At the opening of QSS Gallery’s second instalment of their new exhibition Future Forward  on Bloomfield Avenue in East Belfast (above Wise Byes), I was chatting to some of the art-lovers in attendance who were saying that the way the area is changing it would have been wise to buy a house there twenty years ago.

And how the studio group and gallery benefits from being able to fit in the space above the shop. It took me back 23 years to when I was co-ordinating a cross-community women’s programme based in Portview Trade Centre. The same former mill now houses the Banana Block, a hipster destination, and an interesting collection of eclectic shops and eateries and a monthly market.  

The first day I arrived, one woman from West Belfast did not turn up. So I phoned her up to see what had happened only to find that she had got on a second bus to get there and saw a mural she did not like at the bus stop she was to get off at so decided to go home.

She did actually come the next day and proceeded on the programme. On Saturday  I happened to be in Wise Byes when I met another participant from West Belfast in the shop with some friends from her home turf. I considered that the programme must be working if she felt happy enough to shop there.

Much has changed, thankfully, since that time on both sides of the city. Hey, we even have the Glider to move between the two parts. However, fewer people use it to cross the city than might be thought.  But it put me in mind of the time some of the women went to see David Ervine talk about a website they we setting up and came back starstruck, complimenting his moustache and with a cheque for £100 for their project to boot. 

One of the artists I met was Dr Josephine McCormick from West Belfast, who will be exhibiting in St Mary’s University College during this year's Féile which will be back for the first time since 2019 in the sprawling corridors and rooms.

Last year it was disappointing to have all that creativity reduced to an online series of exhibitions that actually never happened. So it’s great to see it back. There is an eclectic group of artists showing, including Mico, a graduate of the University of Arts London. 'Walk a Mile in My Shoes' explores visually the journey of growing up in a post-war, pro-peace society as a young adult. An age group that we do not hear and see enough of in our media landscape.

Speaking of landscapes, nice to see the Féile is giving the opportunity of a Landscape and Portrait Artist of the Year. It's a pity the deadline was so tight, but if you missed it you can go and cheer on the landscape element on July 31 on Divis/Black Mountain. if it’s not too windy, bring along your paints and have a go yourself.

Three exhibitions at An Chultúrlann give strength to its destination status for visual arts. Karen Reihill's book on Daniel O’Neill (which I’m currently reading)  spotlights an overlooked artist. In aasking why he is overlooked, and not knowing the depth of his work, my original thought was his work was very seventies and not evocative of more depth.

HOMECOMING: MInister Jack Chambers with author and champion of Dan O'Neill at the opening of the Cultúrlann exhibition

HOMECOMING: MInister Jack Chambers with author and champion of Dan O'Neill at the opening of the Cultúrlann exhibition

However, on seeing the wider selection of his work in the current exhibition it is clear that his style changed and flattened somewhat as time went on. Maybe it was the paints? Maybe his state of mind? Maybe both, but as there are many overlooked artists it’s nice that someone has taken time to develop the exhibition and book to help us look again at his work. (One note: in the book the image of the King Billy mural is not in East Belfast, as printed, but in Sandy Row.)

Much has been written about the male gaze and its influence on visual art and media, less so on the gay man’s gaze. Upstairs in the Cultúrlann, Patrick Hickey’s painting exhibition visits this subject area. The male figures in the landscape echo Gerard Dillion’s male nude in landscape or seascape. Hickey is currently completing a PhD at the University of Ulster and the subtle or not so subtle change in the gaze of the paintings is noteworthy and obvious.

Farad O'Neill’s works are squeezed into the café area of the Cultúrlann where the lighting and juxtaposition do not do justice to the the mystical nature of the subject tackled. The complexity of combining warrior and religious iconography can be lost if due consideration and concentration is not given. Farad is enjoying being back in Belfast and like many returners to the city the list is long of changes he has observed. Sometimes we focus on what still has to change, so a conversation with him on all the obvious plus sides reminded me of all the hard-won changes already implemented. It would be nice to see an exhibition of his bas relief sculptures.

BOO: Big Foot

BOO: Big Foot

Hillsborough Forest has sculptures with an augmented reality app that gives more in the digital space about the sculpture (and a few shopping discounts). Not all the ten sculptures are installed yet and many adults are not happy with the art, but when you visit, you can see that children just love the sculptures. They run to interact with them: playing in a giant fox or powering up a giant lamp by hand dancing around the cathedral-like beams of the wooden ‘Cybernest’. You can literally hear and see the children's excitement. ( I must declare my personal connection as the Cybernest sculpture was made by my sister Ngaire Jackson.)

So far it’s interesting to see that the media focus has been on Big Foot, based on Cerunnos, in Celtic mythology the Lord of the Forest. He emerges from the forest, for some people, as if like a physical manifestation of evil, turning from green to purple with the light.  

Lobbying against it has started and people have gathered to cover him and pray around him. Local people are complaining that there are too many people coming to see the sculpture trail, which is ironic considering it’s being developed as a tourist attraction. The trail is a step up from what you can see locally in term of a sculpture trail, some of the fabrication is more industrial-functional than art.

The fantasy magic garden blue blob may only come to life when the artificial reality part of it is ready. Perhaps it will override the beauty of the trees surrounding it or distract us further until we get to a point where we no longer see anything in real life and are stuck in the metaverse forever. I hope not.

The Harry Ferguson sculpture is being moved to the foot of the lake close to where he first landed his plane in 1909. No doubt the story will evolve over the coming months.

ART COLLEGE-BOUND: Ross McHale at the RUA Building

ART COLLEGE-BOUND: Ross McHale at the RUA Building

Lastly, at the Ulster Museum the Royal Ulster Academy hosted the children’s Texaco art competition. The standard was very good, probably helped by all that lockdown and lack of distraction. Some of Ireland's children made an intensive effort to develop their art skills. Families journeyed to Belfast from all over Ireland to see the exhibition and I had a chat with Ross McHale, who used the opportunity of his grandmother's wake to capture the mood and the stance of his dad and uncles.

Ross tells me he has art college in his sight and is focusing on developing his portfolio to apply. Another artistic journey ready to go to the next stage. The exhibition moves to Omagh next and is worth the journey if you have a budding child star in the family.

Thursday is Late Night Art and if you're free in the city come find a gallery then ask where the next one is to join the experience.

Footnote: The Fenderesky Gallery at 31 North Street open a new exhibition on Saturday July 9 with two Jacks: Jack Packenham and Jack Crabtree. Join in the fun from 3pm to 5pm.