Finding time for a moment of reflection before his three-year-old son’s birthday party, Irish painter Kenny McKendry tells Mall Galleries' Beatrice Bowles-Bray about his love of painting the landscapes of his birthplace, his acclaimed career as a book illustrator, and the artistic and familial influences which inform his work.
“I’m sat looking out at a calm, flat sea”, McKendry says when asked if he has found a comfortable place to speak. “It's steely grey and there are lovely pink flecks dancing along the bay.” Mckendry is back on the coast of his native Northern Ireland after many years living as an illustrator in England; the artist remained in Brighton after moving there to study a degree in Illustration. “I’ve always lived by the sea. I think you know where you are when you're near the sea”, McKendry reflects; “it's very grounding”.
Kenny McKendry, Winter Sun, Whiterocks
On leaving university, the artist enjoyed a ten-year career in illustration and design, during which time, his stand-out commission was a series of award-winning book covers for John Steinbeck novels. “Through this work I became familiar with Steinbeck’s son, Thom. I painted Thom and we had a lovely relationship. He was very interested in art, and we shared a common connection with Ireland; John’s maternal grandfather was from Ballykelly, near Derry. I visited the Steinbeck family grave when I received the commission, and it was brilliant to know that John Steinbeck also visited the site while researching ‘East of Eden’.”
As technological developments led the art world and the digital world to be increasingly integrated, self-confessed technophobe McKendry decided it was time for a change. He went home to Northern Ireland, found a gallery, and “met a girl”. McKendry now devotes his time to his family, and to painting the Irish landscapes he loves. “I feel free when I’m painting landscapes” he says. “There’s no pressure to capture a likeness, or to please a sitter; I’m able to respond to a space in my own way.”
Kenny McKendry, Easter, Dunguire Castle
Kenny McKendry works across a range of genres, from portraiture to equine painting, but his passion lies in landscapes. “I begin my pieces out of doors, then work them up in the studio. When I work en plein air the light can change rapidly. Looking out of my window now, the morning light is hitting bracken around the lighthouse in the bay, turning the bracken a blazing red and benighting the surrounding headland; that’s a paintable image, but it’s going to change any second.”
“I would like people to feel a connection with the spaces I paint”, the artists says. “I am continually negotiating that balance between capturing the soul of a place, and rendering locations recognisably.” In this pursuit, McKendry takes inspiration from such artists as William Langson Lathrop and Jules Bastien-Lepage. “Seeing my first Langson Lathrop work felt like hearing a great piece of music for the first time, when it rings true with you, and you feel yourself and that musician to be kindred spirits.” Langson Lathrop was an American tonalist painter who founded the New Hope Pennsylvania Impressionist Colony. “I was very interested in his style of composition”, McKendry says, “and his use of light seemed reminiscent of the peculiar quality of light in Ireland”.
Kenny McKendry, On Return from the Home of Henry James I, Rye
Alongside his artistic influences, Kenny McKendry looks to the people closest to him to energise his work: “my young son inspires me so much, although he often asks me to paint things like Darth Vader”, the artist admits. “Before a child starts trying to make things look like things, they’re just enjoying making marks, and that’s where he is at the moment. I imagine that artists like Picasso were trying to get back to that.”
As I leave McKendry to contemplate his native coastline, and to prepare for his son’s birthday celebrations, it is clear that this artist has returned to where his heart resides, in relation to both his life and work, and that the landscape paintings he is now producing are embodiments of this homecoming.