5 October 2016

Dr Robert Bohan is a scientist and an artist from Dublin. He’s lived and breathed art from a young age, but it wasn’t until he lost some of his vision and used art as his therapy that he realised how healing artistic expression can be. His work is admired by over 270,000 fans on social media. You can see his work on Twitter @RobertBohan and on his website: www.robertbohan.com.

Robert Bohan painting of a face.

You’ve been focusing on both natural science and art from a young age – what does this combination mean to you?

I’m told that I could draw before I could walk and my earliest memory is helping plant bulbs in our garden as a child. I grew up in the countryside where nature was very much a part of life and even today the trees and animals that were part of my childhood appear in my work. We exist as part of the ecosystem and it’s important for me to reflect that. I studied botany at university and got to specialise in woodland ecology when doing my PhD in the woods of Western Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The natural world is a wonderful thing and inspires my art.

Has your attitude or approach to art changed over the years?

As a child, I hated school and wasn’t all that keen on studying. The only way to motivate me was to promise art. It’s always been a part of my life. I had wanted to go to art school but things change and I ended up studying science. Even then I designed posters and studied scientific graphic techniques and botanical art. After finishing my PhD I went into IT and became fascinated by the developments in digital photography. I loved going on business trips, not only to meet people, but also to photograph new places. Photography is my way of documenting beautiful things, especially accidental beauty. I love that you don’t even need a camera anymore if you have a smart phone. My first love will always be art – it’s like breathing for me.  Nowadays I spend more time creating art than I ever have before.

You used art therapy after losing some of your vision – how did that work, and how did it improve your health?

I started art therapy about four years ago. I generally just draw or paint whatever comes into my head. I usually don’t know what is going to come out before the pen hits the page. Oftentimes I draw something, look at it, and realise I have no idea what I’ve drawn or what it means. I take the drawings to the session and discuss them with the therapist. This was quite frustrating at first as I had no idea what I was saying in the images whilst I could tell that the therapist could see what was going on. It was tough going at first. Gradually as I began to understand what I was drawing it became easier. Drawing reveals my subconscious thoughts which logic and ‘sense’ hide from me. I was very angry that I had lost some of my sight and the drawings helped reveal that and discussing them helped address that anger. When you go through a significant event in your life your mind protects you and helps you hold everything together.  Art therapy helped me tease apart how I felt about being blinded and also gave me the confidence to become an artist.

It seems you find that art connects you to nature, and vice versa, but do you find that art connects you with other people at all? How?

My art comes from my subconscious. It’s a place of strong emotion. As a result, it makes a very powerful impression on people. I started putting my work on social media a couple of years ago and the impact has been astonishing. People tell me that particular works have moved them or that they can really relate to a piece. I’ve been invited to show my work and it’s very interesting to hear how people respond to it in exhibitions. Their reactions are almost always about how the artwork makes them feel. Recently, at an exhibition, a woman was passing by, saw one of the pieces and because it spoke to her so loudly actually came in. She then sought me out to tell me how much it meant to her. That was very moving for me. It’s striking too that individual pieces have strong meanings for some of my collectors. I’ve had others come up to me to thank me for stuff I’ve done during the equal marriage referendum in Ireland. One watercolour I painted of a dove, which was about freedom and peace, seems to chime with an enormous number of people. I think that the way I draw and paint is accessible to everyone and whilst some big galleries and museums follow my work it actually has the most impact with ordinary people who can relate to the emotions depicted.

What have you noticed about art as a convener or conversation starter – either between observers or creators?

Before sharing my work with people I would have said it was a fairly esoteric topic for most people. I have always loved art and have a massive collection on art books but recognise my interest is not widely shared. That changed once people started to see the work. I actually get asked by people what I’ve done recently and they start telling me what they think. People are often very frank and tell me they don’t like something or that they do like something else. I love that they are honest with me and that they feel open to saying what they believe. It’s striking that several people can see the same image and each be adamant that their interpretation is the correct one.

Do you think that place-based art can give people a sense of belonging or local pride?

I think it’s when a community works together to create something that there’s a really powerful sense of pride. You see it sometimes in the West of Ireland where you go through a small village and every house is painted a different colour or where people get together to work on a common project. There’s a great example in Wexford call the Ross Tapestry. Humans are not machines, they are bodies of emotion shaped in different ways. If a common goal unites them then there’s a fascinating interplay of ideas and a truly diverse interpretation of experience. My work tends to examine experiences which are universal and as a result speak to everyone – local projects in drawing on a common experience can really create a distinct conversation within a neighbourhood.

Humans are not machines, they are bodies of emotion shaped in different ways. If a common goal unites them then there’s a fascinating interplay of ideas and a truly diverse interpretation of experience.