Pauline Bewick RHA (Artist) in Conversation with Triona Minogue and Brenda Agnew
We, Triona Minogue and Brenda Agnew, have long been inspired by Pauline Bewick, one of Ireland’s foremost contemporary artists – not least for her wonderfully rich, feminist and free-spirited artwork, but also for the authentic, self-actualising way she has lived her life. We thought her life would be of particular interest to psychotherapists. She was very interested to be interviewed for this journal and welcomed us to her home and studio in Kerry.
Pauline had a very unusual upbringing given that she was reared in the 1930s. Her mother left her father and came to Ireland with baby Pauline and her older sister. She got a position in Kerry as a foster mother to two orphaned children, Lucy and Michael, whose parents had died of TB. She reared the four children all happily together for six years on a small farm in Kerry and fitted in despite her unconventional parenting, vegetarianism, single-parent status and lack of religious beliefs.
When Lucy died tragically from meningitis, Michael was sent to Switzerland for the clean air and to study catering so Pauline’s mother reluctantly had to move on with her two daughters. Thus began a nomadic existence for the three of them between Ireland and the UK living in various cottages, caravans, and at one stage a houseboat. Pauline, who is dyslexic, sporadically attended many ‘progressive schools’ in the UK and subsequently attended art college in Dublin.
Brenda: How did people in Ireland react to your mother, given that she was so unconventional?
Pauline: I think people sensed that she was a natural woman and liked her. As a result of my mother’s complete openness with absolutely everybody, nobody was down on her in Ireland – I think this was due to her open attitude. You got what you saw with h
© Pauline Bewick
She pooh-poohed education and would say ‘what do you want to fill your head with all that rubbish’ – she didn’t want me to study and be influenced by other artists and so therefore I grew up without giving myself the label of ‘artist’ – it just came out, I just drew. It was like she just let me pour out the real me instead of being influenced by lots of things. But it left me inadequate – thankfully she gave me enough confidence not to care that I am inadequate – because I have no formal education.
Triona: What about your father?
Pauline: I never knew him. He died from alcohol when I was two-and-a- half (which incidentally, was when she did her first drawings). He was non-existent in my life. That was until I met a Gestalt therapist many years later. She asked me ‘What does he mean to you? Can you find him in your body?’ I thought this was a bit hippyish, but I went along with it. Then I could see clearly on my right-hand side a grey stone man. He was a finely formed man, cold and well built. To my amazement, the left-hand side was all bright, sunny and yellow. The therapist asked me to draw the grey man and see if I could find any life in him. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t find any life in him. She turned the drawing sideways; it then seemed to take the form of a manatee. It was alive. She sent me home to draw more grey men and said ‘keep the life in him’.
Pauline had already developed ‘the Yellow Man’ – who represented her ideal being. She had a hugely successful Yellow Man exhibition in 1996 but she had no idea of the existence of the Grey Man until this was brought out by the therapist. The Grey Man was a complete surprise to her. While she had been pleased with her creation of the Yellow Man, the Grey Man had been hidden and his discovery led to a sense of balance.
I love puzzling out relationships ‒ and I find wild men very attractive ‒ although I didn’t need to marry one. (Pauline married a psychiatrist, Pat Melia, in 1963). Pat never analysed to me my paintings which he could have done – but never did and I was glad about that. I could take it now but I couldn’t take it then. Pat said the therapist changed me for the better – I wasn’t as blaming of men in the world. The therapist felt deep down I had not forgiven my father.
© Pauline Bewick
My mother did say to me later in life that I was ‘fiddling while Rome burns’. This was when she went off me. She encouraged me all of my life but when I became a parent she turned against me. She said she had gone off art – ‘it’s like masturbation’ she would say. She would write me awful letters and I would shake like a leaf. She would write ‘you should be doing something about the world. Read more Krishnamurti’. All sorts of things like that. If I didn’t have Pat to help me along I would have been devastated because she was so important to me. It took me many years to get over that. I could hear her voice in my head for years after – she died in 1978 or something like that – but all of those years, up to about five or 10 years ago, I would hear her voice saying ‘you are not doing enough for the world’.
Brenda: How do you understand your mother’s change of response?
Pauline: I think she felt I had let her down, left her basically. And so she hurt me by saying ‘I have gone off art’. She rejected me. God, that was hard to get over. The very one thing she told me I was brilliant at and a genius and then saying I have gone off it. I think my mother needed analysing ‒ she had an interesting childhood ‒ her father re-married a woman who was the same age as her eldest sister.
Pat was my father then – he looked after me during that time – nobody else could have done it as well as Pat. I have to say, I married the right man for me. He was stable – not that I didn’t rebel against his stableness and go off to the South Seas – but he was my therapist, father and the person to rebel against – all of those things. I think he enjoyed the challenge in his life!
