Art is so Marmite

Someone once told me that their birthday was on 16 June. Ah, I said, you were born on Bloomsday. They looked at me, cluelessly. In explaining what I meant, I realised that I was innately proud of a man I’d never met and a book I’d yet to read: James Joyce and Ulysses.

The Penguin edition has 933 pages. I might have read 10 during a marathon reading to mark the day in Balboa Park in San Diego a few lifetimes ago.  I’m waiting to have a block of time I can devote to what has grown into a Herculean task in my mind. Unlike me, Hungary-based Irish artist Natalie Forrester has set herself the task of reading the entire book … over the next 20 years. One page at a time.

A graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Forrester now lives in the village of Sóstóhegy with her Hungarian husband and a son who is enjoying the best of both cultures. And, as she told the Irish Times last year, she’s staying put.

In January 2022, as the world slowly emerged from the horror that was Covid, she had a coffee in Budapest with Amb. Ronan Gargan, who in passing, told her about Joyce’s connection with Hungary through Ulysses. Intrigued, she ordered a second-hand copy of the Penguin classic to see what the hype was about. She spent three months thinking about the connection, reading a page here and there, fascinated by Joyce’s use of colour. In May, while enjoying the local spa with a visiting friend from her NCAD days, she first voiced her idea.

She was going to create a piece of art, one for every page in the book. Did I mention that the edition she has is 933 pages long? She figures it’ll take 20 years.

She’ll have the 27 pieces in Episode 1 finished this month. Episode 2 (17 pieces) has a November deadline. And by next Bloomsday, she’ll have the 20 pieces of Episode 3 ready to show. There are 18 episodes all told.  It’s a mammoth task.

In the 1950s, Hungarian painter Ferenc Martyn illustrated the book with 27 paintings. Forrester is aiming for 933 and there’s no doubt in my mind that she’ll do it.

I was curious about the process.

As a first step, Forrester makes a canvas plan. Her husband, László, makes the frames. They get the canvas from Italy and the wood is from sustainable forests. The pieces are designed size-wise to ensure that nothing is wasted. For example, the smallest in Episode 1 is 20x20cm while the biggest is 35x120cm. This also means that her art is very accessible – there’s a size to suit any investment budget.

A map of a series of blank canvasses of different sizes, ready to be painted. The text reads: The colours of Ulysses series by Natalie Forrester. Episode 1 Canvas plan. Three rectangles numbered 1, 2, 3 measuring 62x46cm. Three stacked rectangles numbered 4, 5, 6 measuring 25x120 cm. Three rectangles numbered 7, 8, 9 measuring 62x46cm. 12 20x20cm squares numbered 10 through 21. Three stacked rectangles numbered 22, 23, 24 measuring 25x120 cm. Three rectangles numbered 25, 26, 27 measuring 62x46cm. Text underneath - Abstract art created inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses. Original artwork per page of Penguin edition 933 pages in total.

Forrester paints in threes. She likes threes. If she gets stuck on one, she can work on another. She reads the page, underlining any references to colour, like the puce gloves and green boots that inspired Page 19.

20x20 cm oil painting - tetured - bottle green with what looks like fuscia flowers randomly added. Hangs ona beige wall. In the foreground to the left is a tall houseplant with stiff green leaves with yellow edges. Next to it is a white ceramic container of which stick 4 paint brushes. To the right are two other canvasses facing the wall.

If nothing speaks to her straight away, she’ll do some research on whatever it is Joyce is referencing. From a notebook page of random thoughts, colours, and doodles,  the piece is born.

Reading Page 24, in which Joyce mentions an ashplant, English and Italian masters, and an Irishman,  Forrester experienced a rush of recognition that took shape as an image of her dad and his walking stick. He was born in Belfast to an Italian mother who shares the same name as Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. He shares a birthday with Joyce’s son. The resulting artwork in the colours of Ireland, England, and Italy, with the repeated motif of the word Dad, is a tribute to the man who said when she wanted to go to art school: “I’ll open the door; it’s up to you to walk through it.”

A 25x120 cm canvas hangs on a beige wall. Abstract art - lots of green, red, blue, orange, squiggles that up close read Dad Dad Dad. In the foreground is a wooden coffee table on which sits a white shaped - looks like a bookend. To the right is a beige chair with a teal green cushion

In 1990s Ireland, a society that valued professions like medicine, law, and education, many fathers would have shuddered at the idea of a son or daughter wanting to attempt to make a living through their art. Forrester was, and is, blessed. She gets to do what she loves and share the product of her imagination with those it resonates with.

Ulysses is an intimidating piece of work. It’s studied by scholars the world over. She’s on page 27. Just 906 to go.

Forrester is not a Joycean scholar – she’s still getting to know the man and his thinking. She admitted to being anxious at first, in case she didn’t quite ‘get’ what each page said. But then she realised the truth of what makes Joyce’s writing so unique – it’s open to interpretation.

Joyce’s use of colour is quite vivid. He seems to have a thing for snot green. And, that day, in the spa, when she first voiced her plan to her mate Triona, Forrester remembers the water being snot green, a reflection of the floor tiles in the pool. Her job, as an artist, she says,  is to ‘turn something gross into something beautiful’, as she does with Page 3.

A 62x46cm abstract oil of diagonal wavy lines in various shades of green outlined with yellow dots and white outlines. It hangs on a dark green wall. In the foreground is a table on which sites the bust of man with spikey hair on a marble base, An open notebook on which sits a magnifying glass. In the middle are two pink candles in glass jars in front of a glass bottle. The candles are lit. Two books sit face down with their spines showing - Anatomy for the Artist Hardcover / and Architects after Architecture. To the right of the books is a clay pot with a green potted plant

An inveterate traveller and fan of the unconventional, Forrester has always been obsessed with colours. Her NCAD thesis focuses on colour psychology. She revels in how the sun reflects on water, how it hits flowers and buildings and creates an almost tangible vibrancy. Funnily enough, if there’s one word that would describe the artist herself, it’s vibrant. There’s an energy about her, a force, an aliveness that comes through in her paintings.

Prof. Rose Anne Kenny, in her book, Age Proof, points out that many people who live past 100 live by the sea. Blue is a calm colour that helps lower blood pressure. Forrester is a firm believer in the restorative power of green, a nod perhaps to the strong streak of Irishness that runs through her. I’m going through a yellow phase right now, perhaps why I was drawn to Page 12 – that, of course, and the reference to Clongowes, which is only up the road from me at home.

a 20 x20cm piece of abstract art on an olive green wall. The painting is in yellows, browns, and greens - gives the sense of light coming in a window and hitting a wooden floor

When she’s back in Ireland, Forrester goes to visit places that she’s read about in Ulysses. Last time home, it was Martello Tower in Sandycove, where the book begins. There she met Maggie who introduced her to Fitzgerald’s, a pub where each chapter of Ulysses is featured on a stained glass window.

As busy as she is with her mammoth project, exhibitions are few and far between. She plans to open a gallery space in their garden in Sóstóhegy. She’s hoping for an exhibition in Hungary later this year when she completes Episode 2. And then a big one, in Ireland, in June 2024.

Word is spreading. Forrester is amassing quite the following with her Ulysses project. She even has a few repeat buyers. ‘Art’, she says, ‘is so Marmite, so subjective; you can get addicted to a particular style.’ I hate Marmite, but I’m looking forward to finding space on my walls for my piece of Forrester’s Ulysses when it arrives. Check her out and subscribe to follow her journey.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2023

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