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First Person: 'People were living in slums on top of a garbage heap'

Artist Clinton Kirkpatrick (29) is originally from Crumlin and now has a studio in east Belfast. He is about to have his first exhibition in the National Museum of Kenya, a place that has hugely influenced his art

I was always going to be an artist. I wasn't particularly academic at school so I left school at 16 to study art full-time and went to Lisburn College, then did a foundation diploma at Limavady College.

I searched for the right course to do my degree – I was 18 at that stage and I already knew I was a painter. I found a painting and drawing degree at the University of Huddersfield.

I started to travel while I was at university. I went to Australia after my first year for what should have been eight months but what actually turned into 18 months. During my time there I also won scholarships to South Korea and Singapore.

When my degree finished in 2008 I knew I wanted to continue painting, but I also wanted to put down some roots. I came back to Lisburn where my parents let me set up a studio at their house.

I got my first exhibition at a gallery in Belfast called the Safehouse Gallery in 2009 when I was 24. I would say that the work wasn't very good but at that time it was all about learning for me.

After that exhibition my work started to change. I threw a lot more of myself into my work and it became more of a personal dialogue. I was also working in Belfast as a cultural arts officer but the job came to an end due to a lack of funding in early 2011.

I then went to Kenya with a group called International Volunteering HQ.

The biggest culture shock in Kenya was that people couldn't get over the fact that I was white. I was placed to write HIV and AIDS awareness programmes and would go into schools to give awareness talks. Every time I opened my mouth I got laughed at because they couldn't get over my accent. Eventually though I got over it and started to make friends.

The most shocking thing I saw was over my first weekend in Kenya.

We went to deliver some food aid to slums and that was truly shocking. The slums were literally built on top of a garbage heap on the outskirts of a city. You really saw that people had no money and lived for the deliveries we brought to them. I don't know how they would have survived without those deliveries.

As soon as I got home I felt I had something to work for. I was inspired by the experience that had informed my work so incredibly – I took hundreds of photos and sketched while I was out there. I created a large body of work including four, five and six-foot paintings for the Waterfront show and it was well received in Belfast.

The next trip to Kenya was incredibly testing as well as incredibly rewarding. I was white in a predominantly black society without the support network of the volunteer organisation. I had made friends, but it was a few weeks before I actually started to feel comfortable.

While I was there I started to volunteer at a children's shelter teaching art and creative writing. I also started to paint which I didn't expect, I had thought I would just draw. I was lent a studio and used gloss paint as it was the cheapest.

While I was there I decided to get to know some organisations such as the Kuona Trust who offered a course in wood-cut print-making, so I went on the four-day course which I'm now using. I still get all my ink imported from Kenya because it's cheaper.

I went to meet with the art director of the National Museums of Kenya. They have a wonderful exhibition space out there and young artists are actively invited to apply for exhibition space. I asked if I could exhibit and she told me that I had the right to apply along with everyone else but that she had already been to the board of directors with some samples of my work.

After I left Kenya the second time around I started working towards an exhibition at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn for June 2013. Just before it opened I got word I was being offered at exhibition at the National Museum in Kenya. That's what I'm working towards at the moment for May 2014. I now want to start exploring Belfast in a humorous and fun way. I've focused on Kenya for so long I feel that it's time to reconnect with the city. One painting is titled Hello Belfast and that's me turning my focus back to Belfast and getting reacquainted.

I would like to go on to do a Masters degree and at the moment I'm doing the research into the right course. It will probably in London, somewhere where painting is more respected and taken more seriously than here. I still feel like I'm still learning how to paint.

I feel like my most recent work is my most developed but I'm keen to keep studying and keep painting.

e Clinton's current work, Hello Belfast, Let's Take A Little Walk is at the John Hewitt in Donegall Street, Belfast until February 28.

e The exhibition is a mix of oil on canvas and wood cut print.

e For more information you can contact Clinton at clintonkirkpatrick@yahoo.co.uk or go to his website, www.clintonkirkpatrick.com

e Clinton is currently fundraising for his third trip to Kenya later this year when he will stage a major exhibition.

Interview: Kerry McKittrick

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