Dear Peter: An Open Letter to “My Uncle the Artist”

Assiniboine River, Blues (2013, acrylic on canvas) by Peter McConville

With the pandemic keeping us apart I wanted to write you a letter. I started writing on St Patrick’s Night in March, after hearing your cancer was terminal. Mum told me the news on the phone — it was the day after her friend Sarah’s funeral — and she managed to hold it together until I read out your Facebook message:

Dear Emmaramma, I was very sick, I’m feeling much better now. I got out of Hospital yesterday. I called Evelyn and gave her an update. I”m reading and drawing when I feel good, it’s so good to be home, Marian and Alan have been great they arranged the living room so I can move around the house. I havent

I have not seen Miss Strawberry for almost 3 weeks, but she sent lots of drawings and get well wishes. Sorry for all the errors I have developed tremors in my hands and feet typing is not easy. I’m trying to change my style from the Dots to the Shake Slip and Splash I know it will be a big hit. Love Peter.

Mum laughed then cried at the Shake Slip and Splash. “It’s so Peter,” I said. “See you around, Fat Boy!”

When I write ‘Fat Boy’ it makes me smile, remembering the summer in the late nineties when we stayed with you in Winnipeg. Beth and I were teenagers then — our blonde hair straightened, our walks self-conscious — and for our summer holiday, I’d made my Irish skin gold with St. Tropez fake tan.

That year, you’d nicknamed yourself Fat Boy because you’d put on weight. But you weren’t overweight at all — you’d just stopped smoking and drinking. The Marlboro Lights had been replaced with a cup of tea and a bicky. You still had the paint-stained jeans, sketchpad super-glued to your lap, but where — I wondered — was the cool, long-haired, pencil-thin uncle from my childhood?

Fat Boy Pete had short, grey hair. He drove us around in his beige Dad car. One evening you told Mum, Marian and Big Al about dropping me and Beth at the mall. “When the twins got out of the car, they walked away a little too fast,” you said. “‘That Fat Boy Pete, he’s crampin’ our style.’”

You also pretended that Beth and I made fun of your uncoolness. “As they walked to the mall, I called out from the car, ‘Now take care of yourselves, girls,’ and they shouted over their shoulders, ‘Yeah, whatever. Thanks for the ride. See you around, Fat Boy!’”

The night I spoke to Mum on the phone I should’ve been in the pub for St. Patrick’s. But coronavirus was spreading rapidly, a global pandemic, gaining force. By mid-March — just before UK lockdown — social distancing was encouraged. We weren’t to visit people with health conditions. No non-essential travel.

It’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it, to show kindness through distance? “It’s just so sad,” I said to Mum, “that you won’t get to see Peter.” She’d planned to visit you in Canada; I’d love to have gone with her. When I got off the phone, I felt a sad, stoic acceptance: I wouldn’t get to see you again.

I decided to write you a letter instead, build a bridge of words. Hearing about your diagnosis was upsetting, but laced through the sadness were bright memories of our big, brilliant Irish family.

During lockdown, the past was more soothing than the present. Writing to you unearthed memories — the wee stories, the loss, the love. Before starting the letter, I’d been finding writing more difficult than usual. I was still working on my novel but progress felt sluggish, uninspired. I’d started to write a little bit less and read a little less, too. But after hearing about your illness, the urge to write was strong and urgent.

Each day I wrote to you: some days several pages, some days just a sentence.

In the weeks I slowly wrote this letter, the magic happened — you know what I mean. Alongside writing to you, my novel started to flow again. I wrote scenes that surprised me and I couldn’t help but smile.

Last year, I read a book called The Gift by Lewis Hyde that I know you’d enjoy. I don’t have the book here in Northern Ireland, so I’ll paraphrase two of his ideas. First: creating art is often motivated by gratitude. Second: if you dedicate yourself to an art or craft it will give you gifts. These gifts are often a piece of art that feels like you didn’t make it.

The author George Saunders alludes to this idea in an interview, where he says that with writing, “‘magic’ has to be the operative word — getting the prose to go somewhere and do something you couldn’t have foreseen at the outset”.

Saunders goes on to say, “when self recedes, there is something else that rushes in to replace it, and that thing is smarter and kinder and just more trustworthy than self”.

In The Gift, Hyde illustrates “the magic” brilliantly using the folk story The Shoemaker and the Elves, where a cobbler, dedicated to his craft, is struggling to make some shoes. In the night, wee elves come to help him, finishing the shoes with skill and care while the shoemaker is sleeping.

