I arranged this conversation between James Kirwan, a painter and street artist known to many for his signature ‘BOY’ logo found across Dublin, and Kelly O’Dowd, an illustrator and recent NCAD graduate, back in September. James also went to NCAD, graduating over ten years earlier than Kelly, making for a conversation mediated by experience in the art world. They discuss the impact of the pandemic on their creativity, the change from one medium to another, and the sometimes nagging presence of passersby whilst they paint their murals in public.
James: So! You’re in NCAD at the moment?
Kelly: I just graduated this year but I came back to do a mural for Fresher’s Week.
James: Oh nice!
Kelly: Yeah, but it was lashing with rain this morning so I haven’t been out yet.
James: Yeah [laughing], that’s the thing with Irish weather and murals.
Kelly: I know! I’ve only just started doing them though so I don’t know, that’s actually how I found you. Cause I did a mural for my graduate show and I was trying to find other artists that do them and that’s how I found your name. And also, that little logo, like the guy’s face, did you go to NCAD? Cause that thing has been all over NCAD for years!
James: I did go to NCAD but that was so long ago now, I graduated in 2005.
Kelly: Oh, ok! So maybe someone else is stealing your logo!
James: [Laughing] Quite possibly, there are a few copycats around. Well that’s just part of it I guess, you know.
Kelly: Yeah, I guess so!
James: But yeah, I was looking at your work, it’s really cool, I really like your style.
Kelly: Thank you! Yeah I still don’t really know where I’m at.
James: I think it would lend itself well to murals.
Kelly: I mean I hope so! I don’t even know if I like doing it yet.
“It’s so hard to know what your style is going to be and if it’s going to stay the same way. Like everyone always talks about finding your style and your colour palette and all, and I’m just so afraid that I’m gonna wake up one day and think, ‘I just don’t like any of it at all.’ You know?”
James: Yeah it kind of takes a while, like, for me, I was kind of late to the game with like using spray paint and doing murals. Cause always through college a lot of my friends would’ve been into graffiti and street art and whatever and I was always hugely influenced by it. But, for some reason I was kind of afraid to give it a go. So it’s just one of those things like I just took to the medium quite quickly when I did, and just fell in love with it. For me it’s such a lovely medium, it’s quite forgiving, and it’s quite quick!
Kelly: For sure. The first mural I did, I didn’t know what to use, so I literally used acrylic paint. [Laughing] Didn’t work out very well. I’ve only used spray paint a few times but it’s actually so much better, so quick. Kind of hard to get the hang of though.
James: It really helps to get first hand tips off someone who’s used to using it, cause there’s just some basic techniques that once you pick up, you’re flying.
Kelly: Yeah, for sure. Do you consider yourself to be an artist?
James: An artist? Yeah, 100%. I dunno, I kind of shied away from it for a long time, like I didn’t really take it seriously for years. I was actually more influenced by illustration based stuff, more kind of graphic stuff and street art work. It just took my years to kind of find my own voice or style.
Kelly: Yeah I think it’s so hard to know, because like, I’ve only just graduated, like I came into NCAD straight from school. And it’s so hard to know what your style is going to be and if it’s going to stay the same way. Like everyone always talks about finding your style and your colour palette and all, and I’m just so afraid that I’m gonna wake up one day and think, “I just don’t like any of it at all.” You know?
James: Well like, I think that’s just the natural evolution of your own work. I get it still all the time. For me, I like to hop around and try new things every now and then, otherwise it just gets boring.
Kelly: Yeah, I do a lot of poster design and that’s how I got into actually doing work – I did a poster for one of my friend’s club nights. And then I kept getting loads more work from that. So I really like doing that, as well as sort of animation stuff. So I don’t even know what exactly it is I like doing yet at all. I think it’s just about trying everything out and seeing what fits I guess.
James: Yeah, that’s part of it you know! But I think that your style and your work is part of a recent wave of, like, I don’t know, poster design and illustration that’s related to events and music a lot, and I love it! It’s kind of this trippy, like, nineties throwback style, but a new way of doing it. I love seeing the evolution, it’s amazing.
Kelly: And what inspires you with your work? Like, who are your favourite artists? And where do you see it going?
James: I mean, my basic sort of, root of inspiration, would be like David Hockney, just colourful sort of landscape work. And then if I scroll through Instagram at the moment there are just so many artists that I love at the moment. Like there’s artists I look to when I’m working on canvas, and then there’s others for murals, and sometimes they kind of tie into each other.
And, long term, I’d love to have an exhibition or something coming up. But I’ve been looking into that recently and it seems that there’s such a backlog in galleries. So that’d be nice for next year, but it could be the year after!
Kelly: I think also, in Dublin, like I know that there’s a lot of people but it also feels like there’s such a small community of artists and illustrators. Because like, as soon as I started doing that one mural for my grad show, I started meeting all these other people who were doing murals as well. Like, I did one for the Bernard Shaw a few weeks ago, and, it’s just so mad to see all these other people there that I would’ve looked up to years before.
James: Yeah yeah yeah, it’s a really interesting time the last few years, with murals and that whole scene just like, it just keeps growing and growing and it’s so good to see. The standard has gone up so much as well, it’s mental. But like, where do you see yourself going in the next, whatever, year or two?
Kelly: I don’t know! I kind of moved to Berlin, for three months, with the hope of staying there. But then I kept getting jobs and people asking me to come back for them, so like, I think I’ll stay here for a little bit just to see what happens I guess.
