Denise Ferran: Painter and RUA president on women in art and the loss of her son

Acclaimed landscape artist Denise Ferran has the welfare of Northern Ireland's art community in her hands as president of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts. She tells Joanne Sweeney how at last she feels able to paint people again after the tragic loss of her son

Artist Denise Ferran with her watercolour of her parents John and Kathleen Devine Picture: Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

"CATHOLICS didn't like you as your father was in the RUC and Protestants didn't like you because you were a Catholic, so you walked a narrow road," is how Denise Ferran sums up her experience growing up in Enniskillen, the youngest child of a Catholic policeman.

Perhaps this early understanding of alienation was helpful to unleashing her creativity as she's an acclaimed artist, art manager, educator and writer, as well as being president of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts for the past three years.

Ferran – Dr is the correct salutation as she has a PhD for her thesis on Irish artist William John Leech – is delightfully straight-talking for someone who has spent a lot of time in the rarefied Irish and international art world. A former head of art at St Dominic's High School on the Falls Road, Belfast, she taught many of today's leading women artists, including Rita Duffy, herself a former RUA president.

As she prepares to end her presidency in June – she is only the fifth women to hold the position in its 139-year history – she’s proud of the changes that she has brought in during her tenure.

"I've got grants for films to be made of all our artists, the Diploma Collection is now permanently hung and I'm planning more tours to connect with the public and lending more pictures to good organisations But the biggest thing that I have started is finding a permanent home for the RUA, although we can't thank Frank Boyle enough for his support in our current premise in North Street."

A land and sea watercolourist, Ferran has been presented with several awards, including the Ulster Academy Silver Medal and the Ulster Academy Watercolour Prize, and has twice been awarded coveted Fullbright Scholarships to study in the US, at Boston College and at the University of Minnesota.

She has been happily married for more than 50 years to fellow acclaimed artist Brian Ferran – theirs was an instant attraction was when they met as students at St Mary's Teaching College in Belfast. They went on to become a power couple in the north's arts world during the turbulent days of the Troubles as Brian is a former chief executive of the Arts Council for Northern Ireland and she is a former head of education at the Ulster Museum.

Ferran knows, however, how hard it can be for a woman to be heard and have her ideas actioned.

"I learnt a devious way to get what I wanted over the years and that was to get a man on board early in the process and tell him a good idea you were thinking of. He would be so wound up about it that he goes into the board and says, 'Do you know what I think we should do?' etc. That's how you get your idea across – not that you get your name on it, of course.”

A fierce supporter and enabler of female artists, she is one of the 50 painters whose work is currently showing in the largest ever exhibition in Belfast of women's art, which seeks to give an outlet to their artistic 'voice'.

Called An Untold Story and inspired by the line, 'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you' from Maya Angelou’s acclaimed 1969 book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the exhibition is a collective response to the #Metoo movement, as women were urged to tell their own untold stories, of inequality and exploitation or of hope, love and wonder.

Ferran's contribution is a stunning watercolour painting called Oisin's Garden, named after her only son who tragically died in an accidental fire at his Dublin flat just before Christmas, 1993. The garden was created at the Ferrans' home and studio in Malin, Co Donegal, where they live when they are not in south Belfast.

"I prefer to think of Oisin there in the garden rather than lying up in the cemetery. When I'm putting in new plants, I talk to them and him and say 'Oisin, I really want you to do well with this one’," Ferran says.

Her 26-year-old son, "a gorgeous boy with big brown eyes", was studying law in Dublin and having the time of his life. His parents had just left for a weekend in Paris earlier on the day he died, content in the knowledge that it was safe at last to leave Oisin and his elder sister Eimear, both being adults.

The couple learnt of Oisin's death in a most public of settings, ironically connected with their love of art.

"We were in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and were nearly finished looking at the exhibition when I noticed a man listening intently to a tannoy message that kept being repeated, so I listened closely as well and heard a woman calling for Monsieur Ferran.

"We didn't know if the message was for us or not but went to check it out. As there was only one women teller there, we went to her and she told me to ring my cousin John Maguire.

“I still wasn't alarmed then as I thought John, who worked as a journalist for Radio France, was trying to contact me as we were to meet up later. But as she gave me a phone and his number, she told me in French it was bad news.

"I thought that maybe something could have happened to a relative. But when I spoke to him, he was completely devastated and told me there had been a dreadful accident. Then I knew it was my children. I said which one is it and he said it's Oisin. I said, 'How bad is it?' and he said he's dead."

As people filed into the museum during the 20 minutes or so it took for her cousin to come for them, the Ferrans learnt how their son died. Their lives, and that of their daughter, were shattered. She admits that she howled in pain for weeks after Oisin was buried on St Stephens Day, until Eimear gave her a much-needed wake-up call.

"Christmas has never been the same since," says Ferran. "I cried all day, every day and then Brian and I would cry together at night. I had heard of people having a broken heart but until then I didn't realise that it could be an actual physical pain.

"About three weeks later, Eimear called me up and said, 'I've lost a brother and I don't want to lose a mother'. That was a wake-up call for me so since then I’m up and at it, trying to live my life for both Oisin and me.

"I used to paint people but after Oisin died, I stopped. I couldn't paint him; I couldn't paint people so I painted the sea as I think you can disappear into the landscape. I'm coming to the point now where I want to be able to paint a portrait of him. After 25 years, I think I'm can distance myself where that I can do that."

:: For information on the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts visit An Untold Story: A Select Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture by Women Artists of Northern Ireland is running at The Hallows Gallery, Ormeau Road, Belfast, until May 12.

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