This interview and profile was conducted well over ten years ago when Irish artist Terry Bradley was just starting to make his mark on the art world.
On first impressions, you know Terry Bradley is something special. He radiates a quality so sadly lacking in many other people, that of pure sincerity. From the moment he smiled as he walked in through the door, until the end of the interview, he captivates, entertains, informs and delights. He shocks me with his openness and honesty. He is an artist, but without the pretentiousness which fills so many people who share his field.
The ex-male model still retains the chiselled good looks which launched his modelling career. Although he’s moved on as the urge to paint grew to strong to resist, he would not look out of place on the catwalk in Paris, or as a cover model for a fashion magazine. His hair, more grey than any other colour, is in that sharp, ‘messed-but-under-control’ style, the height of fashion. Terry Bradley has the look of a rock star more than an artist, tight black clothes and silver rings – but he looks good, even if he does claim to be suffering from a hangover – the price of catching up with friends after jetting back from a few weeks in Miami, where he got married.
He ‘took the plunge’, as he puts it, and married Ashley, the mother of his 8-month old baby, Zach. Ashley was his childhood sweetheart and they hadn’t seen each other for years, until they bumped into each other a few years ago. The rest, as they say, is history, much of it in the making. The wedding was held in secret, and Bradley admits he was lucky to make it through the ceremony without falling apart, especially when the minister asked him ‘…to give his soul’. He is an incredibly emotional man and you can see how madly in love he is. He smirks with a childish grin each time he mentions Ashley’s name and he is constantly praising her. “She understands me,” he comments. “There are times when I can’t face the world and need to hide. So I go to the bedroom and hide under the duvet, but she understands.” He starts to laugh, “It’s not really as bad as its sounds.”
The best man at his wedding – Ronan Keating, his best friend. The two men struck up a friendship after Ronan’s 21st Birthday bash in the Temple Bar District of Dublin. They had met a few years previously, when Bradley had shown a young and nervous Ronan Keating how to walk on the catwalk and helped him overcome his stagefright. Ronan never forgot, and always appreciated the time Bradley had taken. In a world which would rather belittle and destroy talent rather than nurture it, Ronan and Bradley had each found a person who believed that young artists should be given all the help and encouragement they needed, not left to flounder. “How many great poets, writers and artists have been left undiscovered because our society refuses to help them or take them seriously,” he asks, a question coming as much from personal experience as observations. “And what’s this rubbish that you have to suffer for your art, who made that up? If you have to get a job to support yourself, get a job. I try to help where and when I can.”
When talking about Ronan he is quick to recount stories of the many charities he is connected with. He painfully recalls how if the doctors had caught Ronan’s mother’s cancer only a few weeks before they did, they would have been able to save her life, a fact that Ronan is finding hard to come to terms with. He now supports a number of mobile cancer units which go into rural areas to the people who might have trouble getting to doctors. This is Bradley, focusing on everyone’s good points, keen to promote those who deserve it, reluctant to promote himself.
He orders a coffee and mineral water, no ‘hair of the dog’, as you might expect. He starts to talk as if he’s known me all his life, no nerves, no pretence, no pauses or awkward silences. The conversation flowed as he wanted me to know as much as possible. A refreshing honesty filled the conversation.
Terry Bradley’s art has been snapped up faster than even he could have imagined, his work is now selling before he can complete it. At his first gallery showing, every painting he had displayed sold within half an hour, but he admits he gets greater satisfaction from a stranger praising his work, someone who is under no obligation to like it. That’s what lets him know he is a success and making an impact. The mobile phone giants Nokia have rubberstamped his unquestionable talent by commissioning a limited edition ‘Bradley Phone’ with a painting on the back and his autograph on the front. It’s as stylish as the man himself. You would expect nothing less. Madison’s Hotel on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue, one of the most modern hotels in the country, were amongst the first to take the opportunity to display Bradley’s work, 11 huge paintings adorn the walls within the hotel. The recently refurbished McHugh’s Bar also displays Bradley’s work on the walls of the Jazz area in the bar.
Bradley made it the hard way, he didn’t come from a privileged or artistic background. Born in 1965, he lived on the Shankill Road area of Belfast, playing games with his brother such as ‘guess the weight if the bomb’ (seriously). His parents named him after Terrence O’Neill, the controversial Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1963-1969), and he admits that, although he’s proud that this is how they chose his name, growing up on the Shankill road with a name like Terrence wasn’t the easiest thing he’s had to do. When he was 10, he remembers moving with his family to Carryduff, on the outskirts of Belfast, where he was amazed at the number of green fields. There’s no one point in his life where he remembers beginning to paint, just as he doesn’t remember the first time he walked, it’s just something he’s always done. His father still carries a picture he drew when he was 11 in his wallet, a testament to his talent, even at such an early age.
He was never encouraged at school, and he talks of his art classes and teachers with contempt. “They hated me, I was always questioning their methods,” he says as he tells the story of the countless times they were asked to draw a fish or fruit or something else equally as lifeless. “I would protest,” he continues. “The teacher would insist and I would simply say…I can paint it all day long, but it will still always be a fish.” What annoyed him was there was no flexibility for expression, passion and thought. It was all so clinical. He passed through Newtownbreda High School with very few fond memories, the ones he spoke of were of his classmates never understanding him and making fun of his work. But this never discouraged him, in fact it spurred him on.
