Drawn from reality

Artist Richard Kelly working on The Rising of the Cross Rubens and Beyond, featured in his new exhibition at Linen Hall Library

THE use of graphite has been taken to a new level in one work by visual artist Richard Kelly in his 20 piece exhibition at the Linen Hall Library later this week.

Graphite. Lots of big words surround it, a mineral, a form of carbon, iron black to steel grey and deep blue in some lights. It's used in motor car brake linings, batteries, golf and snooker cue shafts and hundreds of other ways, it's even found in meteorites!

When it was mined in Cumbria England during the reign of Elizabeth I, farmers used it for marking sheep – and in the 17th century it was often used in a lump by portrait painters and was known as the ‘writing stone'.

Things have come a long way since then, as Richard demonstrates in his superb work The Raising of the Cross: Rubens and Beyond. Using a graphite pencil, he draws in the style of Rubens, surrounded by the music of Pavarotti and the late Chester Bennington's band Linkin Park – like Richard's portfolio, quite a contrast.

In the 1600s, Rubens was employed to create religious works, The Raising of the Cross being one of his most famous, painted in oils on wood in 1610 when the artist was in his early 30s.

Richard's Rubens-style work is done on fine white art paper and, although he does rub out now and again, he has to be careful not to damage the surface as he works without benefit of drafting how he will proceed.

"Basically my work is organic," he explains, "it's about 'systems' and the failure of them through corruption, hypocrisy, seen throughout world war.

"It acts as a measuring stick from what was painted by Rubens: he painted the "crucifixion" of Jesus, a man condemned to death for speaking the truth, in effect murdered, executed by a mob who would rather have freed a rapist and murderer.

"The same thing is happening in today's world, seen in political life – the poor underdog suffers every time. The system has let him down just as it let Jesus down."

As the title suggests, Richard, who works from his studio in Newry, has brought this into the 21st century in a most dramatic way.

Using graphite pencils the detail is superb – and the more you look into the work, the more you see.

Grotesque faces, a man in a gas mask depicting pollution and infection, a Germanic looking soldier, no badges, could be any country, any superpower, all corrupt; and the skeleton in the foreground is a reminder of the wars and famine that plague this planet and the governments that let the people down.

Off to one side, you can just pick out an American flag, an addition since the days of Trump.

"It's a political piece based on human conditioning," Richard told me.

"It took almost two years to complete and like Rubens' masterpiece this is part one of a triptych, a lot of research into ‘the system' and how it fails when it comes to those who can't speak up for themselves or don't have resources to employ hot-shot lawyers to represent them.

"No-one looks into their story, their lives in a trailer park or in the grip of drugs. Who cares?"

Richard cares: "Originally I trained as a joiner back in the 90s and now I work as a life coach and I'm also trained in addiction counselling.

"I primarily work through the arts with vulnerable and marginalised people who are trying to rebuild their lives, using such craft as making guitars, sculpture, several other musical instruments."

He's a spiritual person by nature: "But I only believe in God's love. Treat yourself and others with dignity and respect, it's easy to love people who love you but there's little reward in that, the challenge we all face is loving people who don't love you, that's where the growth is.

"Fear is the biggest obstacle, fear that we might have to look at ourselves. Easy once you know how."

The exhibition, which runs for the month of September, is a varied collection of Richard's work showing his unique take on human conditioning. It promises to be thought-provoking.

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