Ulster artist Charlie Whisker made videos for Dylan and Bono, but when that work ended his marriage collapsed. Now at 59 he has a new partner, a new exhibition and a new baby on the way. By Sarah Caden
A few months ago, Charlie Whisker came home with a highchair he had bought at an auction. He shows it to me in the dining room, an old and lovely piece of wooden furniture, ingenious in how it turns into a little table and chair for a toddler, the basket-weave of the seat remarkably well-preserved. He loves the workmanship but acknowledges the chair's impracticality with regret. Secretly, perhaps, Whisker hopes his soon-to-arrive baby will take to it, but his partner was horrified when she saw the potentially hazardous old highchair — the thoroughly modern buggy in the other corner of the room reveals how differently her mind is working.
Still, Whisker's excitement at the impending birth is evident in his purchase. In some ways, he admits, it's a surprise to find himself in this position at 59, but it's a pleasant surprise. After years of chapters closing, it's life-affirming to anticipate a new beginning and the sense of optimism that accompanies it informs everything.
“I know people will say in the street, ‘Oh, that's a lovely grandchild',” Whisker laughs, “but I don't mind. I'm very young at heart. I'm happy and I think I'll live a long time. I still think I'm about 30.”
The new baby — with Whisker's partner, writer Julia Kelly — is due the day his latest exhibition of paintings opens, a coincidence that might prove awkward if the arrival is prompt, but it is fitting, too. Life and work are full of promise right now, and Charlie Whisker is revitalised and rejuvenated by both after a period of darkness through divorce and a difficult repatriation.
We meet at the home in Bray, near Dublin, that Whisker shares with Julia. Their Victorian house is back from the seafront, but has glimpses of the water. Whisker's studio is on the second floor while Kelly works on the ground floor, writing a follow-up novel to her successful debut With My Own Lazy Eye.
The living room where we talk is big and airy, full, but not over-full, of Indian furniture Whisker has collected down the years. Two of his large paintings hang on the walls, so he can live with them and work out what extra element they need to be complete, and the Christmas tree lies withering on the balcony, waiting to be disposed of. It's an interesting room and Whisker revels in that, opening a chest full of antique medical instruments when I admire a framed anatomical drawing, laughing as he explains that Kelly hung the instruments on the Christmas tree as a macabre surprise for him.
He loves this Bray house, which he and Kelly bought last year. He loves being near the sea, loves the fact that Bray is the town to which the Whisker family went on holidays when he was a child, from their almost identical home town of Bangor, Co Down.
There is a sense, perhaps, of having come so far from where he began, and through so much, and of coming full circle, back to somewhere very familiar. It's as close as he'll ever get to returning to his Northern Ireland beginnings, but as any discussion of his work makes clear, the past is never entirely left behind.
The spent-match motif that peppers Charlie Whisker's work is evident in both paintings that hang on his living room wall. Superficially, it's a cute image, but as Whisker has discussed in the past, the match represents an incident that haunted him for a long time.
As a young man recently graduated from art college in Belfast, Whisker happened upon the shooting of one of his students, Michael Browne. “It was at night, it was dark and I didn't understand what was happening,” Whisker explains. “I thought it was just kids hanging around and then there were two shots and two guys running away and one guy falling.
“It was too late to stop them and when I got to Michael he was alive and I tried to keep him alive and even though he was shot in the face, I recognised him, eventually,” he continues. “The back of his head came away in my hand.”
Sixteen-year-old Browne died and when Whisker returned to the scene with the police the following day he observed them picking up pieces of potential evidence, including the spent matches and the butts of cigarettes he had smoked while waiting with the dead boy.
“The match became a little symbol,” says Whisker, “a way of keeping Michael alive in everything I do. I've got over what happened, it took a long time but I did, but I like to include forensic detail in my paintings, reminders of things, clues, remembrances.”
Soon after Michael Browne's death and Whisker's assistance to the police in convicting the killer, he left Northern Ireland for |England. There were threats against his life and the place had changed for him, as it was changing for many others as the Troubles commenced.
“The Titanic comes up in my paintings, too,” Whisker notes. “It's very symbolic of Northern Ireland. This wonderful thing turned into something catastrophic and a lot of people sank, but I got off and swam ashore to England.”
After some time in London, Whisker and his fashion-designer wife, Mariad, returned to Ireland to live in Dublin. It was an exciting time. Mariad was involved in the fledgling Design Centre and Charlie began work with Windmill Lane, making music videos.
“I love musicians,” says Whisker, who pointed out a photograph of his daughter, India, with Bono's younger daughter, Eve, while showing me the antique highchair.
