Interview with Derek Culley, Painter Curator, Guest Writer for Art & Museum Magazine


Interviewer: Vassiliki V. Pappa 

Derek Culley is a self taught painter, born in Ireland and now living in the U.K. He has a distinctive style and his Irish roots are visible in his works.

Vasiliki Pappas: Derek, you belong to the big art family. Tell us about your family...

Derek Culley: I have always been connected to the broader Art Family. Honestly speaking, I am reclusive (shy) with my direct art practice / studio; even though I rented a garage at the age of 16 for a studio. In the 80's, as a volunteer I curated the Windsor Community Arts Centre (WAC), Windsor UK. This allowed me interaction with amateur / emerging and professional artists. My relationship was not one as an artist but as an artist in the company / community of artists. From your local amateur housewife to Sidney Nolan / Alan Davie / John Bellany /Victor Pasmore / John Piper; with Damien Hirst exhibiting with WAC in 1987/ 1988; WAC was an independent platform for the Arts. This family expanded when Celtic Vision was formed with Denis Bowen and John Bellany, following a Celtic Festival in WAC. Celtic Vision evolved into a Celtic phenomenon bringing artist such as Francis Bacon / Albert Irvin and unknown contemporary artists from the seven Celtic regions together.

As with WAC, Celtic Vision was voluntary, artist driven by volunteers. It was hard work but fun and broadened my art family. When I relocated to the North West of England in 2004, I basically thought my curating days were behind! Then I was invited to curate an exhibition of contemporary Irish artists, named FÍS, for the CUC (Novas Contemporary Urban Centre) in Liverpool during its City of Culture celebrations in 2008.

Not unlike Celtic Vision, FÍS (Irish word for vision) was an artist driven project, and highly successful. It was repeated in 2009.

Vasiliki Pappas: What did you study and what future plans did you have when you were 20 years old?

Derek Culley: Prior to 20 years of age I passed the Irish Leaving Certificate. Although my grades qualified me for University entrance my family finances required, I get a job. I worked in a factory making slot machines for Bally. I can honestly say I had no plans. Tried night school NCAD (National College of Art&Design) for three weeks, just not for me. Based on my portfolio I was offered full time student status, but monies were not available. Met my wife Eilish when I was 20. One daughter and four sons later we are still an item. Ireland was an economic basket case in the early 70's so Eilish and I made our way to London in 1973, and in the UK is where we stayed and set up home. Irish education at the time was very strong and although I did not realize it, my basic education equipped me with many advantages for the workplace in the UK. I subsequently completed a BA Degree with the Open University (whilst working full time) and later an MA in European marketing /business management with Newland Park, a college of Brunel University. My dissertation "Marketing the Visual Arts in the UK, are there lessons to be learned from Europe" was interesting in that it allowed me to survey galleries and dealers as an academic and not as an artist.

Vasiliki Pappas: What is painting for you and when did you decide to take up painting?

Derek Culley: I "caught the bug" from my art teacher Seamus O'Colman, at the age of 15 and had my first studio at the age of 16. For me, mark making / painting was as natural as walking or running! The studio was a garage in the alley in back of my house, which I rented from the Agnes Kinsella, the mother of Thomas Kinsella, the Irish Poet. I worked at a local bar cleaning and serving drinks to pay for it. Painting is my life! My approach to painting is my approach to painting. I seek spontaneity in my work that is reflective of my moods, my emotions, and my response to all that is beyond me and within me. My use of materials over the years seems to bear a pattern. For sad heavy works I have a preference for oils whilst for the more immediate works, I use Acrylic. I believe an essential aspect of my work is composition and my adherence to a commitment to structure. This is also a feature found in my recent Digital work which I complete on an iPad. Colour plays an essential feature in my work. For me colour is as inherent a feature in my work as is composition. I rarely have a title for a work prior to execution as 90 percent of the time my work is a subconscious reaction which finds a title on completion. My reaction to a completed work is the title -the journey's end for that particular work (or the beginning of the journey!)

Vasiliki Pappas: What is the process of creating your own painting?

Derek Culley: A very pointed question. Years ago, when I first started working in the UK, I was called a doodler! Later, as my exhibitions portfolio expanded and folks started critically viewing my works, I achieved the status of 'Mark-maker'. When I first met my wife I was writing a lot of poetry. In a sense I view creating a painting as visual writing. A self-taught artist, I do not adhere to a prescribed methodology in my creative process. I respect and understand the materials I use and their limitation's. I never seek nor care for approval for a finished work.

Vasiliki Pappas: What is it that inspires you and what are your favorite subjects?

Derek Culley: I don't know! I know what pisses me off and makes me angry. I know what makes me happy, makes me smile. If the whole of your being is who you are then I find it impossible to identify that "THING" that is inspiration. I am a 'watcher' and I never tire of learning visually or audibly. I do not seek subjects i.e. still life / landscapes or portraits; for example. My work is more a record of my response to all that stimulates me.

Vasiliki Pappas: Is painting making a progress in the U.K. and who is your favorite painter?

Derek Culley: I believe it is. Ironically, in seeking art credibility Damien Hirst is now seeking recognition as a credible painter /artist. Painting is back and the sales show rooms verify this plus the list of the world's top artists show a rise in painters to the top. My favorite painter would be Alan Davie followed by John Hoyland and Jim Dine.

Vasiliki Pappas: Have you regretted anything in your life since you got involved in painting?

Derek Culley: Regret is a sad word. My art journey has been challenging but never sad.

Vasiliki Pappas: If you could turn back time, would you change some of your choices?

Derek Culley: Have a greater respect for 'TIME'. As young folks we are not thought to respect 'clichés' or wisdoms learned by others life's experiences. We are thought to seek knowledge without a true understanding of this knowledge and how to respect that knowledge / time is part of our journey; how best to travel on this journey.

Vasiliki Pappas: A Greek poet, Ntinos Christianopoulos says: "Those that have pestered us, lay heavier on our inner selves." In your case, who are these people?

Derek Culley: If by this statement, Ntinos is referring to 'those who irritate us' then for me it the genearation of art Critics and Art Dealers who write eloquently about art dross and endorse Art Bollox.

Vasiliki Pappas: Derek, what are your plans for the future?

Derek Culley: Since the advent of Covid-19 I have adopted a 3-day life bubble / window philosophy and will continue with this focus.