In one painting, a young boy in a tracksuit hops over an iron fence, laughing, the flats behind him.
In another, a group of people in the street talk under bright sunlight and against a backdrop of red brick. A man with his shirt off walks towards the group, a girl glances to the left, shading her eyes.
In another still, a boy peeks over his shoulder at the viewer, bare-bottomed after a dip in the canal.
“Most of my work – nearly all of it – it’d be all about a life lived, like, you know what I mean?” says artist Pat Curran, via Zoom on a recent Wednesday. “It’s like, a lot of me is in them photographs.”
Curran, now in his early 60s and with close-cropped salt and pepper hair, grew up in Dolphin House in Dolphin’s Barn.
He moved down the road to Pimlico at the age of 13, though, and as a young man he yearned for his childhood in the flats, he says.
But not all the memories in his art are his own: Curran often paints other people’s photos.
The images come to him in many ways from those living in Rialto and Inchicore – some have been handed to him in his studio from those who’ve tracked him down, others he found in an archive at a local youth club.
With them and more as aides, Curran has built up a collection of works that knit together around the recurring theme of the flats, and highlight the changed landscape of Dublin’s social housing complexes.
His work is community-based, he says. He gets ready access to people’s memories and photographs growing up in the city.
He says he’s grateful for this: “I have a reverence for them because … I treasured my time as a young man in the flats.”
On Found Materials
Curran started painting when his third child was born. “That’s when I realised I need to do something with my life,” he says.
At the time, he was unemployed. “Living a life that I wasn’t comfortable with,” he says.
Curran got involved in a community employment scheme in Ballyfermot, he says. At the encouragement of an art teacher there, he says, he put his name down for Ballyfermot College of Further Education.
At that time, he was going to get a full-time job in the CE scheme, so he had to decide whether to go to art college or accept the job.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision,” he says. “I wanted to go to art college, and I had my mind made up.”
In all, he says, it was seven years of college studies, which culminated in an MFA in painting from the National College of Art and Design.
The first couple of years were tough, he says. That changed in year three, though.
“A lot of stuff started coming up about solitary figures, people on the margins,” and the theme of growing up in the city, he says. “It’s where I really found myself and what I’m about, really, in the arts.”
Curran doesn’t only paint on white canvas. He also uses old book covers. He paints on repurposed factory signs, cut to suit his needs.
“I’m actually on a sort of a winner here,” he says, as he’s not “dealing with a white canvas and the whole history of art, and the history of painting”.
“It gave me a lot more freedom to paint on found objects and found materials, and I just love doing it now,” says Curran.
Architectural and cultural historian Ellen Rowley says that it’s in painting on poster boards that Curran “starts to gesture towards the conceptual … towards these industrial corners of Dublin 8”.
Rowley, who wrote about Curran’s art for his now-postponed exhibition, says his art is “really, really straightforward – and in being so straightforward, it’s inherently, gobsmackingly complex.”
The way he reproduces the photos is a mark of respect, she says. “The person captured, frozen in time – but then there’s also that business of being a record of a lost world.”
### On Representation
In 2017, Curran and his collective at the time were selected for the CITIZEN ARTIST initiative organised by the art organisation Common Ground.
In 2019, he then started his residency with the organisation, which hosts artists working on community-based projects.
Painting out of Studio 468 in the St Andrew’s Community Centre in Rialto, Curran had an open-door policy. “Interacting with the community was brilliant,” he says.
Siobhán Geoghegan, director of artistic programme with Common Ground, says Curran’s practise is socially engaged, collaborative.
“He was opening up conversations with local people who don’t normally get represented in the art world,” says Geoghegan.
“He is really interested in painting a disappearing landscape, really”, she says.
St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore is long due to be redeveloped. Fatima Mansions in Rialto has been demolished, with new buildings in its place.
Dolphin House still exists but is being rebuilt, too. All have served as backdrops to Curran’s paintings.
Curran used to play football as a child in Dolphin House and would stay out the whole day, he says. “There was always somebody to play with, as a kid.”
He stopped playing football after he left, he says.
Curran says his life changed drastically after he and his family moved out. “I always missed the flats, the sense of community.”
But his painting has helped ease that yearning. “There’s a sort of healing in it,” he says.
Says journalist Anne Buckley of Curran’s art: “It was very healing.”
She would sit and look at his paintings in Studio 468 in Rialto, where they met in 2017. When she saw Curran’s paintings, she just wanted to be around them, she said.
“Its powerful strength and grit of humanity. And I just, I just felt so accepted and understood,” says Buckley.
Buckley lost her brother, Mark, at a young age. Curran painted a portrait of him, which was unveiled at the end of My War on Drugs, a documentary about Buckley’s life.
Says Curran: “It was very emotional, you know, like, I felt like crying.”
The painting, done on a blue book cover, shows a young smiling boy. “He brings the soul, the painting to life,” says Buckley.
A Chance to Paint
Due to the Covid-19 crisis, what would have been Curran’s first solo exhibition – to be held at Pallas Projects/Studios in March and April – was postponed.
Curran says he’ll keep making art during the lockdown. It’s his outlet, he says.
When he was at the Lodge – Common Ground’s new building in Inchicore, and Curran’s most recent studio – he had his routine.
Now that the Lodge is closed, he’s painting in his home attic. “Back where it all started,” he says.
He says he can’t spend much time there. It’s confined and there’s not much air. “But you make do with what you have, you know?” he says.
Curran has just finished his painting, as of yet untitled, that shows a boy in blue scaling a fence with St Michael’s Estate behind him.
The photo comes from the archives of a youth club in Inchicore where he had his studio, he says. The lad in the painting is now a man in his 30s with a family, says Curran.
He had plans to meet him before the Covid-19 crisis hit, and still hopes to do so in the future, he says. The next photo he’s going to paint was taken at St Michael’s Estate, too.
Women and children sit in the sun on the grass. Some wear light spring tops. One has kicked her shoes off. The babies in their laps are clad in blue and red stripes.
“It’s a lovely, lovely image,” says Curran. “I go with what feels good,” says Curran. That’s how he chooses what to paint. One of the best pieces of advice he got in college was not to overthink it.
“It’s not all about the meaning of life, or anything like that,” he says. “Sometimes the opportunity just comes along to do a nice painting, you know what I mean?”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 15:46 on 30 April 2020 to reflect that Pat Curran’s exhibition was postponed, and not cancelled as previously reported. We apologise for the error.]