Belfast 12 years earlier. Walcott had seen the painting and was impressed by it.

"Derek Walcott sat for me in St Lucia and I came home to finish the piece in a renovated cottage, which used to house pigs," says Ross.

"That portrait is now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery." Along with 13 other portraits by Ross, who also painted one of another Nobel Laureate, the Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky.

Ross, who has been a visiting speaker at Oxford and Harvard universities, painted Heaney on a number of occasions after he moved to the Republic, and he once smuggled a large portrait across the border to avoid customs patrols.

"A friend drove us along the back roads of south Armagh, but we got lost," adds Ross, who last year painted a towering new portrait of Seamus Heaney for the Stormont Assembly, which also commissioned one of the writer CS Lewis. Which completed something of a circle for the artist.

For one of Ross's first-ever public sculptures, in 1998, was The Searcher, which was inspired by Lewis's writing and which now stands as a landmark outside the Ballymacarrett Library in east Belfast.

It was a centenary tribute to Lewis and, at the same time, a Glengormley friend of Ross's composed a musical about him.

That friend was Keith Getty, the prolific hymn writer, who now lives in Nashville and, with his wife, Kirstyn, forms one of the most popular gospel groups in North America.

Ross, who was the best man at the Gettys' wedding, had to raise the money for the Lewis sculpture himself with no real idea where it would get a permanent home in east Belfast. "I got £2,000 from Typhoo tea and I still drink their products every day."

But Ross didn't receive as much help as he wanted from energy suppliers here. "So, I wait until the last moment before paying my bills."

However, The Searcher found Ross more and more commissions as a sculptor - even though he had always regarded himself first and foremost as a painter.

One of his most powerful works was of St Luke the Healer, which was unveiled 10 years ago in the Twinbrook estate in west Belfast as a celebration of the lives of young people from the area who'd died in tragic circumstances.

"That showed me the power that art could have on so many levels. And the sculpture is still looked after by many families who lost their loved ones," says Ross.

On the other side of Belfast, a bronze sculpture of three workers from the Belfast shipyard was erected in the shadow of the Harland & Wolff cranes on the Newtownards Road as part of one of many re-imaging projects in Belfast which have resulted in the removal of contentious paramilitary and sectarian murals.

But Ross, who painted murals in Glengormley in his youth, says: "My view of re-imaging things is not to neutralise a community, but rather to help a community to articulate what it truly is and I know some agencies don't like that." Ross also designed a mural called Weavers to Winners in Sandy Row to mark the 125th anniversary of Linfield Football Club.

At the moment, Ross is working on commissioned portraits of a number of senior legal figures in Northern Ireland, and three years ago he was commissioned to paint one of former Belfast Lord Mayor - and current East Belfast MP - Gavin Robinson.

Ross said he tries to paint every day in his studio, and he insisted he is still learning as an artist and he still gets a kick out of working on a number of weekly projects with youngsters in Bushmills and musicians near Stranocum.

Ross said that, as a younger artist himself, he received encouragement from his "hero" - Basil Blackshaw. "He's the real deal and he was a great example to me of someone who just got on with it, making the work. He was exalting the ordinary everyday things that we take for granted," he says.

"He's also a countryman. And I now live in the country, which is pretty idyllic, and it has made me see that, as an artist, I'm a sub-creator.

"I do believe there's a greater creator who has created what is around us. That is something I see every day - the creation of God.

"I wouldn't say that I'm a Christian artist, but I believe that I have been given something to do that I should be faithful to. And I find going to my church in Coleraine a very enlightening experience."

Ross's wife, Liz, trained as an artist, and their 14-year-old daughter, Grace, has talked of becoming a painter one day.

"But I have tried to encourage her to concentrate on her talent as a musician," says Ross. "An artist's life is a difficult path."

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