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Remarkable artist who deserves the gratitude of a city

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 10/10/2015

Joe McWilliams at work in his north Belfast studio
Joe McWilliams at work in his north Belfast studio
After the Election, by Joe McWilliams

I was in the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road in Belfast a few months ago and spotted one of Joe McWilliams's paintings of Orange parades there. It was hanging in the reception area. It was one of those large canvasses of surging Orangemen and their bands, predominantly dark blue, swirling and loud.

So I commented on it to the guys at the desk and they hadn't heard of Joe, didn't know he was a friend of mine, but they liked the picture.

One of those who admired it was Progressive Unionist Party councillor Dr John Kyle.

Which surprised me, because I had viewed Joe's pictures of the Orange parades as basically sarcastic.

He did two pictures in that series of the parades pouring like a river of orange fire out of Drumcree and he called them Christians Leaving Church.

He was not consciously paying a compliment to the Orangemen with these pictures, but he was capturing the vitality of the parades, the huge amount of human energy and resilience that went into them.

And that perhaps enabled people who were closer to the Orange tradition to see them almost as a tribute.

In one picture, the parade is just a cluster of umbrellas in the rain.

I have a few of his paintings about the house. One is of an Orangeman urinating against a wall. The paint is applied so thickly that if you go right up to it, it looks like filth that someone has skidded on.

The picture itself looks almost like a nineteenth century Punch cartoon of the stereotypical Irish peasant.

The death of Joe McWilliams this week is hard to address, precisely because his humour and perspective were complex. You'd hate to say something about him that his departed spirit would be smirking at. For Joe could smirk with the best of them, not just at the self-important Orangemen, but at all of those who fancied they were doing some good for this country with their rages and their violence.

An early set of images depicted Lord Brookeborough and Gerry Adams and others as religious icons, their haloes the colours of the flags they stood under. And sometimes he wanted the violence just to speak for itself, as he depicted a scorched door or used scorched wooden panels as material for his work.

Much of this work was commentary or satire. It came out of a wit that spared nobody, for he was a joker in his personal dealings with people.

Once he phoned me up and in a faux American accent claimed to be from the New York Times.

When I was in hospital with jaundice in the early Nineties, he made me a little card, depicting me as a yellow-faced Indian Swami, like some I had known.

It said: "You've taken this interest in the East too far."

The poet Frank Ormsby, who was a friend of Joe's and visited him often after his major surgery for cancer, said he knew that Joe was suffering, but he never came away from him without laughing.

Once, he had asked him if he would stage an exhibition of new work and Joe said: "You know, I don't think I have the stomach for it". Which was literally true.

Joe's wife Catherine and his son Simon are both artists, with reputations as strong as his own.

Catherine has done a recent series of works on the Belfast hills. Simon takes after Joe to an extent in his interest in urban architecture and how ways of looking at a building under construction can be fascinating.

A lot of Joe's landscapes mix city buildings with natural colour and vegetation.

He loved the colour of red brick beside blue skies and green leaves. He was essentially an artist of the urban, who dwelt on Belfast and its streets rather than lifting his gaze more often like others to the scenic landscapes of the hills and coastlines. He found his subject matter at his front door and in the areas he knew as a child, like the New Lodge Road.

Born in 1938, Joe studied art at the Belfast College of Art and the Open University before becoming a senior lecturer and course tutor at the University of Ulster.

In 1986, he and Catherine founded the Cavehill Gallery. There they exhibited their own work, but also the work of a huge number of painters and sculptors, like John B Vallely and Sheila McLean.

Their opening nights were indispensable social occasions, usually with Joe glad-handing and joking over the wine, while Catherine was the one to coax sales.

The gallery was their home and the living spaces, aside from the showrooms, are filled with works by artists they loved, like Vallely and Flora McDonnell.

And at a time when Belfast seemed to be dying and there was hardly a decent restaurant and the only smattering of culture was the annual Queen's Festival, here was this amazing gallery up the old Cavehill Road, where lawyers and journalists and hoteliers and people who had never dreamed of spending as much on a picture would fall in love with the paintings Joe and Catherine commended to them and take them gleefully home to hang them over the fireplace.

This was a huge injection of artistic and cultural energy into a grim city.

And for that, and for his own distinctive work, Joe McWilliams deserves a place in history and the gratitude of Belfast.

Belfast Telegraph

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