Bernadette Doolan on first ever Belfast solo exhibition Are We There Yet?

David Roy chats to Co Wexford artist Bernadette Doolan about Are We There Yet?, her first ever solo exhibition in Belfast which features her largest ever work – so far...

Bernadette Doolan is mounting her first Belfast solo exhibition. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE first Belfast solo exhibition by award-winning Co Wexford-based artist Bernadette Doolan is currently running at 35DP, a new city centre arts space in Donegall Place.

Presented by Haller Clarke, a local consultancy working to promote culture and arts, Are We There Yet? features 36 original paintings in oils and acrylics which showcase Doolan's trademark combination of vulnerability, humour and intrigue.

Many of the new works were created at the self-taught artist's home in Enniscorthy during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, with other pieces taking shape in her larger studio space in Wexford Town once Covid restrictions eased.

"It was great," enthuses Doolan of her new exhibition's opening night, which took place last Thursday.

"The space is just phenomenal, it's like something out of New York. And there were plenty of people here, so we're off to a good start.

"There's always an element of apprehension when you're moving towards a show. You feel a bit vulnerable leaving the studio, it's like, 'Oh god, we were safe in here', and now we're going out into the big bad world.

"But that's also exciting, because the work has to be seen. I only do so much as the artist – if there's no viewer then there's a bit missing."

Vulnerability is a constant through-line in Doolan's work, reflecting her long-standing fascination with the balance and relationship between fragility and resilience, innocence and experience.

"I suppose the work is about the kid that's in all of us," explains the artist, who has three children with her husband, Alan.

"The way I look at it is that I'm an expert at being a kid but I'm still learning how to be an adult. Kids are resilient – if they fall down they'll get back up and try again, whereas sometimes when we grow up we get too much in our heads, so it becomes, 'Oh I'd better not do that again, look what happened last time'.

"So for me it's all about tapping into that kid who's going to say, 'Nah, I'll do it anyway'. We're all vulnerable, but it's when we face that vulnerability that we become strong. You can't have one without the other."

Connected to Everything

Hope Is Always In The Background

It's also fascinating to learn that Doolan really has no idea about what she's going to create before making that all important first mark on the canvas.

"I never go to painting with a plan or a sketch," she reveals.

"I spend a lot of time actually sitting in front of the canvas wondering what's going to happen next. So once I get started and it then starts to evolve, I'm even surprised and excited. It's like, 'Oh, what's happening here?'"

A case in point is one of the key pieces from Are We There Yet?, Doolan's largest creation to date, the 290cm x 195cm painting titled Growing Up, In, Out, With, Without but Not Alone.

"That has two girls and two dogs in it, but at the start I just had the first girl and all this empty space around her," she explains.

"I had no idea where it was going next."

Bernadette Doolan with her largest painting to date. Picture by Hugh Russell

It's a particular favourite for the artist, who won Best Overall Work by a non-Academician and the Irish News Award for Depicting Ireland Today at the Royal Ulster Academy's annual exhibitions in 2015 and 2018 respectively.

"I suppose it captures all those times when you're a kid and you're feeling alone, even though you know you're really not, and that you are supported," Doolan explains of the painting.

"The fact is, it's OK to have to deal with those feelings, because that's where strength comes from."

However, it seems we almost didn't get to see this painting in Belfast: apparently bigger is not always better when it comes to prepping work for exhibition, as Doolan explains.

"I had this one last piece of canvas from a big roll which I was originally going to make into two smaller paintings," she says.

"But when I put it on the ground I thought it would be such a shame to cut it. So I just stapled it to the wall and started painting away. Once I'd finished, I found I couldn't get big enough stretcher bars [used to mount canvases onto wooden frames] for it.

"I posted on Instagram and got people telling me I should just cut it down the middle and make a diptych."

Happily, Doolan decided to trust her instincts and the scissors remained in their drawer.

"I really didn't want to lose all that space in the middle," she explains.

"It's the empty space in my work that I really like, because that brings the viewer into it. For ages I was also thinking that I really wanted to connect the two sides, the group of girls to the dog in the chair.

"I already had one of the girls with the cat's cradle in her hands. I was sitting looking at it one day when I suddenly thought – I know, I'm going to bring the thread across so that she's now dragging the dog with her, like, 'You're coming with us whether you like it or not. You're feeling a bit lonely or p***ed off or whatever it is, but look – we're doing this'.

"Once I'd done that, there was no way I was cutting it down the middle, because it would have totally changed the narrative. Thankfully, I was recommended a company in the Netherlands who sent me a frame big enough two days before the show and we got it mounted. So the day was saved."

Bernadette Doolan is mounting her first Belfast solo exhibition. Picture by Hugh Russell

In fact, it seems that we may see even larger works coming out of Doolan's Wexford Town studio in the future.

"After that one, my husband was saying, 'Maybe you should go back to painting small', but then we discovered that this same crowd in Holland made a frame for a tapestry that was something like 16m long by 5m high – and the stretcher bars were able to dismantled so that they fit into the back of the artist's Volkswagen Beetle van.

"Once I saw that I was like ,'Well, the world is my oyster'."

:: Are We There Yet? is open now at 35DP on Donegall Street, Belfast, and runs until June 18. Opening hours are 12pm to 6pm (closed June 11). More info on Instagram at @35dp_belfast

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