Terry Bradley: I think my art breaks down barriers

He counts Madonna, Barry Gibb and Michael Flatley among fans of his art and yet neither fame nor the international art world sit comfortably with Terry Bradley. The north Belfast artist tells Joanne Sweeney that he's an ordinary guy for whom passion in his work is everything

In Terry Bradley’s art, men are tough, hewn from the colourful characters he observed in life, either in Belfast or Paris Picture: Mal McCann
In Terry Bradley’s art, men are tough, hewn from the colourful characters he observed in life, either in Belfast or Paris Picture: Mal McCann

TERRY Bradley doesn't just wear his heart on his sleeve, he puts it into every line and stroke of his distinctive paintings which have earned him international acclaim over the 22 years since he exploded on to the Irish art scene.

His renown could grow even further after a commissioned painting is unveiled next month at the Dead Rabbit Irish bar in New York. Owned and run by Bradley's friends and fellow north Belfast natives Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, the bar has become the pub de jour for celebrities, as well as ordinary punters who love the drink and ambience.

Bradley already counts Madonna, Barry Gibb and Michael Flatley as some of his more high-profile customers; he’s been best mates "forever" with singer Ronan Keating of Boyzone and has rubbed shoulders with Scary Spice aka Melanie Brown and songwriter Burt Bacharach, among other celebs.

A self-taught artist, he has enjoyed the commercial success that many of his contemporaries would give their eye teeth for, his work selling for anything from £300 to £35,000 per time.

However, Bradley says his success has come at a huge personal price.

"My experience of the art world hasn’t been nice. It’s been a cold, unfriendly clique,” he tells me on a coffee break, just over from his new gallery in Bangor's High Street.

“All I ever had was doors shut in my face about everything and I was forced into doing whatever I had to do for myself.”

Bradley is married to Ashley, who works in the business; they met when they were just 18 or 19. They now have two sons and a daughter, all in their teens.

His mental health issues have been well publicised – in recent years he has been open about his battle with depression and anxiety, opting to tell people when he’s having a down day instead of not turning up at certain private and public events when things get too much for him.

“I would have low self-esteem and it seems to have gotten worse with success. My art has pushed me to a place where I’m more alone and feel more vulnerable than I did years ago as everyone seems to expect more of me,” he says.

“My biggest problem was that somehow doing my art and painting seemed to upset everyone. Family and friends were arguing, fighting and upset and falling out with me over my work doing well. It was just incredible.

“This was at the same time I was getting emails saying that ‘You’re not a real artist’, ‘Your art is bad for Irish art’, and such like.

“So many bad things were happening several years back. There was death and illness in my family, the robbery, forgeries, just terrible things. I thought, 'Wwhat the hell is happening here? All I do is draw and paint?' I’m a quiet person and put on a front to handle life and how has it got to this point?”

The robbery Bradley is referring to was the theft of 60 paintings worth between £60,000 and £70,00 from a pop-up shop in Belfast in November 2016. Only one was recovered, last September, during a police raid in west Belfast – discovered with a quantity of ammunition.

In Bradley’s art, women are almost mythically beautiful creatures; men are tough, powerfully built and strong, hewn from the colourful characters he observed in life, either in the Sailortown area of Belfast’s docks or Paris.

The need to draw was developed during long periods of time spent in his bedroom, safe from the Troubles that stormed outside his home in Manor Street, off the Antrim Road. As a boy he lived for the Adventures of Tintin magazine stories from Belgian cartoonist Hergé and a fantasy, graphic-novel style of art is still present in his work. In fact, he is working on a graphic novel with illustrator and narrator Martin Brennan, bringing some Sailortown characters to life.

Bradley got his break in Dublin while he was working as a model; a painting he did as a thank-you present to club owner John Reynolds led to him putting his first exhibition on in Reynold’s bar in 1996 – the rest, as they say, is history.

His work has appeared on everything from canvas to Harley Davidson fuel tanks, mobile phone screens, jeans and bags – he’s planning to bring out a new tote bag in a few months’ time – in addition to prints of his originals that are sold from the 3,000-sq metre gallery in Bangor.

His mantra is that he’s "an ordinary guy” who just happens to draw.

While his style has developed over the years, he says that going back, every now and then, to using just a pen and a pencil is like a “comfort hug” to him.

Th 52-year-old can be obsessive about this work and pours his emotion into the canvas.

“When I’m painting, I can paint for 13 hours solid,” he says. “When it's good, there’s nothing like it. Sometimes it’s like. ‘Oh my God, that’s incredible’. I get an all-over tingle, like a drug.

“There are things I can’t explain about the last few hours of a painting. It starts as something and then it becomes something else.

“I start off with the shape and put base colours in and then something happens during those last few hours that I don’t really understand. It’s emotional and it’s like a frame where I put my emotions into.”

One of the most empowering effects from his art is the feedback that Bradley gets from customers saying that the emotion of a painting strongly resonates with them, as well as being an artist whose work is accessible.

“I think that two thirds of people who buy my work have never bought art before. I think that once people realise I’m an ordinary guy who didn’t go to art school and came from nothing, I think that they feel that they are allowed to be involved and to enjoy art.

“I think my art breaks down the barriers and I know from my own experience I used to feel very nervous going into galleries. I didn’t feel educated or good enough to go in. I know that’s a weird thing to say but I don’t think I’m on my own there.

“I couldn’t even say the word artist about myself for three years as I didn’t feel comfortable with it.”

Bradley is not sure if he will travel to New York for the unveiling of his Dead Rabbit painting on February 12.

“I need to look after myself as I’m trying to get back my own life, as a husband and father, and get back some level of normality and separate myself from this as I end up giving too much. Sometimes I’m drained and there’s nothing left.”

However, he still has one major ambition that would mean the world to him.

“I would love to do a big, 50 or 60 ft Sailortown docker bronze statue that would look over the Lagan and be seen from ships as they come into Belfast. That would be absolutely amazing.”