The next step would be getting a big girl job, cause when you’re a student artist, there’s always something at the side, and your main thing is college, so you always have something there. But now it’s like, I feel like I might have to go into some sort of graphic design job or something.
Do you think you’ve changed a lot since you’ve graduated?
James: Um, yes. [Laughing] Yeah like, for years, like I was saying, I never really had a formal studio so I was just doing bits from home. I was DJ-ing loads back then, and partying more than I was making art, so there came a time when I had to be like, “Ok, cop yourself on, just get into this.” And it was like 2013 where I can see a distinct change from what I used to do to when I became more focussed.
And then, I moved over to the West, and it’s interesting, like you were saying about getting jobs in Dublin, I noticed that when I spent two years living in Westport, like 2014 to 2016, I just stopped getting all these job offers, people just stopped asking. And then, literally as soon as I was back in Dublin, I just started getting all these offers again out of the blue. And I just kind of ran with that, because you have to think about making cash, and you know, paying the bills. And since then, it’s kept me really busy in Dublin, it’s great.
Kelly: Do you think living in the West influenced your work?
James: Yeah, I got into experimenting more with landscape based work, with lots of abstract colour. So that’s when I sort of meshed those two things together. So that was a really important time for me, I just needed a break from the city and I had a really good studio and it just gave me time and space to focus and experiment.
“It’s a really interesting time like the last few years, with murals and that whole scene just like, it just keeps growing and growing and it’s so good to see. The standard has gone up so much as well, it’s mental.”
Kelly: And, what is your creative process?
James: Each project is different, like, if I’m approaching a wall for somebody, I sit down at a computer and make a design. It’s quite quick that way. But then when I’m making my own paintings, I can work on five or ten different canvases at once, it can take months and months which is crazy. I wish I could plan them better and bash out paintings a bit quicker.
Kelly: Did you do Fine Art in college or Design?
James: I did Printmaking, I specialised in lithography when I was there. But it’s something that I never actually went back to since I left college. I wanted to learn the techniques so I chose print over painting, cause I reckoned I could kind of paint anyways.
Kelly: Yeah, I feel like I’ve never been the type of person who can do loads of things at one time, especially with things like canvases or something. Cause I’m a digital artist I guess, so a lot of it is on my iPad with Procreate.
James: And so, how did you find that transition like, you’re digital based, so how did you approach the hands on straight paint work?
Kelly: It was so difficult. I came into college wanting to do graphic design type stuff, and like, I hadn’t painted since secondary school until this year when I went to do that mural. But I wanted to do something different, because I’m just always stuck behind a screen. And normally the deadlines are so quick with design, like you have two or three days sometimes to knock something out. So the difference is really there.
Do you do any digital stuff?
James: Uh, rarely, I used to do more. Again just like small little posters and that kind of thing. But I figured that I was more of a painter.
Kelly: Do you find that there’s a lot of annoying people when you’re doing your murals?
Like, talking to you a lot?
James: Yeah you do get that, at times it can be annoying, but sometimes you can have such interesting conversations with a passer-by, it’s great.
But, I feel like I’m not asking you enough questions! So, who were you influenced by and who are you still influenced by?
Kelly: Um, I think it changes all the time. Like, I think one of the tutors that I had in college, John Slade, really influenced me.
James: Ah yes!
Kelly: He taught me about, like, layering stuff on top of each other. I don’t know, I’m really into Sebastian Schwamm, he’s German, his stuff is unreal. And, I guess I really like old 2000s aesthetic, like computer kind of stuff, so for my grad show I made a webpage. And I guess street art is really influencing me at the moment, like you!
And Claire Provoust.
James: Yeah she’s cool!
Kelly: But, do you like your work? Because I feel like a lot of artists don’t actually like their work once it’s finished.
James: Errm, I mean, yeah, I don’t know. There’s always stand out pieces that I love and go back to just enjoy looking at. But then there’s certain commission work that I get sometimes where they have a lot of say as to what the thing is, and it becomes more their piece than mine.
Since the pandemic, I’ve just found it really tough, I’ll go for months of just being in a slump. And I’m quite an anxious person so I kind of overthink and dwell on things a bit too long. And then I go down the path of looking at other people’s work and seeing how they’re doing in the world and comparing myself to that, which is just wrong.
So that’s an ongoing problem for me. But I just have to distance myself from it and look back and be proud of what I’ve done.
Kelly: Yeah, basically all of my work stopped with the pandemic because I couldn’t do any more event posters or things like that. So yeah, it was a hard time to be coming out as a new artist.
“Since the pandemic, I’ve just found it really tough, I’ll go for months of just being in a slump. And I’m quite an anxious person so I kind of overthink and dwell on things a bit too long. And then I go down the path of looking at other people’s work and seeing how they’re doing in the world and comparing myself to that, which is just wrong.”
James: I really feel for you in that sense, you know. Especially being linked to events and stuff. I guess it’s about trying to find new ways to justify what you’re doing, and just keep making work, you know. Like, for me, I’d love to have an exhibition, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a solo exhibition, but I don’t know when that’s gonna happen.
Kelly: Yeah, I do struggle a lot with like doing stuff on my own time. I was never one of those people when I was little who just like painted for the sake of it, I always need pressure and someone kind of forcing me to do things.
James: Yeah, there’s nothing like a good deadline you know. No, but, I think, looking at your work, you can see a progression from your earlier stuff to now. I just love seeing that in artists’ work, so, I think you’re doing great!
Kelly: Thank you, you too!
James: Pats on the back!
[Both pat themselves on the back, laughing]
Artwork by Ottoline MacIlwaine