Terry Bradley: A portrait of the artist

Artist Terry Bradley
Artist Terry Bradley

Ulster artist Terry Bradley, whose art graces the walls of many top celebrities, talks to Helen McGurk about his troubled mind and why his new body of work is undoubtedly his most personal yet.

The man behind the bright, brash paintings of tattooed tough-guys and sultry sexpots, must be a cocksure-type, all patter, swagger, and chutzpah? Wrong.

One  of Bradley's new pieces, Bleue

One of Bradley's new pieces, Bleue

Even though testimonials to his work’s redoubtable allure are not hard to come by - Madonna, Bono, Bee Gee Barry Gibb, fashion designer John Rocha and pop star Ronan Keating (who was best man at his wedding) all have several Bradleys on their walls - the north Belfast-born artist, is saddled with low self-esteem.

‘‘I never used the word artist for years because I was uncomfortable with that - I just do what I do,’’ he says.

Bradley, 54, who yesterday unveiled Life Stories, a group of 15 intimate pieces, which he describes as his most personal collection to date, is no stranger to mental health struggles.

‘‘I have problems with depression and anxiety and have done for years. This is the most powerful and honest work I have every done and I am property bricking it, I am really nervous. I have put my heart and soul into it and it is powerful imagery, I think. People who have seen some bits of it - seem to feel that way about it.’’

Bradley with his wife Ashley and three children

Bradley with his wife Ashley and three children

Bradley has been building up to this collection for years, so why does he feel the time is now right to bare his soul?

‘‘I feel freer now because I am a bit older and also my work has pushed me into a corner where you have to be totally honest - there’s nowhere at all to hide.’’

As long as there has been art, music, poetry, literature, there has always been the romantic notion of the tortured genius, arty and angsty in his lonely garret.

Whilst Bradley may not exist in a lonely garret, he does believe his fragile mental health is the driving force behind his art, and is certain painting and creating provide balm for his torments.

‘‘It helps me cope with my nerves and my problems with my anxiety. It’s a coping mechanism.’’

Bradley believes his problems with mental health ‘were always there’ and have their roots in his childhood. He grew up just off the Shankill Road where his mother tried to keep him and his siblings inside and away from the Troubles outside their front door

‘‘I think by staying off the streets a lot more (than other children), I didn’t have as many social skills. I was in at the deep end in life.

‘‘I think my painting and drawing was always my comfort blanket, something I went into almost to hide in and then I think when people started to get interested in my work and wanted to buy it, I became more shy.’’

For someone whose repertoire of work is so loud and proud, it’s hard to think of him as an introvert, and he agrees others do have a false perception of him. ‘‘I think sometimes people think that you are living some fantastic life but everyone has got their issues, everybody’s got their ways of coping and I guess my art is my way of coping with life.

‘‘It’s a bit like keeping a diary and leaving it open and saying ‘have a read of that’ - it’s very frightening sometimes.

‘‘If I am into a painting or a drawing, I can work for 15 hours straight and I don’t even notice it until I stop and then when I finish I always feel very frightened and vulnerable. It’s a strange thing.’’

The artist who is married to Ashley, a former medical photographer, and has three children, works hard at trying to ‘‘stay on a level’’. He takes medication, sees a psychiatrist, walks.

‘‘If I was getting really anxious, it’s like a fear and it’s a fear of nothing. It’s the most annoying thing in the world, it’s just so irrational - it does my head in.’’

Bradley’s work is a stream of consciousness poured out onto canvas, often centring on strong and powerful women, such as the burlesque dancers of Paris, and the colourful characters from the Belfast dockland area, Sailortown, famous for their hard drinking and hard-working attitude.

‘‘I start off with something and it evolves and everything changes with how I feel.’’

But Bradley, who doesn’t even have an O’Level in art and admits he doesn’t know if he is ‘right or wrong, technique-wise,’ has had his fair share of criticism over the years, with many claiming his work is nothing more than interior decoration art, the type beloved by the nouveau riche and celebs with more money than taste.

Does the criticism hurt?

‘‘No . I was more bothered at the start. Because I have no background in art education I always just did what I felt - it’s not real art. I thought, I’m just doing my own thing. But then people started to ask me if they could buy things. I wasn’t a part of any gallery, it just evolved.’’

Bradley, who now does own a gallery on Bangor’s High Street, with pieces selling from three figures to six, adds:‘‘About two-thirds of people who come to my place haven’t bought any art before and a lot of it is because they feel allowed, they don’t feel intimated - it’s a big part of why I wanted the gallery to be open and big and have prices on things.’’

Indeed, held during Mental Health Week, he used the launch event to support local mental health charities and encourage their members to come along...all this, whilst trying to avoid the limelight.

‘‘Everywhere I go there seems to be somebody who knows what I do for a living and that builds up my anxiety - I am not comfortable with compliments, I find it hard to handle - I always deflect it.’’