That the shoemaker is asleep shows us something about creativity. “Writing is of you, but it’s not YOU,” says Saunders. The elves are the shoemaker’s subconscious.

Of equal importance is the ending of the story, where the shoemaker creates shoes for the elves, simultaneously expressing gratitude and displaying a mastery of his own craft.

Hyde suggests that people often make art to thank a person but equally they can be motivated by a generalised gratitude for all the art that’s enriched their lives.

Reflecting on The Gift, I realised how grateful I am for the wellspring of art that’s enriched my life. I also appreciated how lucky I am to have known your paintings since I was a little girl.

Writing to you, I often thought of your exhibition Urban Mirage, which I saw as a teenager in the early 2000s at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. I also remembered your beautiful paintings of rivers, such as the series River City, inspired by a stay in Saint Boniface Hospital.

In a video interview, you talked about coming round after major surgery for cancer and drawing in your hospital bed:

“When I was really down I would draw myself … but I also had to walk, so I’d walk down the hallway and there was a great view, this huge window, and my goal was to get to that goddamn window, and I could see the river, I could see the forks — I don’t know, it just gave me hope.”

Through the window, you photographed the river and in your hospital bed you made sketches. When you were allowed back home, you worked on new paintings in your studio, developing the series River City.

I love these strange, shimmering paintings — through the glass, the river is dream-like. “These landscapes are not like paintings,” you said, “there’s a lot of hope in them”.

I agree there’s something more to these landscapes — something that can’t be understood but still longs to be known. To borrow from the philosopher Francis Bacon, the landscapes of River City “deepen the mystery” of art. In their shimmering blues and golden light, there’s movement and there’s magic.

Back to that phone call with Mum on St. Patrick’s: she told me something I know you’ll enjoy. At her friend Sarah’s funeral she’d got chatting to a childhood friend of mine, Niamh. “Can’t remember her surname,” said Mum, “you used to walk home from the bus together.” I mentioned Niamh’s surname and Mum said, “Yes. She still has the painting you did for her, hanging on her wall.”

I smiled, surprised. “I can’t remember making her a painting.”

“She said you painted it especially for her, and she just loves the colours, purples and pinks.”

“What’s the painting of?’

“Flowers.”

I couldn’t remember my painting but I could picture Niamh: honey-blonde hair in a high ponytail, petrol-blue school blazer damp in the rain. She wore a silver Claddagh ring engraved with the words, Nothing is constant but change.

Picturing Niamh, I thought of the time, getting off the bus, when a crow fell from a tree, hit our friend Claire on the shoulder and tumbled onto her school shoes. Claire screamed at the splayed bird, her arms outstretched, scare-crowed.

“Is it dead?” I said.

“I can’t move,” said Claire.

I started laughing. Claire laughed, too. Soon, we couldn’t stop giggling, as Niamh stared at the poor, dead bird.

As teenagers, Claire and I had manic laughing fits, often at inappropriate times. (Once, during a live performance of Riverdance, we laughed wildly at Michael Flatley’s solo, for which there was no music.) There was only one way to stop us laughing: separate us, give us space. Niamh knew this, and I can picture vividly how she took Claire’s arm and gently moved her. The rain was cold and Claire was a little shaken by the dead crow. Niamh and Claire walked ahead of me, in the direction of home.

Did Niamh also move the crow? I can’t remember this. What I remember is Niamh and Claire, walking in front while my laughter eased. The rain was light and cold and clear, sun just starting to set. Niamh put her umbrella up and drew Claire in from the rain.

When I was young I understood something I’ve re-learned as an adult: art is an act of gratitude, a kindness, a gift.

As a teenager I learned Grade 3 Mozart on the piano, phoned Nanny and played it for her. When Beth and I stayed in Dublin with Uncle Raymond and Auntie Miriam, I wrote stories about Scary Uncle Raymond, terrorising children at family parties dressed as a poundshop Teletubby.

In return, Raymundo penned poems on his terrible nieces, including The Ballad of Emma who was Stung on the Bum by a Bumblebee — a true tale of childhood trauma, a Raymundo classic.

Sometimes I played those Mozart tunes at school events and family parties. Mum enjoyed my Scary Uncle Raymond stories and shared them with her friends.

As a child, I knew that art is about connection — it’s often created for one person, then others enjoy it, too.

