Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mike McHale Concert


On Sunday in East Durham, New York, I attended a tribute concert for Irish whistle and flute player Mike McHale.


At the end of the concert, Mike played his whistle and told how he got started in the music. The son of a schoolmaster in Tulsk, County Roscommon, he was given a toy whistle at age six. He rode his bicycle many miles to hear the great musicians of his day playing in sessions. But he wasn't allowed to join in, even though he had learned many of the tunes. The whistle wasn't considered a worthy instrument at the time.

After listening to a session, Mike would ride home along dark streets on rainy nights, trying to keep the tunes in his head. Sometimes an elusive melody would pop into his head in the middle of the night, and he'd go downstairs into the kitchen in the dark, take out the whistle and play the tune when the rest of the house was asleep. That's when his mother knew he would be a musician. "Now I know all musicians are mad," she said.

His big breakthrough came when he was sitting in the shadows behind the older players. One day they couldn't remember how a certain tune sounded. He reached in his pocket, pulled out the whistle, and played it out from memory. That was his ticket into the royal circle. Someone gave him a flute and he was on his way at age 11. He went on to win the All-Ireland competition on the whistle, which is now an honored instrument in the Irish tradition, and Mike one of its greatest masters.

The little portrait (about 6x8 inches) was painted in gouache (opaque watercolors), with a few touches of watercolor pencils, in a watercolor journal, using large flat watercolor brushes.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Inspiring personal story. How many have had penny whistles as kids and never realized the potential...or even a pencil, for that matter. - mp

Anonymous said...

Sorry for that mangled sentence! It's 6:30 am here and I'm off caffeine. I wish there was an editing feature to this comments section.
Not everyone is going to bother to take the simplest of objects accessible to the fullest realization of the finest glory. There are other paths. It's wonderful to hear of someone who has found something at such a young age and stuck with it, developing and honing the skill and art of it forever, to become a true master.
Beautiful portrait! - mp

Vicki Holdwick said...

Lovely painting and a really nice story, thanks,

xoxo

Nick said...

Great story and great portrait! I especially like the shadow of the glasses arm and how it echoes the fold of skin on his jaw.

DesB said...

Fine story of obsession leading to great results. Love your 'on the spot' portraits James. I have several of them printed off from your blog pinned to my notice board. They set the standard

John Fleck said...

This portrait is nothing short of luminous.
Wonderful.

Tom Hart said...

Another beautiful portrait!

How do you deal with gouache for on-site work like this? Do you squeeze out the paint from tubes onto a small pallette, or does gouache also come in cake form? (Showing my gouache ignorance here...) It seems like that medium wouldn't lend itself to the hyper compact gear you usually use for field sketching. But the results sure are great!

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody. Tom, I was sitting off to the side at a little table where the musicians set their drinks. I had enough room to spread out: pencil box, tubes of paint, a little plastic lid for a palette, paint rag, two water cups, and brushes. The light wasn't too great, though, so it was hard to see what I was doing.

Steve said...

I'm in Ireland as I read this post so it's a perfect fit. We'll be listening to musicians and storytellers tonight as several of us gather in the living room with friends on the Beara peninsula, County Cork.

Greathouse said...

Great story, especially at the beginning of a week. How do you pick which medium to sketch with? Just filt like mixing it up this time? How many colors did you use for this, I'm thinking four?

Also, I don't know if you are suppose to but I do dry out my gouache. However, I only have white and gray. I'm new to this medium.

James Gurney said...

Steve--Have fun there! We love the Beara Peninsula. We stayed in Bantry County Cork and painted the wedge tombs thereabouts.

Greathouse, I used blue, red, yellow, black and white, squeezed out on a damp paper towel on a big yogurt lid. I started this sketch in colored pencil, but wanted to experiment with gouache. I've painted quite a bit of landscapes and cityscapes in it, but not many portraits, so I'm experimenting.

Erik Bongers said...

Funny. Just by using gouache, Nathan Fowkes comes to mind when looking at this little painting.

John said...

Very delicate and wonderful work,
even in 'bad light,' ha...
gouache is very useful with on site work since it dries fast...

Daroo said...

I really like this.

To me, your gouache brushwork seems very different from your transparent watercolor and oil painting brushwork -- it appears to be more calligraphic and design-y. (in the hi-lites especially)

Anonymous said...

I think the fuzz on top of his head is the piece de resistance. - mp

Michael Oxley said...

Great portrait! I'm experimenting with gouache as well for the matte finish and the quick drying times. If you could share more about your experiences with gouache, I for one would appreciate it!

Interesting to note how most older musicians seem to 'fit' their instruments. Their faces take on a shape that accommodates their instrument, or at least has been altered by years of playing.

John and Ada said...

Thank you James for sharing your portrait and relating the story. It brings back many fond memories of the Rhinecliff hotel with Mike, Father Charlie, your son Danny and a cast of hundreds over the years. Besides the great music & stories that were told, we always enjoyed watching you sketch during the concerts.
Thanks again,
John & Ada

Anonymous said...

Wonderful picture of my brother Mike. My husband and I visited him from Ireland for the function. It was amazing. Thanks again for capturing him so well.Regards, Mary lynn