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Terry Bradley on depression, why exhibiting his paintings feels like leaving his diary lying around and ... how to paint a dead rabbit

The acclaimed artist from north Belfast talks to Claire McNeilly about his exciting new commission for a famous Irish bar in New York, his celebrity pals and being a naturally private person thrust into the limelight

How tastefully could you draw a dead rabbit? That's the challenge now facing renowned Northern Ireland artist Terry Bradley, who has just been commissioned to paint a lifeless bunny for one of New York's most successful Irish bars.

Owned by Belfast duo Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, The Dead Rabbit is named after a notorious Irish-American street gang that controlled much of Lower Manhattan during the 1850s.

Bradley revealed that he knew McGarry and Muldoon from his "foggy" cocktail-buying days at Belfast's Merchant Hotel, where the pair worked as barmen before heading across the pond to open the three-storey pub on Water Street in the Big Apple's financial district.

So while he normally shuns commissions, the 52-year-old agreed to create a signature piece to mark the fifth anniversary of the popular hostelry - and is relishing his new transatlantic project.

"When we met up to discuss working together, we realised we had lots in common and we really hit it off," he said.

"We all grew up in north Belfast on different sides of the divide, but had the same drive, the same interests."

With the official unveiling scheduled for February 12, Bradley, who has homes in Bangor and Cloughey, has already produced some provisional sketches.

"Their dead rabbit is really mad looking; it's a man's body and rabbit's head," he said.

"They wanted an artist from here, and wanted my version."

A specific space has been reserved on the wall of the establishment, which was crowned World's Best Bar 2016 and the Best Bar in North America, so the pressure is on for Bradley to produce something special.

He said: "It's going to be quite a loose piece. I'm going to put the appropriate tattoos on it and give it really mad eyes. I can already see it in my head."

Once complete, he's taking the whole family over to New York for the bar's relaunch.

Bradley, whose previous clients include Bono, Madonna, The Bee Gees and Michael Flatley, is hoping his time in the US will open the doors to more big names - and he might even consider putting on an exhibition there.

"We sell prints to the States a lot," he said. "The problem I've had recently is that I don't have originals because they've sold as I've done them."

He added: "The bizarre thing is, where I've got to in my career now is quite hard to handle emotionally. I suffer from anxiety and depression, and have used my art as a crutch all my life."

Bradley's well-known struggle with mental illness dates back to growing up beside a peaceline in north Belfast, where he also discovered the sedative effect of drawing - and "hiding" behind his paintings is something he still does.

"I paint my own emotions hidden behind mostly girls and guys," he said. "I didn't go to art college. I came into art privately. I'm still a shy, quiet person who draws," he said.

Referring to a recent exhibition in Edinburgh, Bradley said he realised "my paintings had gone quite sad".

"Twice I nearly cried because I didn't realise how much I actually hide behind my art," he said. "It's really weird; this guy said 'it must be fantastic to walk round here', but I said 'can you imagine someone making 20 copies of your personal diary and leaving it around for everyone to have a read and tell you what they think?' It's a bit like that."

Bradley's success means he has some "seriously full-on fans" these days.

"A lot of them have tattoos of my art on them," he said. "There are hundreds of them. They've got my paintings on their legs, arms, backs; everywhere. And they send me pictures. They spend fortunes on this ..." One of the pivotal moments in his career came three years ago when the legendary Willie G Davidson, from the Harley Davidson motorcycle dynasty, discovered his work online.

"He contacted me, said he considered me to be the heart and soul of Harley and made me their European ambassador for a year," he said.

"I helped design and choose their '48' tank. They flew me to Miami and Milan."

He added: "Hopefully Willie is going to come along to the New York show, and a lot of film stars also drink in that pub."

Bradley believes this commission for the New York pub is in keeping with where he wants to go next career-wise.

"I've been writing a graphic novel for the last five years," he revealed. "It's been put on the back burner because I've been so busy. It's called Sailortown Frank and it's about bare-knuckle boxing in the 1890s. I've been writing this with a partner, Martin Brennan. Off the back of the New York commission, I could take some time out and get back to it."

Despite his success, Bradley has never forgotten his roots. His new gallery on Bangor's High Street - where an unframed limited edition print will set you back £190, stretching upwards to £15,000 for a 'big original' - is open to people of all ages and every walk of life.

"There's a big problem in the art world where it's isolated from people, where they think it's not for them or they think it's above them," he said. "I love the fact that, with me, people feel they're allowed to take a painting home and hang it on their wall. I'm an ordinary working class guy. That's who I am. And I talk to them all as much as I can."

Bradley admits he's an "emotionally difficult" person, particularly for his wife Ashley (50), a former medical photographer with whom he has three children - Zak (18), Hal (16) and Ella Blu (13).

When the couple married in Miami in 1999, Boyzone star Ronan Keating was their best man. "We've been mates since he was 16. I met him when I was modelling in Dublin and we've been friends ever since," said Bradley. "He comes to my house when he's having issues; I knew his ex-wife Yvonne before he did."

He described the Keatings' highly public split as "awkward" but he's still friends with both parties.

"I go back and forward and see Ronan in London, where he's based. He's the nicest person you could meet. He's always been at my side and vice versa. He's a funny guy and a nice person."

Bradley is proud to reveal that he and Ronan once spent a week with legendary American songwriter Burt Bacharach, the man who propelled the likes of Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and the Carpenters to superstardom.

"Before I left, Burt gave me a signed copy of the music sheet for Walk on By; that was a special moment," he said.

The local artist and reluctant star has already been asked to do shows in Marbella and at London's Maddox Gallery next year, but what's on his personal hit list?

"Apart from New York, the most important thing for me is to go back to Dublin with a show because that's where I started," Bradley said.

"I haven't been able to get back there yet so Dublin would be an emotionally rewarding thing for me to do in 2018."

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