Roamer: Maritime artist Jim McDonald

Wednesday’s page paid tribute to SS Nomadic’s campaigner Roy Snowden, a tireless champion of Belfast’s maritime heritage who died last Friday and was buried yesterday in Portadown.

Wednesday’s page paid tribute to SS Nomadic’s campaigner Roy Snowden, a tireless champion of Belfast’s maritime heritage who died last Friday and was buried yesterday in Portadown.

An art exhibition opens today in Bangor’s Carnegie Library which vividly portrays Nomadic’s place of birth - the River Lagan where she’s now dry-docked in all her splendour thanks to Roy and his colleagues who brought her home.

The Bangor exhibition is particularly evocative because the paintings are by maritime artist Jim McDonald who worked in the shipyard and was brought up in a three-generation shipyard family who all lived in the shadows of Harland and Wolff’s towering hulls and soaring gantries.

The Lagan flows proudly across many of Jim’s frames, a river that’s bounded with memory banks populated by men he knew from childhood, at home, at work and at play.

The workers and their ships are lovingly recalled, like old friends, in his remarkable abundance of oils, acrylics and mixed-media scenes.

Jim recounted his first day in the yard, a stark rendezvous with history that’s been similarly cherished by hundreds of thousands of Lagan folk.

“I remember watching my grandfather sweeping bits of coal and metal from the floor around the furnaces in the engine works,” the artist reminisced.

“I went to work smoothing piston rings and rough edged pipes with a file and emery paper. It was very repetitive.”

Back in 2012 Jim painted 100 canvases to mark the centenary of the sinking of Titanic, an epic compilation that caught the imagination of the world’s media.

His pensive recollections are as colourful as his canvases!

In 1954 he joined Harland and Wolff as a 15-year-old apprentice fitter.

Like his father and grandfather before him, he lived in the close-knit East Belfast shipyard community.

Local children played hop scotch and marbles on Moore Street outside the McDonald’s “two-up two-down house with an outside toilet,” he reflected.

Herds of cattle on their way to the market sometimes stampeded through the children’s youthful tranquillity.

“I remember a man trying to catch one of the cattle,” smiled Jim, “holding tightly onto its two horns like the handlebars of a bike. More like the wild west than East Belfast!”

Teenager Jim was inadvertently storing away memories of the local yardmen, which in years to come he would transfer onto canvasses that exquisitely capture the rough with the smooth. He recalled “a 50-year-old neighbour, sleeves rolled up, fighting with his two sons on the street - and winning!”

And there was a lady on the street who displayed home-made lollipops in her window.

“They were yellow and sticky, a penny each, and we loved them,” said Jim.

One morning 15-year-old Jim joined his father and grandfather, and the fighting neighbour and his two vanquished sons, and the cattle wrestler, and they walked together to Queen’s Island.

His first foreman was nicknamed Molotov “because of his bushy, Russian-style moustache,” explained Jim.

Jack had arthritic feet “and hobbled as he pushed his four-wheeled wooden bogey” gathering off-cuts from the lathes.

“Young boys usually pushed the bogeys,” smiled Jim.

“We called them the bogey boys. Jack was a lot older than them, so we called him the bogey man!”

Jim studied mechanical engineering at night school and in 1959 passed his exams for the drawing office.

“One of the draughtsmen, a big Scotsman, was an amateur painter, and I suppose,” mused Jim, “that he was my first influence towards art.”

Jim also loved the acclaimed local artist William Connor’s work “particularly his paintings of shipyard men – the characters, all working-class people, riveters and labourers. Those made a great impression on me.”

Jim started painting them too, the men he knew so well, and just over a dozen years ago the Titanic steamed into a frame.

He has never looked back, yet he’s always looking back!

“I love painting the people I knew in the yard,” he emphasised.

His frames have sold out at an exhibition in Toronto, and his paintings hang in the USA, France, Australia, Dubai, the UK and across Ireland, north and south.

His favourite works depict Titanic “and the men in caps, overalls and heavy boots who built her.”

More recently his traditional, representational style has evolved “gradually, into abstract expressionism. I’m working on Nomadic at the moment,” he explained, showing me a large acrylic and pastel canvas on his heavy, paint-splattered easel.

“It’s a montage,” he specified, “it’s not meant to be realistic.”

I looked at the beginnings of his latest depiction of Roy Snowden’s beloved Nomadic and wondered if it was harder to capture the character of the unique little Tender than it was to paint the ubiquitously illustrated Titanic.

“They’re both wonderful to work on,” said Jim thoughtfully, casting a tender glance at the Tender on his easel, “there’s just three funnels less, and fewer portholes!”

His entrance-free exhibition in The Curve Exhibition space in Bangor’s Carnegie Library, Hamilton Road, runs until January 22, 2016. Opening times are on librariesni.org.uk but phone (028)91270591 to confirm.