Artistic License with Jane O’Malley

Meet artist JANE O’MALLEY whose new exhibition opens at the BUTLER GALLERY, Kilkenny on January 13, and comprises drawings collated over a 40 year period …


Having lived in the Bahamas, Isles of Scilly and the Canary islands, Jane O’Malley’s work has always been imbued with beauty, colour and vibrancy – inspired by the landscapes in which she has lived. Fans of her work will therefore be surprised at this new exhibition which is striking in its starkness and is devoid of colour.

‘Sam’ in the Laundry Room, Paradise Island, 1978

Your monochrome collection Works on Paper spans 40 years – it is completely different to the many vibrant splashes of colour in other works. Do you shift “gear” working in black and white?

The exhibition is really a retrospective collection of works since 1971. Most people have never seen my drawings, so it will come as a big surprise not to see the vibrant colour they associated with me. I hope they won’t be disappointed. I suppose one has to shift gear to a certain extent, but I am never conscious of it. Since I was a child, I always drew with a mapping pen and black ink. Upon arriving in St Ives, I was introduced to the print room at the Penwith Gallery. I was hooked (my paternal grandmother was a superb etcher and showed at the Royal Academy in London). So for many years I only worked in monochrome. I began working in colour after meeting Tony [artist Tony O’Malley – Jane’s husband]. I found working in oil very difficult at first, and would despair, but Tony kept encouraging me. Finally I found my path. Colour then took over, whether subtle or very vibrant.

Do you have any favourite images from your new collection?

Some of my favourite images in this collection are the larger drawings from Seal Cottage, in St Ives. Seal Cottage was right on Porthmeor beach, the sea crashing right up to the window. Constantly changing, we both drew the interior and exterior. These drawings are still very much alive to me.

From Salubrious House, St Ives, 2005

Your body of work reflects what an interesting life you have led and one where travel has inspired much of your work. What have been some of your favourite travel memories?

Travel has always been an important factor of my life, since I was a child. My auntie travelled the world and I would listen in awe to her stories, dreaming that one day I would have travel adventures. Not long after I met Tony, we made our first joint adventure to St Martin’s Island in the Isles of Scilly. It was the first time we had worked together at a very tiny kitchen table. It worked perfectly and from then on we always shared a studio. But, back to travel, we returned usually twice a year to the Isles of Scilly. We both found it very productive and responded well to the landscape.

Patio Chair – Bahamas, 1978

I suppose the Bahamas was the most exotic of our travels. I was lucky enough to have a sister living there. After my mother died in 1973, my father gave us the airfare as a Christmas present (as we had no pennies at the time). It was to dramatically influence Tony’s work. He had never seen such colour and because my sister lived at the end of an island, and her husband worked for a construction company he was able to obtain 8’ x 4’ plywood and we would stretch the canvases on the board and just lean it up against the casuarina pine trees. The canvases were pre-cut and rolled up on a plastic drainpipe. It became our outdoor studio. I was a bit slower to get started, as I don’t particularly like canvas, and also, I suppose because I was surrounded by family – who were all so curious as to what we were doing. We both loved Lanzarote – a complete contrast to the Bahamas. We loved the stark lava fields and volcanoes. I still go there and it never ceases to inspire me. My memories of travelling with Tony and sharing our very different responses to each place are very dear to me.

Where and how do you work?

I work in our studio, here in the garden. How do I work is a difficult one to answer. I have had to change my bad habit of working. I don’t normally stand at an easel. I like to work flat. Sadly, I am paying up for it now. It was the worst posture for my back which has given me problems for years. In fact, I am still recovering from very major back surgery in November 2016. My surgeon advised me to get a “sit stand desk”. I wish I’d known about this years ago, and I would advise anyone with a back problem to invest in one. I also love sketching outdoors. When I work in gouache, I would be sensible and sit at the table!

Your late husband Tony has had a huge impact on your creative career, which other artists have also inspired your art?

Yes, Tony had a huge impact on me. He was amazing; he always believed in my work, and he really encouraged me and gave me confidence. I was very influenced by him at the start, but he knew I would find my path, which I did. He stood by my side always. The other artist I have always been inspired by is Ben Nicolson. The very first works I ever saw of his drawings captured my attention. It was the pure line and no clutter. I love the purest of line.

10’6’74 Our 11th month anniversary, 1974

What would your advice be to artists beginning their career or those who are insecure about their creativity?

I would advise them to learn Tony’s quote. “Never be swayed by anything but by your own work and vision”. Believe and have have faith in this quote and you will succeed.

How do you relax?

We have a room in the house that we called the zen room. It is very peaceful; all white with a few paintings – no TV or phones are allowed! I often go there just to sit quietly and reflect.

Need to know: Black & White by Jane O’Malley, Works on Paper: 1971 – 2017 opens on Saturday January 13 at 2pm and continues until February 25 at Butler Gallery, The Castle, Kilkenny;

Penny McCormick

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