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Sunday 11 December 2016

A maverick artist who inspired young people to think differently

John Duffy
John Duffy
John Duffy
John Duffy and his wife Karyn
John Duffy artworked entitled Break Down

This series has been about historical figures, from Peadar Kearney to Handel, who became synonymous with Dublin's culture.

But culture isn't just about the past. Dublin keeps renewing itself, with new writers, artists and musicians reimagining it in new suburbs necklacing the city.

This week I'm writing about a contemporary Dubliner, important not just for his art, but for his influence in the working class districts where he inspired teenagers to see their world differently.

Every suburb needs its heroes. Ballymun had one in John Duffy an artist of great integrity with an enormous capacity for friendship, who died, aged just 41, last December.

Last Christmas, Ballymun mourned him. Tomorrow night, Ballymun will celebrate his achievements.

John Duffy loved his family above everything. After them, he loved his paintings which were gaining an international reputation. He loved youth work, he loved sport and loved his friends.

studio

Their love was returned tenfold in his darkest hour. When John and his wife, Karyn, lost their infant son, Sean, his Ballymun friends recognised his depth of grief and that art would become its conduit.

John Duffy
John Duffy

They gathered around, and, brick by brick, built a small artist's studio in his Ballymun garden.

Here this man, who found time for everyone else, found time for himself.

From his wellspring of pain he created superb paintings, described by Ray Yeates - Dublin City Council's Arts Officer - as "distinctively colourful, like an optimistic riot inspired by raw feelings of loss.

"He had an obsession with painting magpies and they exploded in black and white in the midst of his primary palette: one for sorrow and two for joy."

But long before Duffy began painting he stood out in Ballymun for the passion he brought to his other interests.

He loved the outdoors, he loved astronomy and even in the year when he lost his son he won a footballer of the season award, finding solace by losing himself on the soccer pitch each week.

He stood out as an intensely dedicated youth worker, working in Ballymun, Bonnybrook, Donaghmede and Stoneybatter.

He was a maverick, teaching kids soccer skills but introducing them also to the possibilities of art.

Duffy was non-judgmental with troubled children, attending court as a character witness if he felt that someone needed to mention the inherent goodness that could be nurtured in a child.

One kid he worked with went on to play professional soccer. Others found self-expression in music or solace in the fact that this adult treated them with respect.

Others went in darker ways, as happens in life.

From childhood, Duffy's friends recognised his ability with art. But without the loss of his son, the wider world might never have seen his work.

When the Axis Art Centre opened in Ballymun 14 years ago, it was not bringing the arts to the area - it was harnessing the arts already there.

Local artists - like Duffy and Patrick Kavanagh - and local musicians, poets and actresses, all blossomed in the building off the Ballymun Road, where Duffy taught art to local youths.

Axis director Mark O'Brien worked with him on numerous projects and recalls how "through it all his sense of humanity, artistry and love for his work shone through."

One of Duffy's Axis exhibitions coincided with Liverpool's miraculous 2005 Champions League victory. Throughout the speeches, Duffy - an avid Liverpool fan - had to be updated on the score from Istanbul.

But his real love was for his wife and their three surviving children, Daniel, Erin and Jack. Just past his 40th birthday, John Duffy faced his final battle - against leukaemia. The artist and avant-garde rock composer Stano was among Duffy's closest friends and artistic collaborators.

Visiting him in hospital, Stano saw the bed festooned with poems written during John's final illness. Duffy expressed regret that he had never recorded an album of poems.

Stano recorded Duffy reading his poems before he passed away. The artist's funeral was crammed with people who respected him in many guises but few of whom knew the totality of his accomplishments.

When you possess a capacity for friendship, your friends want to give something back. Under Stano's nurturing, his admirers have spent the past year doing that. Tomorrow at 7pm a remarkable launch occurs in Axis, Ballymun, with the public invited to four unveilings.

Firstly, an exhibition of Duffy's paintings will be launched, chosen by Stano and artist Brian Maguire, running until the end of January.

Secondly, a unique triptych will be unveiled, a once-off collaboration by three artists who knew and respected Duffy - Robert Ballagh, Brian Maguire and Donald Teskey. Next year this rare art piece will be sold in aid of John's family.

Thirdly an album of Duffy's poems, entitled 'Wet with Starlight Rain' (which is also available on iTunes) will be launched.

Read by Duffy, in that recording before he died, his poems are overlaid with music composed by Stano and played by musicians like Damien Dempsey and Duffy's own brothers.

Finally Axis will launch a bursary for local youth artists in the artist's name - reflecting the important work he did with youth of Ballymun.

Nothing can replace the loss of this great Dubliner to his family, but the range of people set to gather in Axis tomorrow is a measure of the respect in which he was held - summed up by Ray Yeates in four words: "we all loved him."

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