I’ve been intending to paint my grandfather for a while now, though time quickly passes and I keep missing the opportunity. But a month ago, my grandfather was in a hospital and near death. I’m glad to say that he fully recovered from a blood infection, and shortly after being discharged I called him- I had to get him into my studio immediately.
My grandfather came over from Ireland sixty years ago. He and my grandmother and their three children took the Queen Mary into New York harbour. He told me that on the voyage over, he raised money by playing the fiddle while my grandmother danced. When he got to New York, he borrowed a shovel and found a job digging cesspools. He rode his bike all over the middle of Long Island, digging countless cesspools. After a while, he learned the spackling trade. That became his day job, and his night job was as a janitor at a local telephone company.
In addition to these two jobs, my grandfather, Bill McEvoy, was one of the founders of the American branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. The CCE is an Irish arts organization which has been crucial in the preservation and advancement of Irish music, song, dance, storytelling… all things Irish. When my grandfather wasn’t working, he was arranging tours across North America by Irish national musicians and dancers. He’s received numerous awards from both Ireland and cultural institutions in the states, so many awards I can’t name them all.
Even though he is 87, he vehemently refused to be picked up and insisted on driving himself across Long Island to my studio. He arrived promptly at one in the afternoon and said “Well, what in God’s name are we going to do for this portrait, I’ve no idea what to do now.” He was smiling ear to ear, clearly thrilled to be sitting for a portrait by me, his grandson. I explained to him what a portrait sitting went like, and he kept on laughing. He just couldn’t get over the fact that he was being painted.
The entire time that I painted, Pop pop (as he likes to be called) spoke about his life. He knows that these stories will never will be heard if they are not relayed now. He told me that I had a grand uncle, Jimmy Bryan, who was a well known seanchai, or a storyteller, who wandered Ireland with a bagpipe. Jimmy told stories in taverns, where he was payed in food, drink, and a place to sleep. Pop pop talked about the IRA, poverty, working on the Irish railroad, raising a family. I never really understood how different eras produced different minds, and how oral history has been replaced by visual, until he began to recite poetry. For fifteen minutes straight he recited whimsical poems about his town, his friends. The poems were beautiful, but as he said, were obscure. I wish I had recorded these poems in his lilting voice and heavy Laois accent.
All the while as I painted, Pop pop talked. I worked feverishly for three hours, working through his breaks. I had to capture him before he left. I couldn’t lose a moment- his face tilted to the side, his mouth slightly open, his shoulders at angles with his head. And as I painted him, I found that our friendship was being mended. He would share a story, I’d return it with my own, and we would both laugh.
His hands tell as much as his face, though I didn’t get to paint them yet. In terms of length, he and I have similar hands, only his hands are twice as wide. They are ropey, muscular hands that look more like paws, a result of all of his years of heavy manual labour.
I didn’t paint a flawless man, today. I didn’t paint a perfectly proportioned man, or a saint. As can be the case in generational gaps, Pop pop is an enigma to me, an alien from another era. A well known figure in the cultural Irish circles, and a riddle to his own grandson. I decided that would paint the man in front of me. Without idealization. Sincerely. Three hours later, my most optimistic assessment of the painting is that you can see all of his years of sacrifice for his nine children, all of the struggle, all of the love he has for music and literature.