Artist Robyn Ward depicts endangered species in debut Irish exhibition

Mexico City-based artist Robyn Ward is staging his debut Irish exhibition in Belfast next week. David Roy quizzed the Dublin-born and Belfast-raised painter on his new ecologically themed series Plastic Nation

Artist Robyn Ward at work on his Plastic Nation series
Artist Robyn Ward at work on his Plastic Nation series Artist Robyn Ward at work on his Plastic Nation series

CAN you tell us a bit about your inspiration for Plastic Nation?

Our world is beautiful and amazing and humans are damaging it potentially beyond repair: imagining a world without these incredible creatures is a tragic thought and, while none of us can independently save the world, everyone can make small changes and play their part.

I hope this series will inspire people to be more mindful of the damage we are doing and encourage them to make small changes. I would love for people to understand further how much we are destroying our natural habitat and these beautiful animals, perhaps encouraging a more conscious buying habitat in their own homes and lifestyles.

It's not just thinking about the companies that use single-use plastic, but also petroleum companies who are destroying the air and palm companies taking away huge chunks of our rainforests. They may not be selling single-use plastic directly but they're all interconnected. We are sometimes too quick to overlook the culprits that sit in the shadows.

Can you describe your creative process?

I have been thinking about this body of work since about 2014. I usually plan the theme of an exhibition three to five years out, constantly sketching and rethinking ideas. I then go into the studio to produce the pieces quite intensely for months at a time. During this period, the work evolves a lot.

The backgrounds are where it really changes. Once I have my subject, it is pretty straightforward oil work with not much deviation – but creating an abstract background which can marry together with the realism is something which can go through many lives of its own while I have a battle with the canvas trying to make the whole piece work collectively.

Although part of a series about banning single-use plastic, every painting has its own unique story. Colourways and energy levels vary quite dramatically depending on where I was mentally. I do a lot of long hours in the studio, 14 to15-plus, and can go days on end in a bad place mentally while battling with a piece.

I can go into really dark places at times. It's very up and down.

Natural Elimination
Natural Elimination Natural Elimination

Do you have a particular favourite in the show?

I tend to lean towards Louis as one of my favourite pieces, as it is a homage to the Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy, whose paintings I always loved. I took one of my favourite paintings of his as a colourway reference for the abstract background.

One of the pieces is also my own take on a self-portrait and I am really happy with the outcome.

You were born in Dublin, grew up in Belfast and now lead quite an ‘international' lifestyle. Have you always found inspiration in travel and do you see yourself ever settling down?

Yeah, I left Dublin at about five and then Belfast when I was 18. From 18 to 25 I don't think I spent more than seven or eight months in a row in one city. I think that, combined with never really being settled in Belfast, led me to lead quite a nomadic lifestyle.

These days, I need to move my studios every one to two years. Setting up in a new city is a real hassle and expense in terms of both time and financially, which I would rather go without – but at the end of my time in that city or location, you can never put a price on the inspiration and development it gives me as an artist.

It constantly challenges and forces me to learn about new cultures and look at situations from a different angle while taking in the energy and inhabitants of a new destination.

Eventually I will become more settled but I envisage myself spending prolonged portions of time in different countries and cities each year for the rest of my life.

What are you striving for in your work?

At the moment my work all tends to be based on the current social and economic political landscape, so I always hope that they will help push a message and open people's eyes and minds up more to the issues that I am painting about. Sometimes these are light-hearted and tongue in cheek, while others are about very serious issues in the world.

I can't see this changing for the next while but who knows, I might wake up tomorrow and want to only paint sunsets. If I could predict how my mind works and what I will do it would make my whole life a lot easier and probably the lives of everyone around me too.

:: Plastic Nation, Thursday March 21, Charles Gilmore Fine Arts, Belfast. See Charlesgilmore.com and Robynwardart.com for more info