'I found out that I have the same heart defect as my late dad, but I feel just fine'
Talented Belfast artist Aly Harte talks about losing her father when she was just eight and how her family history influences her work. Laurence White reports
It is the everyday things of life which find their way into the work of Belfast artist Aly Harte. And things don't come more commonplace than the wrapper of a loaf of bread, and that is what helped her gain a first class honours degree at Ulster University.
But those wrappers had a special meaning. She had gathered 795 of them as part of her installation - which also included a video - for her degree show, one for each week since the death of her father John McLoughlin.
"I was only eight when he died and sadly, I don't really have many memories of him," she says. "What I do remember is that he loved a particular brand of loaf and that is what gave me the idea for the show. It tied in as well with my belief in the importance of everyday objects, events and thoughts.
"In a way it was also therapeutic. I am thinking of writing something about grief and how it affected me. Everyone's experience of grief is different but I think it is good to share our thoughts".
Although 32-year-old Aly earns her living from art - samples of her work can be bought through the Belfast Telegraph's Studio online shop - she fairly fizzes with ideas about a whole range of subjects. Her blog covers topics such as fitness, well-being, food, even sport.
Her family life is also a constant reference point. The blog, Dear Edna, is named after her grandmother who turned 90 last month. "She is a wonderful woman. My dad and my grandfather died within a relatively short time of each other and granny was a massive part of my life after dad passed away.
"My grandfather had been a pig farmer and granny lived a relatively simple life - but what a powerful woman. Sadly now she has dementia. I visit her often and we chat. She would probably have a good laugh if she knew my blog was named after her." Aly's blog now contains some of her granny's country cooking tips.
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"I had a beautiful friendship with another elderly lady, a neighbour, who passed away recently. I feel that we could learn a lot from that generation of women".
Married to Michael (35) a schoolteacher, they have two sons, Elijah (6) and Tobias (4). With both now at school, this is her first year without childcare costs - which was a necessary expenditure to enable her to concentrate on her business.
"Now I try to work to around 2pm each day and then switch into my other job as a mum", she says. "But last night I was working until 9pm getting orders ready for clients. Fortunately my mum is a great help when Michael is at work."
She knows the value of such assistance when mum and friends rallied around last year after she took ill with pneumonia. "I had to undergo 14 courses of antibiotics to clear up the infection and essentially everyone else helped keep my business going."
Her illness also led to the discovery that she had a heart defect, a leaking valve. "This was the same thing which led to my dad's death. I think the diagnosis had a bigger effect on mum than on me. She remembered how my dad's health deteriorated over a period of four years until he passed away and she was worried for me.
"Thankfully I am fine. I have to go for regular check-ups but everything seems under control at present".
It certainly doesn't stop her pursuing an intensive fitness regime. She accepts the term "gym bunny" adding: "Some people might say my pursuit of fitness is a bit obsessive, but when you know what being fit is really like and realise the value of good health then it makes sense to me".
Sport runs in the family. Her mum played hockey every weekend during her younger days - "I remember my brother and I being taken along to watch her even after dad died" - and later taught swimming to young people with learning disabilities.
Husband Michael played hockey at under-21 level for Ireland and is a sports fanatic. "Recently we visited friends in New York and he astonished them with his knowledge of American football. Now he will watch literally any sport. The boys love snooker - just as my dad did - and on holidays were delighted to find a pool table where they could try their hand at the game".
Rugby is another family interest with the couple and Michael's family often taking in Ulster and Ireland matches. "Not only are the games great to watch, but they are great social occasions as well”, Aly adds.
One venue that she would love to return to is Wimbledon. “In my 20s a friend and I queued up to get our tickets and it was great mixing with the Pimms and strawberry set. We even got Centre Court upgrade tickets from someone who didn’t want to stay to the end of the day’s play. That was a tremendous experience.”
Having two growing boys of her own, it might seem strange that she has also considered adopting other children, even to the extent of completing courses to determine suitability.
“Both Michael and I shared this idea. I feel I have a loving, caring side to me and I wanted to extend that and bring other children into our family fold.
“Sadly it was not the right time and I had to accept that.”
She says that her faith helped sustain her in her disappointment. “I grew up in a family where faith was important — not necessarily in the denominational sense as we had friends of all religions and remain broad-minded in that respect.”
Aly was brought up on a smallholding at Boardmills near Hillsborough and her earliest memories are of drawing a neighbour’s horses and a dog at the age of four. “We had a few beef cattle, chickens and goats and that is where I formed my interest in everyday things.
“In fact, at the moment I am creating a new series of drawings and paintings based on rural images such as hares, donkeys and pheasants.”
As her interest in art grew through her years at Ballynahinch High School and Friends School in Lisburn, her first instinct was to become an art teacher and she studied a foundation course under Neil Shawcross, best known for his portraits.
At Ulster University, she met another acclaimed creative force, Willie Doherty who was twice nominated for the Turner Prize. “Both were a tremendous influence on me”, says Aly “and I have kept in contact with both of them since.”
She found her Masters degree at Ulster — in which she gained a distinction — especially good preparation as a working artist. “It was a course which opened you up to criticism. I am probably quite easily offended, so it made me stand up for myself. I had to believe in what I was doing and what I was passionate about.”
Aly went on to work with the Arts Council for a number of years, running workshops for children, members of the Travelling community and for people from an underprivileged background. She also fulfilled her first ambition by teaching art to college students.
Now she also creates videos for her website giving tips for drawing or painting for beginners. She even hosts occasional free events.
“At one recently in Moira some 100-120 women turned up,” she says.
“One woman brought a flower arrangement which was another creative element.
“In future I would like to have my own classes to teach them more about art and how to progress their own interest in the subject. I feel that I have a lot to offer giving my previous work with the Arts Council and community groups.”
Aly works from a studio near her home, which was created by her brother who is a joiner but also a skilled handyman.
“It is an all-singing, all-dancing studio where I can escape to for my work. That is great when you have two small children — although that sounds a bit harsh.”
She also promises to write more on her blog which contains some quite candid personal details — like the embarrassing time recently when she ran into a guy she kissed at university and how once she chopped off much of her long thick hair and donated her pony tail to make a wig for a child with cancer.
But then she regards her blog — like her art — as a way of communicating with people, not just as a sort of advertising or sales tool.
It is full of the everyday things that mean so much to her and which, refreshingly, she is willing to share.
Aly Harte’s work can be bought at www.belfasttelegraphstudio.co.uk or on her website alyharte.com