Artist Andrew Whitson finds Inner Peace thanks to book project with Belfast kids

Belfast teacher, illustrator and publisher of picture books for children Andrew Whitson tells Gail Bell how trauma has brought much of his art to life and how a new book project with children with special needs is bringing him Inner Peace

Belfast artist Andrew Whitson at work on his Mr Men project. Picture by Mal McCann
Gail Bell

FROM painting heavy metal album covers on the back of denim jackets to playing in an Irish language reggae band, to working as a labourer in New York – Belfast artist Andrew Whitson has led a life as richly hued as his Irish mythology canvases.

Now, the award-winning illustrator and founder of Irish publishing house An tSnáthaid Mhór – The Big Needle – has recently broadened his brush strokes still further to paint a different picture of stress for children with special needs.

The result, Inner Peace – created with children he teaches at Glenveagh Special School – has been selected as one of the 2019 IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Outstanding Books.

"We are really excited as the book has given these children a voice through their own publishing house at the school," says Whitson, an Ulster University Design graduate who later completed a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) in Art and PhD in Celtic illustration.

Andy and Caitriona pictured at home working on one of his earlier projects in 2010. Pic: Mal McCann

Inner Peace – the name chosen by pupils – was launched, in conjunction with Fighting Words Belfast, at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University in March and has since been picked up by libraries across Northern Ireland.

"It's a big topic, but mindfulness is so important, not just for these children, but for everyone," Whitson says. "I'm very proud of what they have done. We are already working on the second book on the same subject, taking a look at the way the body reacts to stress."

Andrew Whitson sets the stage for his book, Gaiscíoch na Beilte Uine, the story of a warrior travelling through the ancient wild worlds. Photographs taken from the project were then drawn and painted for the book. Picture by Mal McCann

Teaching is another creative outlet for this "guy down the road who just wants to do art" and, when not teaching, he will be found at west Belfast's Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, the home of An tSnatháid Mhórh, created in 2005 to promote Irish writing in children's books with his wife, Caitriona (Nic Sheain), a co-director.

Although just into his 50s, it already seems Whitson has packed a lifetime into his art and a recent retrospective of work – Art of Dreams – over 25 years, provided a timely opportunity to look back at a circuitous journey so far.

Andre Whitson at the launch of his exhibition The Art of Dreams. Picture by Mal McCann

Notably, the denim jackets – lovingly created to earn some money "and status" among fellow pupils at St Mary's Grammar and fellow reggae band members – didn't make the exhibition, largely because the artist doesn't know where most of them have ended up.

"I used Airfix model enamel paints, which were all I could afford at the time, and charged £10 for customising each jacket," Whitson recalls, "but they did point the way to art college and satisfied an early need to draw and create."

The Big Picture: (l-r) Children's author Myra Zepf with illustrators Andrew Whitson, PJ Lynch Laureate na nÓg, Paul Howard and Glenveagh pupil Sasha Chambers (15) who worked with the pupils to create a large format mural as part of PJ Lynch’s “The Big Picture” project, a two-year focus on the art of illustration and visual storytelling that celebrates children’s literature and the power of the imagination. Picture by Mal McCann 

However, later professional works, many large-scale paintings on loan from private collections, were on display and demonstrated a multi-faceted approach – from traditional to vampiric, supernatural styles to the organic appeal of his cartoon-like stars of award-winning contemporary picture books.

It was a cathartic experience, he says, seeing everything come together in one gallery at the Cultúrlann, each framed exhibit with its own private story to tell about what have been his own private traumas.

Lynette Faye helps launch Rita agus and Dragun with Maire Zepf author and Illustrator Andrew Whitson. Picture by Mal McCann 

But there was hardly time to stand back and contemplate the moment for the ever-busy Whitson, who has recently completed his fifth 'Rita' book with Northern Ireland's first Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland, Myra Zepf – the latest of which, Rita agus an Chailleach, has just been published.

Closeted in a bright upstairs room at the Culturlann, he feels very much at home – his wife's family were involved in the development of the centre nearly 30 years ago and also helped set up the first Irish-language secondary school in Belfast as well as homes for Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht at Shaw's Road.

The launch of Andy Whitson's exhibition The Art of Dreams in the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road. Picture Mal McCann 

"I'm still learning Irish myself,but my wife is fluent and is a good teacher," quips Whitson, who, apart from occasional private commissions, has now left his trademark, large-scale, mystical, mythical fairy-type paintings pretty much in the paint room of his past.

"It's funny, but when I took a look around at all the paintings in the exhibition, I felt I was making a break from that past," he says. "We are moving in a different direction in publishing now and dipping into computer-aided technologies, but what also struck me was how without trauma most of those pieces on display would never have existed.

"There's a story in each one and when trauma hit, the more art I produced. When a big hole appeared, art stepped in to fill it. Art has been a good friend of mine."

Inner Peace front cover

He doesn't want to speak about them all here but one early trauma led him to his breakthrough painting The Woodcutter, which evolved from time spent drawing trees at Cave Hill while recuperating from a brutal sectarian beating when he was 20.

"At that time, I was very much inspired by Alan Lee, illustrator of [Tolkein's] Lord Of The Rings and so I decided to do my own versions," he says. "I would sit for ages, drawing tree trunks, but it was a kind of therapy for me."

The assault happened when he was still at art college in Belfast and resulted in a fractured skull and facial paralysis which lasted for two years and precipitated an extended period of depression.

The latest 'Rita' book by Myra Zepf and illustrated by Andrew Whitson

"I woke up in hospital and was completely traumatised," Whitson reveals. "When I got home, I turned to art and immersed myself in drawing trees and fairies. It was during this time that I created an early version of The Woodcutter in watercolour and pencil.

"I sent it off to Appletree Press and the next day they phoned to ask if I would illustrate a book they had coming out – A Field Guide To Irish Fairies."

That commission opened the door to a niche career in Irish mythology books and he went on to illustrate for a number of titles for Appletree Press and then Cassell in London, among them The Creatures of Celtic Myth and some rather grim-looking characters depicted in The Dark Spirit: Sinister Portraits from Celtic History.

Today a brighter, less contrived style is evident with the characterisation of Molly for the Molly series by Malachy Doyle and impish Rita for Myra Zepf, but the artist, who has a 10 year-old daughter, still enjoys being something of an artistic chameleon, ever ready to reinvent himself.

"After I finished my degree in design, I headed to New York where I worked as a labourer, but I carried my sketchbook everywhere, often sitting in the subway to draw. Inspiration comes from people, places, comics, TV...

"We lived in Scotland for a while when I was growing up and I remember my father bringing home comics from the psychiatric hospital where he worked as a nurse. This was where I first remember beginning to draw and being intrigued by Dennis the Menace."

He is, in a way, revisiting those times again, tapping into pop culture of yesteryear and redrawing old favourites for a new 2019 audience.

"I've started a series of black and white drawings of the Mr Men which were a favourite of mine," he enthuses. "It's something completely different, but I love it – all that nostalgia. I've gone past Irish fairies to Hong Kong Phooey and The Mr Men and I'm loving every minute of it."

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