Photo above of Jody McGrath and Colin Broderick.
All paintings by Jody McGrath.
The painter Jody McGrath was born and raised in Armagh City in Northern Ireland. He grew up in what is euphemistically referred to as “The Troubles “. After leaving high school he attended the University of Ulster in Belfast studying the fields of fine and applied arts with a primary focus on painting. Upon graduation he chose to pursue his artistic vision in American. He currently resides in Philadelphia. Learn more about him at: http://www.jodymcgrathpainter.com/
Colin Broderick is a Northern Irish author and filmmaker currently living in NYC. His first book, “Orangutan” is a memoir which details the first twenty years he spent living in New York City, drinking, working construction and attempting to formulate his life as a writer. His second book, “That’s That” details his childhood growing up in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. His first film, “Emerald City”, which focuses on Irish construction workers in New York City, is currently in production. You can learn more about Colin Broderick at: http://www.colinbroderick.com/
Colin Broderick spoke with Jody McGrath for Honeysuckle Magazine about art, communication, growing up in Northern Ireland and life in the USA.
Colin Broderick: You’re originally from Northern Ireland as I am. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up , and about your family life as a boy.
Jody McGrath: I originally hail from a place called Armagh City, the seating place of saints and scholars neither of which I purport to be. I was raised Roman Catholic on a local housing estate with one brother and two sisters. My father died when i was a kid so my mother filled both roles.
My childhood as I remember it was stricken with scenes of domestic violence and my home reeked of alcohol from a drunken step father. My poor mother had remarried a monster.
The majority of my growing up was spent seeking solace in both books and prayer. I then began a journey of self education via hours of pouring through literature on every subject. Anything i could get my hands on really.
Like elsewhere in the north of Ireland, political violence was either on the news or on one’s own doorstep. I learned from an early age about fear and paranoia.
This impacted my very bones and began to get visualized by me through sketches and graffiti. Art was not at the forefront of my childhood and youth as I became immersed in Irish history. I now had found a new form of expression, the northern Irish art form of throwing bricks and bottles.
CB: When did you realize that painting, or art in general was something that you where interested in? How did that manifest itself?
JM: Childhood was the place where my earliest forms of art where to take place. I recollect drawing on everything from paper to the living room walls. Dinosaurs, I believe, where then my fascination.
I seemed to have been never without pencil or crayon never doodling but sketching. A trait that has stayed with me.
The political scene at the time was to become my artistic conduit as I approached youth. Dinosaurs disappeared and where replaced by drawings of the balaclava and the armalite. Etched on everything from school books to gable walls. I had discovered another art form. The political one.
Again I returned to what was the solace of my childhood, books. As I was a shy kid it was always to become a source of refuge for me. Hiding within jacket covers was a constant. Books on the lives and works of the great artists opened up before me like the sistine chapel. I had now discovered art in its purest form, that of the painter.
CB: Was your family supportive when you said you where going to Belfast to study art ?
JM: Absolutely. I had applied to various universities several of which where in England though Belfast was the one I wanted desperately to get in to. Luckily I did and upon acceptance both I and my mother, who had now become my biggest artistic advocate, where jubilant.
CB: After college you wandered a bit. Where did you go? How was that period of your life and did you question your calling?
JM: I have always had the inclination for travel and did so during and after university. Traversing across Europe and beyond became a way of expanding my hunger for who and what I am as a person.
Life at this time was very much still in a grey area as I hadn’t formulated any concrete type of career decision, a fact which culminated in many a restless night. I did know that art and specifically painting was where my life lay. I just didn’t know how to go about putting it to work.
Second guessing myself became habitual, wondering how on earth I was to pursue an arts career within the confines of Northern Ireland.
At this stage friends had begun careers as I began to internally choke as to my next artistic step. A very large now what began to appear before me. It was at this exact juncture that America was to present its golden head.
CB: Why did you leave Ireland, specifically Northern Ireland? Do you think that has anything to do with your freedom to express yourself as an artist?
