What Lies Beneath: Edna O’Brien by Declan Chambers

Edna O’Brien by Declan Chambers Oil on canvas board Courtesy of the artist

Edna O’Brien told a dumbfounded audience at this year’s Listowel Writers’ Week how she was once seated at the main table in a hotel dining room with fellow guests, only to be asked to move because the then Bishop of Galway was about to join that very table. She obliged and ended up over by the kitchen door.

For artist Declan Chambers, Edna O’Brien is “one of the pioneering figures in the Irish women’s movement” and he admires her “bravery and two-fingers attitude towards a patriarchal society”. That evening in Galway, however, her fingers were politely occupied with knife and fork.

Abstract art is “first and foremost” but when Chambers became “a reluctant portrait painter due to finances” he discovered that he enjoyed the process; “in particular the search for the true soul of the person whether through the eyes, smile or frowning forehead”.

Chambers says he wants “to find the poetry behind the face and deliver what the photograph ordinarily can not”.

In this instance, he not only wanted to capture that contemplative moment just before O’Brien answers a question, when “she seems to tilt her head, purse her lips and enter into deep thought” but he also wanted to convey O’Brien’s “ageless quality and intriguing presence”.

This portrait was a week’s work.

“The structure and contours of the face were moulded by light and dark, the flesh tones from burnt umber, raw sienna, alizarin crimson, indian red and yellow ochre.”

Chambers grew up in Limerick, teaches in its College of Further Education, works from a home studio and shows with An Draiocht Gallery in Adare.

On hearing that O’Brien was to be honoured at Listowel, “I made it my business to paint her, and I feel I have captured something in her look that goes beyond her obvious beauty.” He wanted to capture O’Brien’s “depth of feeling and studied contemplation” and convey a dynamic, fluid quality, “not only the moment itself but the moments that came before and the moments that might follow”.

Having gifted this portrait, Chambers nervously asked O’Brien what she thought of it.

“Dumbfounded!” said the Dame.

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Chambers was charmed: “What a beautiful reply from someone whose business it is to find the correct words.”

Sunday Indo Living

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