Irish painter Cathy O’Reilly Hayes’ debut exhibition in London is inspired by moments of complete freedom floating in the ocean …
When did your interest in art begin?
My interest in art began very early. My dad used to give me big Civil Service hard backed notepads from his work for drawing on. As a child I only wanted to look at pictures and magazines so the visual was, and is, very important to me; beauty really. I won the Texaco children’s art competition one year and the prize was a set of oil paints. I never liked oils, preferring instead water-based paints, acrylics or gouache. I trained as an architect but quickly started going back to art college in the evenings in London where I worked for Terence Conran during the day.
How do you describe your art and how has it evolved?
Currently my paintings are quite big, about 150cm x 135cm, I have experimented with many sizes and went through a phase of working really, really small but in series of maybe 12-16 pieces, so in essence it became one big piece. I define my art as somewhere between figuration and abstraction. I think I am a colourist, I was always interested in combining the figure with nature; I spent many years drawing the figure and found myself getting distracted by perfectionism, and realised I didn’t like what I was doing. I like to feel freer.
I decided to do a one year master’s degree at Camberwell School of Painting in London. I found it so incredible as you are introduced to so many ideas and artists and the course was tailor-made to students’ interests. That was a great experience and I am very grateful for it. They also really pushed the idea of writing and ways of expressing ideas; bit by bit I realised the art world is so much bigger than I anticipated and I feel really proud to be part of it.
How and where do you work?
I have a studio separate to my house but nearby which I love deeply. It’s organised chaos, and as my work has developed I know now how I like to use the space better, which makes life a bit easier. Of course some of the canvases are enormous and there is a constant juggling going on.
What was the starting point of your new exhibition “I, Submerged”?
My starting point for this exhibition came from swimming, floating and submerging and starting to capture these moments with a camera; a waterproof iPhone. Everywhere I go, I find water. I think the pandemic taught me how much I loved being outdoors, it felt more freeing. One of the first paintings had such intense light and was made during a trip to the Caribbean, where I just fell in love with the light on the water and my legs. I started pinning the photographs of them up in my studio and making paintings from them. It was such a departure from the paintings I had been making which were really homages to Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings in particular her beheading of Holofernes. They were very intense, very visceral, they could not have been more opposite.
After my masters I joined Turps Banana in London. It’s an online mentorship programme and it’s a great way to keep a connection to a mentor. My mentor loved both of these works and felt that the legs could be interpreted at different levels. I liked that idea, these adult legs bobbing out in front of you, swaying gently in the sea, almost like a toddler discovering its own limbs for the first time. So encouraged by her remarks I decided to develop the series and was delighted when Martina from Fitzrovia Gallery contacted me via Instagram to come and see them. We got on well immediately and she offered to host the show for me. She has a lovely way of working with artists, non invasive but supportive at so many levels, intellectual and practical. I am delighted to have made her acquaintance.