Stone walls and the myth of Sisyphus explored in new exhibition

When Michael J. Farrell, moved back from America and took up residence near Creggs, his first task was to dig the garden – and what a task that proved to be! In fact, so inspiring was the work, and difficult the stones that he encountered, that stone became a central motif in a new exhibition which is due to open at Athleague Angling Centre on Saturday, May 5th.             Michael’s interest in art pre-dates his emigration to America from his native Longford in the 1960s. In fact, he can forever boast that a painting of his hung cheek by jowl with one by the great Sean Keating at an Oireachtas exhibition in the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin in the 1960s.             In America, his abiding interest in journalism took over, but he continued to write and lecture on art. As Editor of the National Catholic Reporter in the USA, he launched an art competition for a new image of Christ for the next millennium, attracting worldwide attention and almost 2,000 entries from 19 countries.             In 2003 Michael and his wife Marilyn retired to Creggs and he returned to painting. The exhibition due to open on May 5th is the fruit of his labour in the interim. The exhibition opening takes place from 6 pm to 8 pm and will be conducted by Tommy Murray, actor and raconteur and former adult education officer of Co Roscommon VEC.             The exhibition will feature over 40 paintings, which Michael describes as being ‘somewhere between realistic and abstraction.’ ‘When I came back, what struck me was the stone walls and I had to dig up my garden and there were thousands of stones and rocks. I found myself painting stones of every description.’             One eye-catching piece reproduced here is ‘The Bridge below the Town’ which actually has two bridges, or so it seems – the images are not as explicit as on the typical picture postcard.             Continuing with the stone motif, he has painted many variations of the famous Myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to push a mighty rock up a mountain for life and each time he arrived near the top the boulder came tumbling down again. It’s an apt metaphor for life. One of Farrell’s tongue-in-cheek versions shows Sisyphus, scrawny and exhausted, bogged down in what looks like a mucky football pitch, reaching for the rock, which becomes a giant stone football, while the tiny goalposts are miles up the mountain.             ‘Another main expression is the dolmen and other megalithic monuments, as well as regular stone walls. After a while looking at them, they come to life.’             There is a theory that the earth, like people, is alive, and so are all its parts, he says, and these wandering walls go to prove the theory. Michael explains, ‘We hanker for something above and beyond the practical world. The search for that something extra takes us in many directions. It is essentially a spiritual search. Religion is one expression of it, reaching for the ultimate. But we are also drawn to beauty here and now, to creativity and fantasy.’             The artist is eager to make this exhibition a teaching moment: ‘In our day, with its heavy emphasis on materialism, art has been playing second fiddle to practical pursuits, especially money. When it comes to pictures, the shops are full of prints in fancy frames. These, though, are not so much art as commerce – not the sweat and inspiration of an artist but mass-produced in a factory. People don’t seem to mind. Few put the same effort into art for their fine new houses as they put into shrubs outside or furniture inside. This, experts say, will make a difference to the next generation and the one after that – the young who grow up surrounded by art will respond differently to life than those led to believe that art and imagination don’t matter.’             Art need not be pretty, according to Michael ‘so long as it makes us take a second look, intrigues us somehow, puzzles or challenges us. For as long as the human race can remember, certain people in the community felt they had something unique to say, and said it in their particular way, whether it was painting or playacting or singing or stitching or clowning or dancing. The result, the work of art, might be profound or merely amusing or even a failure, but it is part of the record of the human imagination for that time and place.’             The exhibition continues until Friday, May 25th, 2007.