The most famous example of art as a gift is Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, painted to brighten his guest room for Gauguin, an artist he hugely admired. According to the Van Gogh Museum’s website, “the sunflower paintings had a special significance for Van Gogh: they communicated gratitude.”

You can feel it, can’t you? Gratitude, in the quick brushstrokes, the yellows and golds. How lovely the spirit behind these world-famous paintings — as simple and kind and timeless as giving someone flowers.

A sunflower fans the composition of Summer of 96, a vibrant, collage-like painting by Cathy, my cousin, your daughter. In the painting: a clock, a bird, a curving tendril of vine leaves… As a child, I loved to look at this painting, seeing new things all the time. Beth and I found secret faces, pointing them out like pictures in clouds.

My most vivid memory of Cathy is the day she made a treasure hunt for me and Beth. By the pale-pink roses in my neighbour’s garden, she’s watching us search for clues. Cathy’s black hair is long and wavy, catching in the Irish wind. Beth finds the clue, and the roses turn to fresh-cut grass as we run past Dad, mowing the lawn, into the house to find the treasure.

I can’t remember what the treasure was because it doesn’t matter. What matters, what I feel now, is Cathy’s goodness, her creativity. When Cathy died of cancer, aged sixteen, the world made no sense. Beth and I were ten when Mum told us at the kitchen table, where Cathy had planned her treasure hunt.

I was so young when Cathy died but the memories are strong, even now. Roses, sunflowers, children playing… so many things remind me of Cathy.

In a video interview for your gallery, Mayberry Fine Art, you said:

“The things you go through in your life, it all comes out in your painting. My art has come from the soul and from those experiences that happen along life’s highway.”

When we lost Cathy you said you were “a shell” but gradually you started painting again. Your grey-blue forests were dense with birch trees. Rivers blurred and shimmering. Gradually your paintings got bolder, clearer. Trees flecked with colourful dots. A road curving through the mountains.

“Like me, Cathy was a visual artist,” you said. “When I started painting again, after losing Cathy, I really felt that in some way I was carrying on the work she wouldn’t be able to do.”

When my dad was sick, bed-ridden at home, he asked me to put our print of Cathy’s painting, Summer of 96, on the wall beside him. On the wall in front, I hung the paintings you did of me and Beth — twin portraits, back-dropped with mountains and bright, turquoise sky.

After I’d re-hung the paintings, Dad asked me for one more thing: “Can you move the bed a wee bit, so I can see more of the window?” As you know, Dad was a nature-lover, a brilliant gardener. Every day — sometimes twice — he walked round Hillsborough Forest Park and watched the swans on the lake. From his bed, he liked to see the trees moving through the window. The blue sky darkening. Birds taking flight.

In the years since Dad died, I’ve become more attuned to nature. In the springtime, the tulip-like flowers of magnolia trees blush soft pink. In summer, passionflowers peek from walls like little lilac suns. I wasn’t that attentive to nature when Dad was alive. Sure, I took pleasure from plants and trees, urban foxes, sunsets… But nowadays, I am entranced. Everything amazes me.

At thirty-four, I’m happy just to walk, cycle, sit in parks; to feel the flowers invisibly grow and smell the fresh-cut grass. Maybe — like you said about Cathy — I’m carrying on something Dad’s no longer able to do. Spotting flowers, watching birds, I’m noticing things he would’ve noticed; enjoying the simple wonders of nature he’s no longer able to see.

Beauty in nature reminds me of Dad but I see him most in Fraser, my nephew. They never got to meet each other but you’d think they had, by Fraser’s mannerisms. From when he was a baby, Fraser raised his eyebrows just like Dad. As a toddler he tilted his head when he laughed and now, aged four, he loves to dance.

The other day I sent you a video of Fraser teaching me his Crab Dance. “Am I doing it right?” I said, hands to the side, jabbing the air. “Well,” said Fraser, “it’s more like this,” and he swayed gently, buoyed by the water.

Becoming an auntie has been one of the greatest joys of my life. In the years after Dad died Fraser buoyed me, gave me a reason to live fully. Fraser reminds me to have fun, to dance like crabs on a Monday night, and I try to show him — through how I live — to make time for what we love.

Like your granddaughter Audrey the Strawberry, Fraser loves art. Last time you visited Northern Ireland, Fraser used to bring you your sketchpad, sit on your lap and say: “Draw!”