“I don't have much empathy with other artists and I don't like sitting around talking about art, but I love to talk about music.
“I made a video for Bob Dylan,” Whisker recalls of those early Windmill Lane days, “and Nasdaq saw it and wanted what I had done with it for a four-year campaign of commercials they were doing.
“So myself and another director, Merit Avis, went out to California and he set up Windmill Lane in Santa Monica. We were there for nine years [from the mid-Nineties] and it was a fantastic nine years of making videos for some fantastic people, U2, all the Springsteen stuff, Dylan. It was great fun and you felt satisfied because you were contributing to something that was great. It was high end, there was no low end.”
When the Whisker family moved to LA, they were four: Charlie, Mariad and their two small daughters, India and Domino. It was a fantastic life, in the sunshine, living on the beach at Pacific Palisades, enjoying the San Bernardino mountains and the desert. But it was not without its difficulties.
“Mariad had a great fashion career here,” Whisker explains. “And she went reluctantly to America. Only slightly, and only because she had a great career here and it's hard to break into that world, but I did have a great career there.”
That imbalance, he concedes, took its toll on the relationship. “It was hard and it was difficult for Mariad, but it was great for me. And coming back to Ireland was great for Mariad, and not great for me.”
The Whiskers returned to Ireland in 2001, for all sorts of reasons. Whisker had moved out of music videos when the vogue for the paintbox work he did passed.
He moved into commercials, which he found unfulfilling, and desperately wanted to paint and get his hands dirty again. And that just wasn't possible where they were, where it was expensive to live and difficult to break into the art scene.
They decided to come home and sold their house, “for a very good price”, only for 9/11 to devastate the dollar and devalue their money. They could not afford anywhere decent to buy in Dublin, they rented a series of houses and, says Whisker, he had “the head staggers” for a while.
“I had a few people who had bought paintings from me before and who bought from me again,” says Whisker, whose work hangs in the homes of Bono, Henry Mountcharles and film directors John Boorman and Steven Soderbergh. “But I had to go back to teaching in NCAD and that was fine but you can't teach and paint, teaching takes all your energy, and I wanted to paint.”
Whisker makes no bones about the fact that the period following the family's return to Ireland was difficult, and ultimately ended in his separation from Mariad, from whom he is now divorced.
He talks about the terrible empty feeling that follows the end of such a long and significant relationship and likens it to a death, while also talking about the great relationship he has with his daughters, now in their early twenties and making their own way in the world.
If you had told Charlie Whisker five years ago that as he approached 60 he'd be entering into fatherhood again, he'd have laughed. The family phase of life, he believed, was past for him. It was great, he adds, but it was done.
“And I never wanted babies in the first place,” he exclaims. “Ever! I was a member of the King Herod Society, never into the idea of it. But India came along and my heart just melted, and then we had another one, Domino, and my heart melted again. And now I'm quite excited about this one, but I did think I was over it. I was looking forward to a book by the fire in the evening, a pipe, maybe.
“What I'm not overly excited about is other people's children. Julia's 20 years younger than me and she's of an age where all her friends have had or are having babies, so there's a lot of getting together with squawking babies, and toddlers running about. And I can't do it, I hate it, so I will be staying in my studio, on the mobile phone saying, ‘Are they gone yet?' At my age, in this relationship, I can say that to Julia and she understands.”
Whisker met Julia Kelly at the artists' retreat, Annaghmakerrig, in Co Monaghan, in the dark time after his marriage broke up. “Annaghmakerrig,” he laughs, “where people whose marriages are breaking up go for solace. It's full of people coming out of broken marriages, or going into them.”
Kelly, he says, “was very sweet and very funny”. They became friends and then, over time, it developed into a relationship. “I'm older than her by 20 years, but it doesn't faze her, thank goodness. And it doesn't faze me, not at all, I'm very fit and I've promised Julia I'll live to 100.”
There's no need to ask Charlie Whisker what will take priority if the new baby decides to coincide with his latest exhibition. The work and its success — he has sold a number of the paintings already, pre-show — are important and he's grateful to have this second career at his first love, but the baby tops everything.
The highchair, much as Whisker loves it, will probably sit unused and next Christmas the medical instruments are unlikely to be strung from the tree. All will change and that change is more than welcome.
As he shows me out of his home, Charlie Whisker points out the nursing home that adjoins it. Julia Kelly jokes that she'll put him in there when the time comes, but promises to visit him, he adds. “Very handy,” he says.
Charlie Whisker's exhibition, Memory and Promise, is on at the Solomon Gallery, Merrion Hotel, Dublin, today and tomorrow. See solomongallery.com