Chris Yowell died in May 2019. His work featured in the I am of Ireland collection from the very first moment the online gallery was created in 2011 and became highly sought after.
My first meeting with Chris was by chance, although it was destined to happen sooner or later. He lived with his family several houses along the road from ours. At a community event we chatted. He invited me to his home for a cup of tea. Upon entering his house the first thing I noticed was a beautiful painting; a light house set against a band of blue. “That looks expensive,” I said. (This now seems obtuse). “It is,” Chris replied before adding, “You and I are going to work together.” At the time I had two young children. Another on the way. Very little money. I thought to myself, lovely idea but I doubt it. Later, I discovered the painting was by Chris’ father, John Sheehan who had been at the forefront of the American Abstract Expressionist movement and shared a studio with Jackson Pollock.
Chris was right, I did end up working with him, exhibiting his work for the first time at the Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore in 2011. We set up an easel in the foyer with a painting by Chris of a pink house, pulled back to its essential parts; a roof, a window, door and pink wall. It was Easter weekend, 2011 and within 48 hours it had sold. Chris and I worked together between 2011-2019 during which time his abstractions of houses and Irish vernacular farm buildings became increasingly popular. It was also during this time I learnt something of his father John Sheehan.
John Sheehan (29th July – 3rd June 1996) was born on the Upper East Side, New York. At 12 years old he enrolled in the The Mechanics Institute, since at 5″ 10 he was tall enough to lie about his age. Later, in life his family remember John saying, ‘If someone small enters the room sit down.’
Whilst at The Mechanics Institute Sheehan studied drawing, both technical and life drawing. He graduated at 16, becoming the youngest graduate in the school’s history. His mother had plans for him to become an investment banker, following in the footsteps of his Uncle William. John had other ideas. He left the security of his family to pursue his passion for art.
What followed was the Great Depression (August 1929 – March 1933), a time when it was next to impossible to find work as an Artist. In 1933 Sheehan met Franz Kline, who was to become a lifelong friend defined by mutual respect and a shared love of art. The pair almost immediately began collaborating on murals for night clubs (the Jungle Room) in Greenwich Village. They also drew caricatures near the West 4th Street subway entrance on Bleeker Street. At the time they were the only two painters who didn’t go on the WPA, the Work Project Administration which employed jobseekers in public work projects; Kline received a small stipend from his family and John was too stubborn to sign something that said ‘I couldn’t earn a living as an Artist.’
Sheehan’s studio was on 27 West 8th St (Manhattan), above a Chinese Restaurant. It was his studio for over 50 years. John designed and built the furniture for his apartment during the 1940’s. In 1952 Look Magazine nominated his studio as ‘The Apartment of the Year.’ Sheehan’s dining room chairs were exhibited at M.O.M.A in 1952. Subsequently Andy Kaufman, an American comedian commissioned them for one of America’s most celebrated buildings, Fallingwater House designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1982 John Sheehan, moved with Chris and his wife Teresa to Ireland. Chris began to work with John on paintings and work from this period are unmistakably a source of inspiration for Chris’ later work.
I find John Sheehan’s paintings exceptionally beautiful. Incredibly poised, a silent grace, and balance of subject; a perfect circle of yellow sun floating amidst the angular lines of trees. Subject is stripped back to its essential parts, an essential beauty or a stark truth. There are clear overlaps with his furniture design. It is indeed a visual link to the man himself and it makes me smile when the family repeat another of John’s sayings, ‘You can do anything you want. But don’t upset my equilibrium.’