Recently, on social media, you shared a painting of a bowl of oranges, done by Miss Strawberry. The outlines were clear, the colours bold. She’s certainly got her Grandpa’s love of drawing and painting.

Seeing Audrey’s art took me back to secondary school art class, one day, when I was painting a landscape. My teacher asked why I’d chosen a landscape and I mentioned your series Urban Mirage. In these bold, luminous paintings, nature and humans meld. Deer walk past tall buildings. The sea moves through a young woman.

“You’re always talking about this uncle of yours,” said my teacher, then she made quote marks, “My Uncle the Artist”. Her tone was mocking; the comment stirred me, but I was too young to speak my mind: You’re allowed to be inspired by people. You can make art while thinking of a person.

In my first year at Newcastle University, studying Fine Art and Art History, I painted portraits of myself and Beth. In my final year, I made drawings of other students’ studio spaces — half-finished paintings on the walls, their coffee cups, their sketchbooks. I liked making my own art but I was more interested in other people.

In the student newspaper, I reviewed exhibitions and profiled Fine Art students. For our final degree show, we turned our studios into galleries, cleaning them up and painting them white. I was assigned a big room, where five students had been working, and I asked them to leave their artwork in place, then traced around it with pencil and masking tape. When the students removed their work, I painted black rectangles where canvases had been. Circles and shapes for the bases of sculptures. Then I took some photos, painted the room white, leaving a few black shapes on the walls and floor.

My hybrid studio-gallery space featured the five students’ paint-encrusted desks and some black-and-white portraits of Fine Art students. I got some follow-up exhibitions, a profile in a national art magazine and an MA place at Goldsmiths, to study Visual Culture.

Some people liked my art but lots of people didn’t. One night, at an exhibition opening, I got talking to one of the lecturers who marked our degree show. “Oh, that was you?” he said, quite drunk. “The black rectangles.”

He said in his years assessing degree shows mine was the one that most divided people. “The room was completely split — half of them hated it, half of them loved it. Someone said, ‘The work is lazy,’ but I said, ‘No, she’s totally right. Forget the artist’s ego — art is shaped by other artists.’”

In Winnipeg, you couldn’t wait to introduce me to your friend Bruce Head, a renowned abstract painter, who had us over for lunch. Bruce answered the door in a jumper made to look like a tuxedo, big smile, as if welcoming royalty.

Bruce and his partner Judy had prepared a variety of colourful salads, which we ate round the table — talking, laughing — while abstract canvases fizzed on the walls. On the dresser beside me were hand-made business cards, glittering with collages like smashed jewels.

After lunch, the adults sat by the pool while Beth, Big Al and I swam in the sunshine. The pool was surrounded by Bruce’s stone sculptures — abstract shapes daubed with colour. Post-swimming, I joined you and Bruce in his studio, the air heady with paint and turpentine. Compared to Bruce’s abstract paintings, the huge space seemed so ordered. Stretched canvases waited, patient. Clean brushes in neat rows.

“This is amazing,” I said to you.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

In secondary school, at AS Level, I had to write a project on an artist or movement. I could’ve chosen Van Gogh and Gauguin, Impressionism, Pop Art… But I chose to write about you and Bruce, “My Friends the Artists”.

I wrote what the teacher called a “critical analysis” of Bruce’s abstracts and your series Urban Mirage, and each time I wrote ‘Head and McConville’ I found it funny: It’s just Bruce and Fat Boy.

I was never intimidated by art — I know this is a privilege. I realise now how lucky I was to know artists as a young person. Artists inspire less through teaching than by example. Through you and Bruce, I saw the reality of the artist’s life — the commitment to craft, the quiet patience, joys gained through hard work.

In an interview you said:

“Everything I paint, no matter what stage it’s at, I want to treat it as though it’s finished, and I think this is where you’re continuously adding layers of interest but you’re also adding layers of quality. I really have to be critical of what I do and make sure that I’m putting my best work out there.”

Like all artists and writers, there are times I feel I’m not good enough. But you showed me — through example — how to redirect this feeling away from myself and use it positively in my work.

From you, I learned to use self-doubt to make my writing better; to question the quality of my work but trust, always, in its value.

In a piece for The Guardian, the author Hilary Mantel said the most frequent question writers are asked is some variant on, “Do you write every day, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?” She believes the question is really about the central mystery of creativity: “What is inspiration?” “Eternal vigilance, in my opinion,” says Mantel. “Being on the watch for your material, day or night.”

