Book Picture The Miniature Art Gallery
Art and my travels in Ireland

It has been over twenty years since my wife and I first traveled the back roads of Ireland. Each trip brought a fuller appreciation of its beauty and charm. The valleys, mountains, rivers, streams, waterfalls, rocks, stone formations, ruins, walls, oceans, seas, villages, farms, castles, demesnes, plants, pastures, fields, bogs, lakes, harbors, people, animals, food, clouds, sunbeams and sports all captivated my interest. The landscapes are intensely attractive and active. The weather is ever changing. Around each corner is another view, another picture for the travel album. We took roll after roll of film only to be disappointed upon our return when the developed pictures did not match our expectations. It became apparent that the scenic splendor couldn’t be adequately captured with a camera - at least not by me. Even if you could capture the visual beauty you would still be lacking the cacophony of sounds; the wonderful dialects and idioms of the colorful language in everyday use; the sounds of the music in the pubs; the sounds of the cows lowing in the fields; the gentle sound of sheep; the call of the Coo coo bird, the Jackdaws, the Crows, or any of the birds for that matter; the sounds of the ocean; the howling or gentle blowing of the wind; the sound of a tractor working in a far off field; or sometimes the absence of sound which is in itself incredible. Nothing can adequately capture the smell of turf burning in the hearth, the smell of a decent pub, or the whiff of a fragrant farm on the wind. All of the senses are intensely involved with the day to day living in Ireland. We tried to capture the visual and sound aspects with a camcorder but that also was a disappointment. My wife said she felt like most of the trip she was traveling by herself in silence since the camcorder was constantly in my face lest I miss anything, and talking would drown out some significant sound. The results again were not up to expectations.

On our third trip we decided to just relax and record what we could mentally for recall later, while sharing a bottle of wine in California. On the first two trips we over 6,000 miles on our rental car, which doesn’t include the miles backing up to see something again. We saw every nook and cranny of the island staying in a different B&B each night. We decided this trip would have just a few objectives: rent houses for a week at a time, find the perfect Aran “hand-knit” sweater, and attend the Balinasloe Horse Fair.

The Balinasloe Horse Fair and later the Millstreet International Horse Jumping competition were the beginning of my efforts to record my feelings and sightings. The Balinasloe Horse Fair is held in October and made up of a number of events. I was content to sit on a rock wall and gaze at the horses, each held by the reins. I had never seen so many horses together at one time. There were horses of all shapes, sizes and colors. Some of the horses were in excess of seventeen hands. I was entranced by the sounds of the horses and the subtle movements of the tails, the legs, the ears and the heads, as they stood there obviously aware of the other horses. Suddenly in the midst a black shiny horse began to rear, rising on its two hind legs kicking the air with its front two legs. The horse was beautiful and silky with trim lines, over and over it rose, staying up for what seemed a long period of time. The man holding the reins struggled to maintain control as the other horse moved away. After what must have been eight to ten minutes of this dance between horse and man the horse settled down but still pranced around. The horse’s coat was frothy from the exertion. The clouds, which had been a solid gray suddenly, parted briefly and a small beam penetrated the otherwise gray world and lit up the horse. The horse turned a dark blue color. I assume it was the result of moisture or oil on the hide. I had never seen a blue horse before nor since for that matter. For some reason, I wanted to paint a picture of that blue horse I’d seen at the Balinasloe Horse Fair. On the way back to our rented house we bought acrylic paints and thus began an obsession to capture the beauty of the blue horse. Horses are hard to draw or paint, in part because every time they move, they seem to change in dimension. For example, if they reach down and out with their mouth for a bit of grass, the neck becomes longer. All the muscles change when they move. A few nights later we attended the International Jumping Completion in Millstreet. I was fascinated. I painted blue horses for six months. A friend later pointed out to me that Franz Marc had painted blue horse before the First World War.

On this same trip, we happened to come across ”The Miniature Art Gallery” at Ballydehob. Its fittingly small sign was flapping in the wind. An elderly gentleman was teaching art to a dozen or so small children within. The man had a wild shock of white hair that seemed to have been last combed by a violent wind. In a calming voice, he said he’d be with us shortly as he was just finishing his class for the day. I looked around the small room, which was perhaps 15 feet by 20 feet. Small, single paintings, at eye level and at respectable intervals, wrapped around the entire room, such that each painting commanded its own space. I looked at each painting but was drawn back to a painting of a ship being tossed about in a choppy sea under roiling clouds. I was deep in thought when the old man spoke quietly near my left ear saying that the painting had “captured my eye”. I agreed that I found the painting very appealing. He then explained the artist’s technique of using the various movements of sails and seas such that my eye always was brought back to the safety of the deck. A long discussion of techniques was finally ended when I asked one naïve question too many which was, “Why are the paintings so small?”

He said, “You are from California, no doubt, where the paintings have to match the sofa or the rug. In Europe, many people live in small apartments and they buy something with which they can decorate their small private spaces. The paintings mean something to them. They derive personal satisfaction from them and they are not just for decoration.”

"How much?” was my next question and the price of 120 punts settled the question. I promised the man, I would return the following year and buy the painting if he still had it.

The following year we made our way down to Ballydehob and the small sign still hung above the door, swinging gently in the breeze announcing ”The Miniature Art Gallery”. Delighted to see it was still there we were disappointed when we approached the door and a hand lettered sign said “The Miniature Art Gallery has been Closed Permanently - Please see the craft shop at the top of the street.” It wasn’t long before we were at the door of a small shop with a sign that said Craft Shop. Another sign said “Closed for vacation”. It was October and it made sense that someone might be off on vacation. A few feet away a man was working, patching a stone wall that ran by the shop. I asked if he knew if the owners lived in town and might be willing to open up for us. I explained that we’d come all the way from San Francisco to purchase a small painting we’d seen in the miniature art gallery the previous year. He said he was sorry the owners were in Portugal but since he owned the building he could let us in and we could look around for the painting and leave the money with him. What a wonderful coincident I thought at the time. The painting was not there however I bought a small painting anyway and as I am looking at it now I realize that I saw this same scene in Donegal and painted a very similar scene myself.

We didn’t let on to the man who helped us that is was not the same painting but instead paid him, thanked him and left. It wasn’t long after that while visiting a craft shop in Skibereen I just happened to come across a small sign that said, “The miniature paintings are from The Miniature Art Gallery in Ballydehob. To purchase, please speak with the proprietor.” I asked the lady there if she was the proprietor who replied “Heavens no I am only a sales clerk”. I asked if she could sell me the painting or if I needed to speak with the proprietor. My next question was how much was the painting and was pleased when she said “80 punts”. Still sad that I had missed a chance to speak again with the old man at the gallery I asked about him and the sales clerk said that the old man from the miniature art gallery had “just disappeared”. This disturbed me greatly to hear someone had just disappeared and it wasn’t until a few years later that the owner of the Clifden House explained it to me.

Those few minutes with the old gentleman had helped me decide to paint small to appeal to people’s private nature and not their public wall space needs.

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