Painting 'Mother Ireland': Part 1 -- Learning To 'Be Still'

American artist Edmund Sullivan tells how Ireland came to dominate his work

By Edmund Sullivan
Special to


Life's decisions have a way of testing one's beliefs. My first test as an artist came when I left a high-paying sales career to "paint Ireland." As a result, I was blessed to not only carve out a successful career as a fine artist, but also as an observer of life's most profound wonders.

Above, Edmund Sullivan in his gallery, in Newtown, Connecticut, 2001.

The following five years after that fateful decision produced no income at all. During that time I learned carpentry, sewing, cooking and by and large, how to live quite literally as the proverbial "starving artist." And I was thrilled!

I went from driving a Cadillac convertible that I washed daily, $1,000 suits, and celebrating my week's commissions with a bottle of champagne, to no car, clothes to a minimum, and living on chicken, eggs, bread, and coffee. And painting. And painting.

I applied what I learned in the Marine Corps, how to "adapt and overcome." I learned to be still. To wait. To listen to my heart. To not try to figure my next move. I waited until three months had passed. I became an instrument, allowing providence to show its wisdom. I realized I could not approach an

Edmund Sullivan, center, with two Marine comrades, in 1961.

artist's career using traditional methods of gallery and peer-oriented exhibitions because I concluded that my audience had no historical knowledge of fine art. I had to go directly to them.

Because of the extreme loss of money, I designed a wonderful studio-easel using materials bought along sidewalk stalls along Canal Street in lower Manhattan.

It was 1973, and in that period stencils and drum machines made copies. I put an advertisement in American Artist magazine and, surprisingly, sold $1,000 worth of plans, copied and stapled, on how to make an artist's easel for a few dollars.

With that success, I realized direct-mail advertising could possibly bring my work to the Irish people through Irish newspapers. The first paper I approached was "The Irish People," with offices in upper Manhattan. Bringing an armful of paintings of Ireland there, I met an exciting, passionate woman named Maureen McKenna Armstrong.

When she saw my efforts, she exploded into a passionate description of recent dreams she had. These dreams envisioned her offices with walls covered in paintings of Ireland. Glory be to God, how things have a way of playing out! That was "B" in my journey, "A" being the initial decision to add my efforts to the present part of Irish history. I sit here now in June 2004 somewhere in the alphabet of my journey, writing my recollections of how these grass-roots "letters" played to the tune of God's hand. "Wednesday and gorgeous! 65 (degrees) this afternoon and accompanied by a sky outdoing itself in beauty all day. It is now 5:35 PM and I watch a setting sun behind the mountain.Passion ruled my work. Enthusiasm and utter faith in myself pushed my dreams forward daily. I painted and painted more. My gear was fixed to me, and I painted everything and everywhere I went. What I didn't paint, I observed and recorded with pen and note, such as this scene in the Green Mountains of Vermont:

I paint more broadly, with a faster brush. Brief-fast-seeing-sensitive-poetic-happy and fine.

"Stillness except for meandering gray giants prowling the sky. Slowly, tips highlighting the sky. Slowly, tips highlighted, belly bottoms soft edged, they glide past my view. Lovely, just lovely. The mountain is a pearly gray on the cool side of the color wheel. Much salmon pink on the horizon. Above the gray tone of the clouds, the pale sky is scattered with the debris of lesser clouds. These a golden yellow. Lovely."

I observed and mentally recorded all I saw. Each new painting would reflect my growing awareness. My landscape paintings were becoming "real and true" because nature herself was revealing her intensely intimate secrets directly to my heart. I learned a confidence of "seeing" that hadn't fully matured until that fateful decision to do art full-time. I paint more broadly, with a faster brush. Brief-fast-seeing-sensitive-poetic-happy and fine.

"Fair Hills of Ireland," an example of Edmund Sullivan's recent work.

Over the years, I have listened and mused about the ideas that people have about what artists are like. Questions are often asked in sincerity, but often the questions are uniformed. How could they know what to ask? How could I have known myself, even though I had drawn on paper continuously since childhood?

I didn't know what an artist was. I had to live it, every moment. It had to become a way. A way of being. An ownership of self and a way of seeing through vision instead of through eyes made of clay and water. For what good could come of that I have since come to know. Thomas Merton wrote, "The more we are content with our own poverty the closer we are to God, for then we accept our poverty in peace, expecting nothing from ourselves and everything from God."


As a working artist, life revealed itself to me only in so far as I lived it in truth. It found that truth in nature. Nature could be said to be outside ourselves and that truth can only be found within. I agree spiritually, though I found as an artist whose work is determined by the ability to see, to be aware of the truth of nature's wisdom, that working in concert with being made to the likeness and image of the creator, I became an instrument that played nature through my brush and heart. Practice perfects awareness. Awareness revealed extends beauty and truth, and I have come to believe that being an artist is nothing short of walking the lawns of heaven when one surrenders to awareness.

Awareness is about being still. Observing truth.

Awareness is about being still. Observing truth; as I once wrote one spring day while painting …"The trees look like they're aching to explode into spring but are held back by timing. They will have their moment. The wetness of the air brings out the pre-budding red of these trees. Some are glowing in muted yellows. And as always, all tree growth is accented by the wonderful dark of the pines. Bare branches and trunks add light sparkle to the massed brush color.

"Nature … it's lovely to see her changes, to watch and feel good. In its embracing scheme, it brings me in to play a part. The more I watch, the more I learn of life and my small important part in it. And so nature at this time in this season, I quietly say thank you.

"Today—I will do exactly everything I wish and feel!!"

On reflecting on 31 years as a work in progress, some experiences stand out as bliss got in unanticipated ways.

Edmund in the arms of his Derry City-born mother, Mary McDaid Sullivan, in 1941.

For instance, being an Irish-American in America. Often Irish-born patrons would be surprised that I was American born, and paint Irish landscapes. I once asked my Derry City-born mother, Mary McDaid Sullivan, what the best response would be to them. And she said, referring to the United States, the land of my birth: "He's all a knave or half a slave who slights his country thus." From the Rising of 98. And one would certainly ask, who would betray his own self and deny himself?

My pride, if it could be called that, would say that the 9,000 years of Irish red blood of my ancestors flowing through my American veins gives me the distinction of living the best of both worlds. At once ancient, sensual, carnal and fair, intimate with the heart and soul of the Irish land, sky, and sea, and the blessed freedom born of revolution and courage and opportunity in the USA.

I live in the best of times. And in that knowledge, I feel deeply obliged to be one with those who went before me but are me. To be refreshment to their heavenly souls and in a forgotten hint of song … hear their kindly words "Well done, Edmund, well done." WGT


Edmund Sullivan, Popular Painter of Irish Landscapes, Dies at 72

This page was produced by Joseph E. Gannon, and edited by Gerry Regan.

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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Tags: Art, Derry, Kerry, United States, Visual Arts


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