Artist Spotlight: Brian Whelan
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Brian Whelan talks to Bishop Paul-Gordon Chandler
When did you first realize you were an artist?
Whelan: I was described as “a bit of an artist” all my childhood. The “bit” grew when I was 18 years old into something more when my tutor at an art foundation course described me as a painter. I still remember the feeling that gave me. It gave me a ‘vocation’ that I wasn’t looking for but that I probably needed as a young man.
After studying at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, how long did it take to find your “voice” and what inspired you?
Whelan: The short answer to your question is 15 years. At all the art schools I attended, including the RA, I experimented. I painted my way through the history of art. By the time I left the RA I wasn’t sure I would ever find my own voice, but a voice did emerge when I was introduced to remnants of medieval art found in rural churches in Suffolk and Norfolk, just outside the door of my studio in England. It was then that I realized I actually belonged to a tradition from which I could draw inspiration. As an Irish Catholic I didn’t have a strong Irish visual arts tradition to draw on (pun intended). Historically, there were few examples left in Ireland after the very thorough destruction of it all during the Reformation. But of course the Christians in Norfolk and Suffolk drew from the same stories and traditions of the whole of Christianity and that included the Irish. And that was a time when there was one church and from its walls great stories were told. I had been groping my way towards this tradition. A tradition of strong narratives that engaged with the big questions of life, love and death, but also a mixture of the religious and secular, or as John Kohan of Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection said of my work “the comic and the cosmic.” Finding these little known paintings, which did not appear in any art history book I had read, were a confirmation, an endorsement of my instincts. Those remnants of the medieval world I found in East Anglia were what inspired me.
I had an exhibition at Norwich Cathedral a few years back and a gentleman said to me that I had put a contemporary spin on traditional Christian subjects. I told him my contemporary take was about 500 years old. I told him to go into the nave and the cloisters and have a look at the roof bosses where he could find the same creative spirit looking down on him.
Your work is very distinct. Can you tell us about your unique use of colour, composition and the intensity in your work?
Whelan: Again - I am not sure if my use of anything is unique. It is just that a bold and integrated use of colour in a design is less common than so much contemporary art that is minimal and restrained. I think bold colour was used more often in the past than is realized. For example, the Greek Classical statues that were scraped of all their bright color by Victorians. The medieval world also loved strong colours as you can see in the illuminated manuscripts. A certain kind of modern sensibility has denied it now.
So again, I am returning by instinct to a celebration of colour and its emotive power. I have added tin foil chocolate wrappers to my work on occasions. One gets a whole new set of beautiful reflective colours: golds, silvers and all the colours the modern world has access to such as metallic reds, blues and greens. In a way, I feel it is my ironic comment on the Reformation; just contemporary materials (acrylic, varnish, canvas and sweet wrappers) inspired by the ancient traditions as I see them. Also, I sometimes feel that my use of chocolate tin foil wrappers is there to counter balance that intensity in the work you mention. As one critic, historian Tim Holt Wilson put it, “Whelan’s use of chocolate wrappers in his work punctures any overt solemnity.”
Having had exhibitions all over the world, what have been the most memorable reactions to your work? Whelan: I like to pay anonymous visits to my exhibitions and listen in on the conversations of the visitors. This of course can be dangerous. People sometimes try to psychoanalyze the work and by extension, the artist. Nevertheless, I find it very stimulating, particularly those occasions when people are laughing and it is then I will introduce myself. I have always thought humour opens the mind to the sublime. We laugh when two irreconcilable thoughts collide in our imagination. How has your practice been affected by the events of the last two years? Whelan: I have been very lucky over the two years of the pandemic. It hasn’t affected me too negatively. I feel for those infected, as well as the health workers and the teaching profession most acutely because I have worked in both those areas in the past. We actually moved house at the beginning of the Covid spread, not knowing how serious it would become. When it became known we were leaving our Virginia home, I made many unexpected local sales out of my studio and was offered a few commissions. Exhibitions were cancelled but the commissions saved me because I still had a job to do and could concentrate on those.
Can you share with us what you’re currently working on and where we can see your work?
Whelan: I tend to work on lots of paintings at the same time. That way I can let things marinate if I get stuck - which happens very often. I have one large painting in progress of Christ’s Agony in the Garden, another of Pentecost. I have a series of 20 small paintings of St Edmund and the Wolf which I have been working on for a year. The collection will be made into a book and will include an article by the late art critic and historian, Sister Wendy Beckett, about my painting Martyrdom of St Edmund installed in St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
My new website brianwhelanart.com is a great place to familiarize oneself with my work before making an appointment to visit the studio and house in Connecticut. For those living in the UK, one could visit Norwich Cathedral in England where a commission of 14 paintings of the spiritual life of Edith Cavell are on display. I have a couple of shows next year under negotiation in the US, but it is too early to discuss them yet. I don’t want to tempt fate.
Brian Whelan grew up in London, of Irish parents. After his training at the Royal Academy of Arts, he lived and worked in the East Anglia area of England near the North Sea. His home and studio are now based in Connecticut, USA. His paintings have been exhibited in celebrated art spaces, cathedrals and religious institutions around the world - such as Washington National Cathedral and Villanova University of Pennsylvania in the USA, St. Martins in the Field, Trafalgar Square, London, St. Edmundsbury Cathedral and Norwich Cathedral in the U.K., and Parador Dos Reis Catolicos, Santiago de Compostela in Spain. For more information, see: brianwhelanart.com