“As they say, you’re an over-night success, twenty two years in the making; twenty two years tramping the road, keeping ideas.”
Jim McKee a self-trained artist, originally from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, moved to Galway in 2001 before settling in the near idyllic landscape of the Burren. A unique landscape which has greatly informed his artwork, “raw, simple, honest and bright, I like colour, there is just great light here in the Burren.” Jim captures this exquisite, uneasy light with the expert hand and eye of a truly great artist.
Jim’s talents though extend far beyond the pallet-knife, he is also a talented singer, songwriter and musician.
As a member of the newly formed band ‘Island Eddie’, who’s first self-titled album hit the shelves in early December and Jim’s solo album, ‘Just a piece of…’ coming out, Jim is on a roll, “The solo album I have been keeping close to my chest since I was nineteen and I’m thirty-seven now, I’ve another two albums written, but this album is precious to me”.
As Jim freely admits it has been a long road to his present situation, “I was born in Magherafelt, made in 1969 came out in 1970,” he jokes.
At the age of seven Jim took up boxing and went on to win two all Ireland Championships and boxed for Ireland six times before retiring at twenty-one, “I only boxed in the beginning because I got beat up a lot when I was younger, it was to toughen up, I’m very determined. I stuck at it, when I first went boxing I used to turn my head and cry, sparing and stuff, yet I finished up the last person there and I won two all Ireland’s.”
It is Jim’s determined streak that shines through when you meet him, leaving you with no doubt that he will succeed at anything he puts his mind to.
All through Jim’s boxing career, music and art were never far away, “my parents got me a guitar at the age of ten and I wrote my first song on two strings”. Jim also achieved a GCSE grade one due to his art teacher, “Master Long, he was a great teacher,” Jim adds in. “To be honest I stopped art when I was fifteen, I left school, I was offered a full time position as a milkman when I was fifteen and I took it. At that time I was training, and the following year I won the all Ireland. My art teacher came onto the float and asked me did I want to finish my last year, I didn’t go back but the work that I done in 4th year got me my GCSE.”
Jim continued with his music and travelling, but it wasn’t until 1999 that he started to paint again, “I was doing a gig in the Armagh Theatre and there was a big painting of JB Valley’s on the wall, whatever it did to me, it just hit me, bang in the stomach, the painting was so powerful and that was when I started.”
Shortly after that experience Jim moved to Galway where the famous Jazz and Blues singer Mary Coughlin bought the first two of his paintings, “all by accident, I never said I wanted to be a painter.”
Jim’s talent was quickly spotted, holding his first exhibition in 2004 Jim explains, “Deborah Evers sold my first paintings in her wee shop in Kinvara called Postscript, one day she asked me would I do a group show, in the Merriman hotel in Kinvara, sixteen pieces and I kept asking her, are you sure you want me to be in this show? And I sold them all, it just went on from there.”
As with all artistic careers it wasn’t plain sailing, Jim continued with his day job as a carpenter, “I let the art take over before I gave up the full time job, it did, I got a couple of good shows, I had a show in Galway and they all sold, but some of my early paintings were done by candle light in a caravan, it was raw enough”.
Jim now balances an active art and music career with the determined discipline he has brought to his life so far. Alongside bringing up his young son Dualta who is obviously the apple of his eye and has inherited his father’s talents, “being very rhythmic and creative.”
As from father to son and back to grandfather, Jim’s father, who is a butcher, but also carries the creative gene, being a painter as well, is one of his biggest influences, “I’ve learnt how to live in the wee spaces, JB Valley has been one of my biggest inspirations, my father and JB Valley, I also love Toulouse, there was a thing he said in his autobiography, ‘good upbringing comes from the heart’, I thought there was a lovely sweetness to that.”
As we finish our conversation I wonder if Jim will allow one of the disciplines ever to overtake the other, shaking his head, “I can’t live without both, the art grounds the music, the art and me work hand in hand, and I just like creating. I’m always storing ideas”.
So what does the future hold for Jim McKee? Not only interested in developing his career Jim is also interested in giving back, “I’ve did five pieces this year that have went to charity and there is over €30,000 raised from three paintings so far. That’s the kind of reward that I get from my art, that’s what does it for me.”
At the moment Jim is busy with his new album release and preparing for his new exhibition entitled ‘Rough Diamonds’, “it’s a joint show with Ronnie Graham, which will be in France for the complete month of March, then on the 4th of April the show is going to the Kenny Gallery in Galway”.
But for Jim, his son and home is where his heart is, “I’ve been running away from situations all my life, travelling and running, I have to say now as I’m getting a bit older, I want the comforts, my biggest ambition in life is to do a good job with my son, be a good Da, get a home and a few vegetables, that’s my lot you know.”
Artistic Journey published NI Homes & Lifestyle
Words & images by Tina O Rourke