JM: I realized for some time that my goals and dreams in life rested elsewhere and at an as yet undetermined location but certainly one that would lift me out of not just the north of the country but the whole of Ireland itself.
I believed artistically I would not be able to mature as both a painter and a person should I stay in Ireland. It was akin to a hammer blow to my senses.
Artistic parameters had been enforced, I believed, upon me. I learned at an early stage at University when I was not permitted to paint about the politics of the north. How could I not react in a visual sense to the daily bombings and shootings taking place on the streets of Belfast? Wasn’t I an artist and is this not what artists do, respond to their surroundings?
I had to remove myself or face visual suffocation.
CB: Why Philadelphia?
JM: I had a relative and friends living there so my destination was, to an extent, already arranged and as Brian Friel wrote ” Philadelphia here I come.” I was on my way.
CB: Talk to me about the struggles you face as an artist?
JM: This is twofold. Internally and financially. The latter being a demon of sorts. On an internal level, one is at varying degrees of mindset in a cerebral sense with the relationship to the canvas. Lack of ideas or imagery has never been a problem, of them I have copious amounts. It is when I stand or kneel before a blank canvas I worry where the first brush or charcoal strike should start. It can be quite frightening at times and yet a deep part of me, I believe, actually thrives on this.
Finances are of the utmost importance in the ability to sustain life as a painter. As of now, like many in this artistic boat, I trudge to work with a head full of paintings wondering will I get the chance to bring them to fruition due to finances as materials are never free.
In stating this I may add that it has never held me back to the point where I could not paint. I somehow manage to make paintings happen. I paint when the trilogy of mind material and time come into alliance. Then I must paint.
Of course I long for the day when I am fully able to focus on my paintings. Dreaming, I dare say, of my own studio and a gallery to have faith in both my works and in me. As of now my attic bedroom is my studio and I find myself in a constant battle to find space within it.
CB: If you could walk away from it all, if that where possible, if somebody handed you a pill and said “take this and tomorrow you will be free of the mental compulsion to be an artist, to create” would you swallow it ?
JM: Never. I was born a painter. What would I do if I couldn’t paint again? This is a question that has appeared in nightmares; hands bound, my mind fettered. My mind is constantly in some state of artistic flux and as a sufferer of both PTSD and bouts of depression it can be a fine line between art and the darkness that can raise its head with alarming regularity. Painting is the elixir to these internal struggles. My ability to visualize my life and the world around me is part and parcel of what I describe visually as the human condition.
CB: I’m not going to ask you about your influences, it’s too opaque a question. Tell me what it is you are trying to say in your art, what is the underlying theme or themes?
JM: For me art should and more specifically painting should be truthful. By that I mean to ones self and to those who may view it. Each painting has its own history and story whether that be from something I’ve witnessed to a piece of moving poetry, it is constantly in a state of change as I evolve.
Maturity has given me various principles upon what themes may or may not appear on canvas. My art is indeed difficult. It has never reached the fluidity of being easy as many of my works deal with past issues, many on a harrowing scale. This can ultimately prove unsettling for me and maybe that may allow the viewer an insight into my world.
Influences on myself which lead to influences in my work are too numerable to categorize. It feels at time that my life itself is in a sort of thematic merry go round from progression to regression from both a mental and aesthetic standpoint. My art does not stand still.
CB: I want you to imagine yourself standing in the middle of a field, it’s a huge field, there’s no one around for miles, the sun is shining, you are in a happy place. If you where able to have one wish granted in your life in that moment, if you could ask the universe in silence for one thing….what would that be ?
JM: I have stood in fields with the sun on my face in Ireland, silence was there also. I can’t recall asking the universe for anything as just being there at that time seemed enough. With age and a certain amount of wisdom perhaps the needy side of me may be so bold as to ask for several things. But the human aspect of helping another may act as a counterweight.
In all honesty I want the chance to live until I’m old and still remain a painter. I have envisioned this. A family around me and a happy one at that. A scene of bucolic beauty surrounding me, my canvas and my thoughts.