Esteemed Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) artist Denise Ferran recently exhibited her work as part of the RUA’s travelling exhibition which was held at the gallery in the Waterways Ireland Headquarters, Enniskillen. Here she talks to The Impartial Reporter about how growing up in Enniskillen among the lakes has been an inspiration to her work, what her art means to her and what she is up to when she isn’t painting.

JC: What is your artistic background? Are you self-taught or did you go to art school/do courses?

DF: After completing my Senior examination at Mount Lourdes, Enniskillen I went to Belfast to St. Mary College of Education, now St. Mary’s University College, to study art under the Fermanagh artist T.P. Flanagan and to become an art teacher.

During this time I also attended night classes in life drawing at Belfast College of Art. It was during my student years that I met and subsequently married the artist Brian Ferran. I pursued my art practice but I continued to study obtaining a degree from the Courtauld Institute London University in art history which I further advanced in acquiring a Ph.D in Art History from Trinity College Dublin on the Irish artist W.J.Leech (1881 to 1968).

I then curated an exhibition on Leech for the National Gallery of Ireland which travelled to the museum in Quimper in Brittany and then the Ulster Museum Belfast, where I employed in Education, becoming the Head of Education.

However, my main art teaching was as Head of Art at St. Dominic’s High School Belfast during which time I taught artists such as Rita Duffy and Rosie McGurran. Throughout this time I continued my studies at Queen’s University Belfast, obtaining a MA in Education and subsequently was awarded an Hon.M.Phil from the University of Ulster for my services to education since I had served as Chief Examiner in Art History, Moderator for Syllabus B Art and Syllabus A art and on many committees of the NI Schools Examination Council.

JC: What inspires your art?

DF: Growing up in Enniskillen among all the lakes, my abiding interest is painting water, its reflections and its ever changing colour under tumultuous skies.

My love of nature was nurtured in Fermanagh and the Biology curriculum included Botany, which I loved and which required keeping a habitat where I observed the flora and fauna and noted in my nature diary. I spent many hours drawing the plant life, wild orchids, buttercups, lady’s smock, bluebells, great diving beetles and water boatmen.

This love of nature has remained and the garden I have created around my Inishowen studio, echoes this, combining wild flowers with cultivated, and in the ponds water lilies flourish with the tadpoles, the diving beetles and the water boatmen.

I have echoes of Monet’s garden in the curved bridge and the water lilies but unlike his garden at Giverny where he employed up to 30 gardeners, my ambition is more simple and rustic, leaving me more time to paint my surroundings hemmed in by Trawbreaga Bay.

JC: What has been your most ambitious piece to date?

DF: Preparing for each individual one person exhibition is demanding and takes several years of preparation resulting in the final 30 works. This selection will have been made from approximately 50 works, which represents four to five years or even up to 20 years of work, as an artist I return to themes and to works unfinished from some time past.

The last major exhibition I did was for ‘Irish Wings’ an exhibition of five Irish artists which was opened in Paxos by the Irish Ambassador to Greece and which then travelled to Paris. In London in January I attended the St. Brigid’s exhibition hosted by the Hamilton Gallery, Sligo, in which I have a work ‘I too, will make a cross, for luck and irony’ based on the Leland Bardwell poem.

This exhibition of works by 90 women artists was opened by the Irish Ambassador to Britain and the exhibition will travel to Dublin for International Women’s Day on March 8. I am presently working on the Yeats’ poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ for this years Hamilton gallery exhibition, which follows last years Yeats’ theme of ‘An Irish Airman forsees his death’ in which I participated. Of course I am represented in the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts exhibition, by two works ‘St.Mary’s Lagg’ and ‘Trawbreaga Bay.’

JC: What different artistic mediums do you use and which is your favourite?

DF: My favourite medium are both water based, watercolours and the more permanent medium, acrylic. My early works were also oil on canvas, but due to an adverse reaction to solvents I turned to acrylics which are now an excellent medium in durability, subtlety and range of colour. I still work in watercolour on paper, my first love, as I enjoy the challenge of allowing colours to bleed into one another, to achieve translucency from layer on layer and to allow the whiteness of the paper to shine through.

JC: What are you currently working on?

DF: I am finishing my work for the Hamilton Gallery and my response to Yeats’ poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,’ a work which references wars, revolutions and the dissolution and destruction of conflict.

This poem encompasses the horror of World War One and the uncertain outcome of the 1916 Irish Revolution, which is the theme I have focused on. I still continue my writing on Irish artists and have just completed an 3000 word essay on the artist Robert Taylor Carson (1919 to 2008) who was born in Belfast but who made Donegal his home as an artist, for the Donegal Historical Annual.

Then plans are in place that I will curate an exhibition on R.T. Carson for the Glebe Gallery, Donegal which will travel to other venues. Additionally I am writing an article on a W.J. Leech work, which he painted in Grasse, France for Adams auction catalogue for their March sale. This work was owned by Hazel Lavery, the beautiful American wife of Sir John Lavery, who was the first President of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts (RUA).

I of course have works on going for exhibitions in August in Carndonagh, Co. Donegal, for a charity auction for cancer sufferers and the provision of cancer care in Belfast in September, supported by the RUA.

JC: How would you describe your artistic style?

DF: I paint in a post-impressionist style, influenced by the Impressionists who worked from light to dark. In painting the landscape or seascapes I try to render the impression of the scene, the atmosphere, the quality of suffused light and the distance and space created by the horizon and large skies leading to infinity and the world beyond.

The human presence is sensed in the tilled field or the raked seaweed but rarely do figures feature in my past works but gradually my works have figures returning, situated in their environment but not disturbing the overall tranquility.

JC: What does your art mean to you?

DF: My art and all my artistic pursuits are the most important element of my life after my family. I can’t imagine a life bereft of art and I have spent my adult life in art education, in opening up this world to everyone to share its richness. Art makes the world and each person who can access it, a much more fulfilling and rewarding space.

JC: What are you up to when you are not painting?

DF: Writing on art and lecturing about art. In 2002 I became a Fulbright Scholar attached to Boston College, Massachusetts, USA furthering the research on William John Leech’s American wife, the beautiful Elizabeth Saurin, who was the subject of his major paintings ‘The Convent Garden’ and ‘The Sunshade’ both in the collection of the National Gallery, Dublin.

Then in 2006 to 2007 I became a Fulbright Professor of Art and Art History attached to the Minnesota College of Art in Minneapolis and Fegus Falls, a community college in North Minnesota, teaching both painting and lecturing in art history.

In 2015 I was elected President of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts and for the past three years, worked at raising the standard of the Academy Annual exhibition, its accompanying education programme and catalogue and in enhancing the Academy’s profile at home and abroad, building up a stronger financial base with good governance.