The vigilance of the artist is perhaps seen most clearly in photography. Moments captured, time trapped, the split-second snap of the shutter. Victor Sloan, your art teacher at college, is one of Ireland’s best-known photographers and visual artists. In the 1980s, his photos of The Troubles were made abstract with bleach and dye. From bombed streets to political marches, these bleeding scenes are iconic. Like many great works of art, they scratch the surface of everyday life, showing that which can’t be said.

In my late teens, you introduced me and Victor, one brilliant day, when we went to Dublin. Victor had read my analysis of ‘Head and McConville’ and really encouraged my writing. “Northern Ireland has some wonderful writers,” he said, “but nowhere near enough. You should keep writing.”

Walking round Dublin with you and Victor I felt a lovely kinship. Like the best student-teacher friendships, you learned from each other, and other artists. Victor asked what artists I liked and praised aspects of my writing, and I felt completely on a par with ‘established artists’ two or three times my age. This equality was so important, this mutual respect. Because art isn’t something you learn how to do — art comes from inside you.

“Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the real raw material of your being is, something quite ineducable,” writes Fredrich Nietzsche in his essay Schopenhauer as Educator. “Certainly, there may be other means of finding oneself, of coming around to oneself … but I know of none better than to reflect upon one’s true educators and formative teachers.”

Exploring Dublin with you and Victor, I saw how observant you both were. From peeling street posters to old buildings, you pointed things out and took photos.

A few years ago, my friend and flatmate, Giulia, said that living with me for five years made her more attuned to London. Urban sunsets, birds on wires… “I’d never really noticed before,” she said, “the beauty of the city.”

At university in Newcastle, my ‘true educator’ was Richard Kidd, an acclaimed abstract painter and author of illustrated children’s books. Richard was a keen mountaineer, his paintings inspired by wild landscapes where he said he felt “most at home”.

Like you, Richard made sketches and small paintings in the landscape, translating their energy onto large canvases. In his paintings, he wanted to capture the feeling of remote places: “I make them in ways which push my control of materials to the limit because that feels like being there.”

Our creative approach was very different but Richard and I got each other. We rarely discussed our own work — we talked about other artists.

One day, over coffee, we discovered we’d both recently been to the Pompidou in Paris for retrospectives of Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg. We loved the Yves Klein Blue — calmed and cleansed by his pure-colour paintings — but the Rauschenbergs really excited us, his huge Combines of painting and sculpture. After coffee, that day, Richard said: “When you say something, it’s often the exact thing I was about to say but you always get there first.”

On degree show night, I couldn’t wait to introduce my parents to Richard. In a crowded stairwell, he talked and laughed with Mum and Dad, then got called away by another lecturer. Halfway down the stairs, Richard turned and shouted: “Thanks for sending Emma to us.”

Richard died six months later. He was fifty-six. It was the last time I saw him. Swimming in the sea, on a trip to the Philippines, he died in a river plunge pool, pulled under by strong currents. Many things remind me of Richard. I think of him in wild landscapes, in galleries and museums. Sometimes, looking at brilliant art, I wonder what Richard might’ve said, or if I would’ve got there first.

Something I believe: people don’t really die, you see them everywhere, all around.

Months from now — years from now — you’ll still feel alive to me. Perhaps I’ll be in a dense forest. Or writing quietly at my desk. Mid-sentence, you’ll remind me to add those layers of quality, to only put out my best work.

Like Dad, like Richard, like beautiful Cathy, I’ll think of you at random moments. Maybe, one day, I’ll glance my reflection in a car window and Beth’s there, too, and you’re saying, “Now take care of yourselves, girls,” as we walk towards the mall. Above the tall, glistening building the sky is turquoise blue. My fake tan is starting to fade and we’re walking away a little too fast. You watch us from the car, making sure we get in safe, then Beth and I turn and shout: “See you around, Fat Boy!”

Urban Mirage, a special exhibition and sale of early works by Peter McConville, is available to view online at Mayberry Fine Art from 19 February–5 March 2021

As part of the exhibition, a limited edition archival print of Spring was sold by The Estate of Peter McConville in support of CancerCare Manitoba Foundation, raising $90,000 in just over 24 hours. Find out more about the fundraiser and view the exhibition Urban Mirage here

Writer | Twitter: @EmmaCummins | Facebook: emma.cummins.754

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