Station to station – an art odyssey

By Eoin Meegan

Joan Keogh is an artist of high standing and a long-time D4 resident. She recalls how at one time she would travel each summer from her home in Sandymount to Connemara and the West of Ireland for two to three weeks to paint.

Her early work, mostly executed in oils and acrylic, depicted waterlilies and other scenes from nature. She drew inspiration from the countryside, the bogs and wildflowers when she was painting in Connemara, Joan is happiest surrounded by nature.

“Often I would sit for an hour or so just absorbing the whole atmosphere before I’d start to paint,” she reminisces.

Sadly, some years ago Joan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and this has understandably made life difficult for her and painting almost impossible. In the early stages she was able to control it, but in the last four years her illness has progressively deteriorated.

She said the most frustrating thing about Parkinson’s was the loss of independence, having to get others to do everything for you. Another thing was not being able to paint, unable to mix oils and clean brushes. For a time she gave up painting altogether.

However, she got the urge again to return to painting in watercolours. She describes her attempts during this period as mere dabbling, “I was doing it more for therapeutic reasons than anything else,” she says.

Then something began to emerge from the canvas, like it was there all along and only needed to be brought to life. What emerged was a painting of a group of Dominican nuns standing together talking which Joan calls “After Vespers.”

Many of Joan’s friends, including fellow artists love this painting, with some mistaking the nuns for Muslims or Hindus. “People have said they see mystical things in it,” Joan seems surprised. But looking at the painting one can see why.

Despite its bright pastel colours there is something slightly uncomfortable about the dark figures in the foreground contrasted against the bright, vibrant background. Beyond the yellows and greens of the mountain, the sky is grey and threatening. Storm birds gather. The black of the birds echoes the women at the front. Is there something conspiratorial about their conversation? The longer you look at this painting the more meaning you glean.

In the background there is a road going up the mountain, leading to some houses and a monastery. The road is very steep and the journey to the top arduous, the only way to get to the top is to walk. Joan felt it was symbolic of her own struggle, that since her illness it felt like she had been going up a steep hill.

All Joan’s work comes from the heart. “Anything I did, I did because it was part of myself,” she says with a gleam in her eye, “we all have gifts but some people don’t use theirs.” A charge that can certainly not be levelled against her.

Joan has worked as an artist all her life, studying at the National College of Art and Design, and later working from Blue Door Studio. For many years she gave classes for children with special needs. She has been part of a joint as well as solo show in the Kennedy Gallery, Dublin, and has had many exhibitions, including the Oireachtas Art Exhibition.

Stations of the Cross

Some years ago Joan created a set of 14 paintings of the Stations of the Cross. A new departure for her, the paintings were done over a long period in her life. She feels she was called on by a higher power to create them. Born from Joan’s deep reflection on the Way of the Cross and on personal suffering, the paintings are rich with symbolic meaning.

The paintings are unique in that they are set in a circle which is then superimposed on a cross. The circle symbolises the crown of thorns worn by Christ, but also evokes the moon and the eternal circle without beginning or end; perfection hanging over the suffering of the world.

The positioning of the characters in each of the paintings is meticulous and symbolic, while the background colour changes with each station, sometimes red depicting the anger of the soldiers or the assault of the world on Christ, in another one it is green, for the wood or nature itself, and in others a deep blue, almost black, depicting loneliness.

The finish is almost Coptic, even Egyptian, yet with angles and imagery you are not expecting the overall effect manages to look modern, even abstract. Joan feels they would speak to younger people.

At present the original Stations are in a closed church in Clifden, Co. Galway. Joan is a little bit concerned about dampness and the condition the paintings may be in, although it is largely out of her hands as she sold them a few years ago while retaining the copyright. She would like to see them in a permanent home; perhaps in an oratory or a private gallery.

So, in the interest of spreading this work to a wider audience, Joan was persuaded by a coterie of very devoted friends and fellow artists to publish a slim volume of reprints of the original 14 paintings accompanied by a description or more accurately, a meditation on each piece. The book is called Stations of the Soul: An Artist’s Journey and was published in 2017. The quality is very good, considering it is a reproduction.

In the preface Joan writes, “It was at a time of intense physical and spiritual suffering in my life that I felt the Lord prompting me to walk with him to Calvary.”

Joan comes across as a very content person with a deep inner peace, which she effortlessly conveys the moment she enters a room despite her debilitating illness. She is indeed an inspiration to us all. Many people have told her that her Stations have had a profound spiritual effect on them.

I detect that any concern she has for the original Stations is less for the physical works than that they continue to be a benefit and source of comfort to others. For this reason and because it is important that they are preserved, let us hope the original Stations find a permanent home before very long.

Stations of the Soul: An Artist’s Journey is available from the Messenger Press at €5.00, also available on Amazon. All the proceeds divided between Simon and the Capuchin Day Care Centre. Order a copy here: