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Artist Dameon Priestly on how the Troubles inspired his latest exhibition

As he – at last – makes his home city debut, acclaimed Belfast-born fine artist Dameon Priestly speaks to Sophie Clarke about taking inspiration from the Troubles, selling art to Hollywood director Spike Lee and doing Van Morrison's album artwork...

Studio shot of artist Dameon Priestly
Studio shot of artist Dameon Priestly Studio shot of artist Dameon Priestly

BELFAST artist Dameon Priestly might have been selling and exhibiting his acclaimed work globally for the last 25 years, but he has never before shown his work in the city of his birth.

Until now, that is. As Priestly is making his long awaited Belfast debut with Tripwire Timeline. 1970-1988 (A Belfast Tale), which runs from November 2 at Belfast Exposed until November 18.

“The reason I haven’t shown in Belfast before is because the last time I tried to get an exhibition in Belfast was about 10 years ago and they wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole because of the kind of artwork that I was doing," he explains.

“Most of the art that I’ve been doing since about 1998 is fine art painting and it looks at issues to do with social injustice and most of the galleries that I approached across the North of Ireland didn’t seem to want that.

 “It’s opened up a lot now in the last 10 years, but for sure, 10 years ago all they really wanted was a real safe bet - the normal images of some old lad sitting with his collie dog, a flat cap and his pint of Guinness, which I’m just not going to do.”

Priestly's exhibition predominantly focuses on his life between the ages of four and 22 as he grew up in Belfast during the most turbulent years of the Troubles.

Good Vibrations Harp Bar by Dameon Priestly
Good Vibrations Harp Bar by Dameon Priestly Good Vibrations Harp Bar by Dameon Priestly

“This exhibition is my life story," he tells me. "I left Belfast in 1988 but it’s essentially my memories of growing up in the Troubles.

“I’d been avoiding doing that for years as I didn’t want anybody to think I was cashing in on my own upbringing or other people’s misery. “

However, as Priestly points out: “There’s so many poets, writers and photographers who produce stuff about the Troubles but there’s no real fine artists tackling it from a first-person perspective.

"So I thought the way I need to do this is by telling my own experience and my own memories and then it will be a catch-all for those people who were growing up, my contemporaries alongside me. I felt a duty to do it.”

He says it was a "bit of a shock" when Belfast Exposed "got back to me pretty quickly": "They’re almost exclusively a photography gallery and in their 20 years I’ll be the first fine artist that they’ve actually shown.”

The exhibition, which consists of 12 collage pieces and 10 paintings, might be deeply personal but it isn't alienating. He believes that it is an artist's job to establish a connection with the viewer: "Although the subject matter on certain things can alienate people because they mightn't be drawn to that kind of intensity, I still think it's an artist's job to try and make that connection.

1981 by Dameon Priestly
1981 by Dameon Priestly 1981 by Dameon Priestly

“Certainly, when it came to the Belfast theme, my idea was that there’s a way of telling the story without it being too much in your face because that’s actually too easy.

"You can make a sensational image about anything, but you have to be careful to get the balance exactly right to make sure that the narrative isn’t lost in bells, whistles and fireworks.

“From the few pieces from this collection that I’ve put up on social media the connection seems to be there, and the response has been fantastic from my own peers, people who grew during the time.”

Throughout Priestly’s career, his art has focused on times and events revolving around social injustices and cultural movements born of societal upheaval. He is fascinated by creativity coming from chaos.

“There is absolutely no question that my work is inspired by my upbringing. I have close to a photographic memory and so virtually everything from 1970 from the age of four onwards is indelibly imprinted on my mind, especially in terms of visuals. It runs like a film in my head.

“Because I was kind of immersed and saturated in the Troubles from a very early age growing up in East Belfast, it hardwired my visual language. It was those experiences that drew me to the kind of art I do now.”

1988 by Dameon Priestly
1988 by Dameon Priestly 1988 by Dameon Priestly

However, prior to his success in fine art Priestly had specialised in fashion at University of Ulster's Belfast art college, winning British design graduate of the year and working in fashion forecasting.

“I worked in the fashion business for a while, but I had this epiphanal moment in the early 90’s when the Troubles were obviously still going, and I thought I should really apply my brain and my talents to something else," he says, adding: "Not that there’s anything wrong with the fashion industry but I just felt that there was something more."

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Although his latest exhibition is an autobiographical series Priestly’s creative process remained the same.

“I’ve tackled maybe 50 or 60 different topics over the last 20 years, and I remember all the research I did for those," he says.

“I do research for everything I do, including this series on the Troubles. Although it’s all my first- and second-hand memories, the research I did for this was rewatching series of Pop Goes Northern Ireland and filling in the gaps in terms of times and dates.”

1972 by Dameon Priestly
1972 by Dameon Priestly 1972 by Dameon Priestly

Priestly’s first big success came in 2000 when he exhibited at the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms off Charing Cross Road in London. Since then, he has sold his work nationally and internationally to loyal collectors around the world, including Hollywood film director Spike Lee.

“I’ve produced the artwork for the last three Van Morrison albums, which is fantastic, and in January of last year I sold four pieces of artwork to Spike Lee, the film director, and so they hang in his house now in the Upper East Side of New York, which is again a great achievement," says Priestly. 

“But that’s not what it’s all about. If I make a connection with Van Morrison or I make a connection with Spike Lee, it’s actually just as important as it is if I make a connection with you if you’re buying a piece of artwork - it doesn’t really matter so long as I’ve got the story across and the person gets it my job is done.”

Studio shot 2 of artist Dameon Priestly
Studio shot 2 of artist Dameon Priestly Studio shot 2 of artist Dameon Priestly

Although the road to success is often paved with failure, Priestly has always appeared to take setbacks in his stride, which he credits to being brought up in Northern Ireland.

“Everybody believed that if you went to a secondary school, you ended up in the shipyard, Shorts or in a factory and if you went to a grammar school you ended up joining the civil service and that was the route," he reflects.

“They didn’t really have time for anybody that was creative, so much so that although I got over 90 per cent every year in my grammar school, when it came to doing my A-levels they failed me.

“There was an external examiner who asked for it all to be remarked. They couldn’t understand what had happened. I said no, I don’t want you to remark it, you’ve seen fit to fail me. I’m going to go along to the interview for art college anyway and see what happens.

1970 by Dameon Priestly
1970 by Dameon Priestly 1970 by Dameon Priestly

“I was one of the few people to ever get into art college without an A-level and I’m quite pleased about that, I wear that as a badge of honour now." 

Although he admits that the experience of creating Tripwire Timeline. 1970-1988 (A Belfast Tale) was in no way cathartic, he hopes people’s reactions to the exhibition will be worth it.

“I think once I’m there at the opening and I see the room full of people that I know who have flown in from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Switzerland and London, I’ll feel relief then. I’m looking forward to that bit” he said with an anticipatory flash of excitement.

:: Dameon Priestly's exhibition Tripwire Timeline. 1970-1988 (A Belfast Tale) is at Belfast Exposed until Saturday November 18

:: dameon.co.uk

:: belfastexposed.org