Pauline showed us a number of paintings that in hindsight seem prophetic. For example, one painting bears a remarkable resemblance to the Twin Towers, with white crosses – painted two months before the 9/11 disaster – and another painting of an aeroplane falling into the Hudson river.
© Pauline Bewick
Triona: What is your understanding of this?
Pauline: I don’t understand it. I somehow have hit on things. I am not religious – I don’t think there is anything guiding us. But I think I have some kind of a clear vision. I am terribly uneducated and this leaves a very uncluttered mind. I am reasonably intelligent and I pick up other vibes – others are so full of education to refer to whereas I don’t have anything except a bit of instinct – it’s my own clear well that I refer to.
I have never tried to inhibit myself in my paintings – things pour out but unconsciously – in me everything is hidden but then it comes out unconsciously – and it stops being in me, it stops being hidden. I often wonder is that why I don’t dream? I just put the whole lot out.
Brenda: A lot of your paintings have a sexual theme. Do they represent you in some way?
Pauline: My paintings are more relaxed and open than I am. I am not and was never promiscuous. I was almost – you could say prudish – but I felt it was wisdom. I was left free to be wise – I wasn’t always wise – I had an abortion and that wasn’t wise to get pregnant – but I think if I had a more restrictive mother with rules, I would not have possibly been free to be wise. I was left free to look into the face of the fellow, let’s say I had fallen for, and see what he was like more clearly than if I had a set of rules as to how to look at him.
A lot of my pictures are wishes – I wish I could lie and have frogs and creatures sit on me and not be afraid – they are wishes to be totally free – so free as to feel the moss on my skin and feel the feet of the toad or whatever it is without any further fears of – What’s over there? – Who is behind me? – Am I in danger? People think that it is me in my paintings but it is not – it is a wish. If you could only put your bum in the air and wash your hair in the stream without wondering who can see my backside?
Eighteen months ago Pauline had a stroke. Next year she will be 80. At the recent RHA exhibition in Dublin, Pauline exhibited two paintings: ‘Old Woman Remembering’ and ‘Man Contemplates Death’.
Triona: Are you in a more reflective period of your life now?
Pauline: Yes, without a doubt. I am thinking of death more, perhaps because of my age, because of my stroke, because of my husband Pat’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. I am more aware now that my energy is running out – I am not afraid of dying – I don’t think there is any God or anything directing our lives – other than nature – when we die, that is it. I still feel a compulsion to paint and be productive now in a different way I didn’t feel before. It is sad that there are not many, many more years to do lots of things but there is no fear there – just sadness that life is flowing away. I haven’t said that to myself before about life ebbing away but it is like that.
Since my stroke, I have become much more conscious of the impact of my paintings and am thinking of that a lot more. But that doesn’t stop me going into that world – where things resonate with me and I paint. But I am much more emotional since I had my stroke – I am also like two different people – I do turn into a tired old blob but when I am excited I am young and full of energy and put all of that energy into my paintings and I love it. I never used to get depressed but I do now but it is getting less and less as I get better. I never know how I am going to be.
Brenda: Do you have any regrets?
Pauline: not ones that jump into my head straight away. I did have an affair with a young man when I spent some time in the South Seas. I wouldn’t want to go back and continue with that young man ‒ but I am so glad I had that affair ‒ it was amazingly good for me ‒ it was amazingly good for Pat who also had an affair ‒ we were much younger for it and better for it.
Triona: Did the affair help your relationship?
Pauline: It didn’t energise our relationship ‒ just in ourselves ‒ it didn’t make us closer ‒ closer as friends but not as lovers anymore ‒ that was finished but that finishes anyway. But I think it was very important for both of us and a lot of people deprive themselves terribly by being so afraid to sow their wild oats occasionally but I don’t have any regrets about that at all.
Triona and Brenda: Thank you so much, Pauline, for your kind hospitality and for your open and honest sharing of yourself and your life with us. We have really enjoyed meeting you. On behalf of the readers of Inside Out we would like to thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Pauline has generously donated to the State a considerable number of her paintings created across a 70-year period including her first painting when she was aged two-and-a-half – the Seven Ages Collection. They are on permanent view at the Public Library in Killorglin and the Waterford Institute of Technology. A film ‘Yellow Man Grey Man’ made in 2012 by Maurice Galway explores the hugely successful series of work by Pauline known as The Yellow Man. To celebrate Pauline’s 80th birthday, from 5 September 2015 there will be an exhibition of new works by Pauline at Taylor Galleries in Dublin.
Triona Minogue MIAHIP, MIACP works in the psychotherapy service at the Department of Psychiatry, St Vincent’s University Hospital and in private practice in Dun Laoghaire.
Brenda Agnew MIAHIP, MIACP is a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist in private practice in Clontarf, Dublin.
Galway, M. (Writer/Producer/Director). (2013). Pauline Bewick: Yellow man grey man [Documentary]. Ireland: Drying in the Rain Productions supported by Fás TV & Film Productions.