It’s probably just as well that he became an artist, “I got fired from just about every other job I’ve ever had,” he laughs, recalling a time when he was employed to repair the felt on roofs. He was working in America at an extremely wealthy business mans house when he was asked to repair the felt on the stables where champion race horses where housed. Bradley lifted the nail gun, the larger one which he remembers “looked more like a machine gun than anything else”, and proceeded to the stables. He had lifted the wrong gun. “I went round to the stables where I began to repair the felt. What I didn’t know was that the safety mechanism kicked off as soon as the nozzle on the gun touched something solid. I had my finger on the trigger when it touched the wall, and the entire gun emptied of nails in a split second – every one of them flying straight through the wall. All I heard were the horses neighing loudly, I dropped the gun and ran,” he laughs, knowing now that the horses hadn’t been hurt – the nails missed them by the narrowest of margins. “I lost that job, the horses were worth millions.” Bradley is convinced that he attracts trouble, that’s why he likes to hide from the world occasionally.
His artwork is his way of escaping the pressures of ‘real’ life. “I don’t smoke, never have, not even the funny stuff,” he volunteers. “I don’t do drugs either, I’m happy with a pint. If I’m out with my friends I want to be able to talk to them, not drift off into another reality which is what happens. I’ve seen too many lives ruined by addiction, just to have a rush. What’s the point?”
Bradley’s work is a true expression of his deepest feelings. The more stress, anger or frustration he feels, the more blues he tends to use. The blood reds and warm colours are an indicator that he is content and happy within himself and his self-confessed best work is when it just flows, “There’s no thought, it just happens. If I’m stressed, or have a tight deadline to meet, I can’t work. I can’t even make the strokes smooth. Those ones are never my best work,” he adds. Bradley doesn’t have a routine for his painting either, “I can’t work nine-to-five, that’s just not me”, he explains. “I can’t force it, it will happen when it happens, and I just have to go along with that.
He started his career by selling ‘one-off’ pairs of hand-painted jeans and sketches to friends in the fashion business, after which he was approached to paint a commission for ‘Reynard’s Jazz and Piano Bar’ in Dublin. From there Bradley’s path to artistic recognition has been through sell-out shows both in Belfast and Dublin. His striking interpretations of characters in bars, cafes and clubs are in great demand, as you would expect, and his visions of Ireland’s eclectic style hang proudly on the walls of some of the most tastefully wealthy members of society such as Ronan Keating, Brian Kennedy, Barry Gibb (Bee Gees) and top Irish fashion designer John Rocha.
The inspiration for his work are mostly faces, women’s in particular. “I never paint a man on his own, if he has to be in the painting, he’s always with a woman. Women are far more interesting. They have a strength which is missing from men. I’ve used models that I know to base my paintings on, but I never tell the models that, they’re bigheaded enough. I can make them hard, and cold, but stylish and sophisticated at the same time. You can do that with women, you can’t with men.” As for artistic influences, “I know nothing about art,” he confesses. “All I know, is what I do. I remember being at my first big ‘star’ thing, and I was terrified incase someone asked me about this artist or that artist, I wouldn’t have had a clue, still wouldn’t. I got advice once from an artist on the best way to care for my brushes,” he comments, as he demonstrates with his hands how he was told to do it. “She told me to wash them with this, wrap them in that, and place them in a certain place for a certain amount of time. Stuff that, when they go all ‘fluffy’, I just throw them in the fire, I don’t have the time to be doing all that,” he laughs. This is Bradley – anything but conventional, he does things his way, and it works.
Despite his fame, Bradley is still slightly insecure when in the company of fellow celebrities.. “When I go out for a meal, I need to have at least twice the price of the meal in my pocket, just incase,” he admits. “I remember my first ‘showbiz’ meal, I had £20 in my pocket and spent the entire night panicking about it, that’s were Ashley comes in. She could walk into a restaurant with £1 in her pocket and come to some sort of arrangement about paying for the meal the next day, I could never do that. Ronan’s wife Yvonne is exactly the same, they are both incredibly strong, confident and in control. Myself and Ronan are the same in that we are always worrying about something. Added to that, I’m getting ready for my first ‘official’ American show. It’s madness!”
Bradley has sold over 300 paintings world-wide and he admits that he’s booked solid for the rest of the year. “I’m doing a lot of work for Ronan, to help him launch his solo career. He helps me out with music, and I help him out with visual material, we work well together.”
Galleries are falling over themselves to display his work, and it’s clear to see why. The passion, which he relies so heavily on, is there in everything he does. It’s impossible to look at any one of his paintings without feeling the emotions which were involved, the mark of a truly great artist. He has the ability to create not only incredibly effective visual images which captivate and launch you straight into the heart of the painting, but also generate a myriad of sensations which are imprinted on your mind.
Bradley’s success is snowballing and it won’t be long before he is a ‘household’ name, synonymous with style, both throughout Ireland and America. He has been pursuing his dream from an early age and his distinctive line drawings and atmospheric paintings capture the mood of many of Belfast and Dublin’s most memorable nightclubs and bars. It is a success he deserves and has worked hard for. Anyone who begrudges him his fame and notoriety has never met the man himself, or even taken the time to lose themselves in one of his paintings. They may be his refuge while he’s painting them, but they are also ours for as long as we remember that it is an honour to share something so personal from one of the art world’s truly genuine and unique characters. Each painting is a piece of Bradley’s soul.