‘Just drawing support’ — Bill Rolston’s latest catch of mural hunting

Bill Rolston published the first volume of Drawing Support in 1992, which contained images of 100 murals from the previous decade. Thirty years later, the fifth volume has just been published, and at a Feile an Phobail event Rolston spoke about his never-ending “mural hunting”, accompanied by recollections of muralist Danny Devenny.

Drawing Support 5. Talk by Bill Roston at Feile an Phobail. St Mary’s University College, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Claire Hackett welcomed and informed the audience that in addition to the latest and previous volumes of Drawing Support available for sale here, Rolson, with Robbie McVeigh, are co-authors of a more academically oriented book, Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution.

Hackett said, “As far as I’m concerned, Bill was the first person to document murals.” Rolston qualified this by saying that there were others taking photographs of murals alongside him, such as photojournalists, but unlike them, “I kept at it.”

Bill ROLSTON. Drawing Support 5. Talk by Bill Roston at Feile an Phobail. St Mary’s University College, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Rolston explained that the reason why the first volume wasn’t titled, “Drawing Support 1”, was because he had no intention that there would be a second volume. In response to his book draft being rejected by numerous publishers, he and his friend Mike Tomlinson set up their own publishing house, Beyond the Pale (which folded 12 years ago, but was resurrected in 2021).

As for the origin of the book’s title, Rolston revealed how he once interviewed republican activist Kes Mervyn about what Sinn Féin thought about his mural painting: “Kes answered, ‘Ah, they thought we were doing a great job drawing support for the men in the H-Blocks.’ Now he meant mobilising support, but I just thought that was the perfect metaphor.”

Each of the five volumes covers different time periods, and in each one Rolston looks out for a particular theme — the subtitle for Volume 5 is “Murals, Memory and Identity in the North of Ireland”: “It’s about memory, but also about the present day, and there’s more contemporary things saying who we are.”

With illustrative examples, Rolston reviewed the three main sections of the book: loyalists, republicans, and other murals.

“Loyalists have literally painted themselves into a corner with military-themed murals,” Rolston said, suggesting that such murals serve as recruitment devices for local paramilitary commanders, so “painting something else is a huge challenge”. Alternatives shown were murals of the Apprentice Boys closing the gates of Derry and a mural of Edward Carson. Rolson noted the proliferation of murals depicting the First World War as an evolution of the military theme: “Illegally armed men now replaced by legally armed men.” Yet he was intrigued by the murals of Duke Elliott and Tommy Herron, paramilitary men who were killed by their own. Finally, Rolston remarked that loyalists have gone for “displays”, such as images of the Queen that are processed in Photoshop before being applied to metal sheets, which he distinguished from “murals” as items freehand painted onto boards or walls directly.

Rolston argued that republican murals of masked men are produced by “dissident republicans” (a term Rolston is uncomfortable with). Rather, murals by “mainstream republicans” are now much-referencing history, short and long, such as Kieran Nugent and the hunger strikers, as well as the iconography of 1916. The importance of international solidarity remains and can be seen in the likes of murals featuring Che Guevara and Palestinians, as well as other places of conflict, such as Yemen.

As for “other murals”, Rolston said that the pandemic inspired a lot of displays, but not so many murals. He singled out one mural at Glenvale Park, depicting NHS workers raising a physical flag in a manner reminiscent of US marines raising the US flag on the island of Iwo Jima in Japan in 1945 (an image immortalised in the US Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia). Rolston thought this mural “showed some imagination”. He also pointed out the emergence of “street art” murals, such as those created as part of the annual Hit the North festival; he cited Dan Kitchener’s mural on Shankill Road, depicting a geisha.

Summing up his span of work, Rolston said:

“I’m a mural hunter. I’m a mural photographer. I love that it got out of hand.”

He added that it’s allowed him to go and look at murals elsewhere, such as Chile, Colombia, Sardinia, the Basque country, and Iran.

But while he may be the documentarian, from the very start of his talk Rolson acknowledged the muralists — the creators of the art. Inviting him to address the audience, he described Danny Devenny as “the anchor of mural painting”.

Danny DEVENNY and Bill ROLSTON. Drawing Support 5. Talk by Bill Roston at Feile an Phobail. St Mary’s University College, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Devenny described their symbiotic relationship, remarking that in the production of the books, “Bill was hunting down the artworks and we were hunting down the artists.” He described the murals themselves as “free publicity” for their messaging campaigns:

“Like Bobby Sands, ‘everyone has a role to play’, and the muralists played a blinder. Here we are, 40 years later, with a fifth volume. They were all nice coloured photographs [in the books], but this was not a game. There was no arts body support. In most cases, no unveilings. But in most cases, there were threats.”

Danny DEVENNY. Drawing Support 5. Talk by Bill Roston at Feile an Phobail. St Mary’s University College, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

He cited the case of 16-year-old Michael McCartin, who on 24 July 1980 “was shot dead by the RUC for carrying a tin of white paint and a brush to express his support for the IRA.” Devenny also noted loyalist groups’ statements declaring that muralists were “legitimate targets”.

Devenny complimented Rolston by saying that due to the Drawing Support publications, “We can remind ourselves of those fascinating, sometimes hilarious, and most often, horrific days.”

Gerry ADAMS. Drawing Support 5. Talk by Bill Roston at Feile an Phobail. St Mary’s University College, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Gerry Adams was the first member of the audience to comment, including an anecdote to a situation whereby the authorities could not do much about a republican mural being painted, as the property owner had consented. However, Devenny later countered this by recalling another situation where a resident consented, but as a tenant of public housing, the RUC went to the Housing Executive to have them produce a letter that this was in contravention of residency.

Rolston answered a question about balance and coverage: “Although I provide a short narrative at the start of the book, it’s not histrionic — I let the murals speak for themselves.” For example, he spoke about providing tours to visiting American students, and as they walk from the “international wall” on Falls Road and make their way up Northumberland Street, “a hush descends and you can see themselves thinking, ‘We’ve entered another world.’”

Devenny said that their (republican) murals were about what was being felt in the community and that this hasn’t changed, shown for example in regard to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, supporting the NHS, and the campaign for the family of Noah Donahue. Both Devenny and Rolston agreed with an audience member’s remark: “You’re hearing the voices of the street… very much it’s the people’s viewpoint, a subconsciousness that will not go away.”

Rolston concluded the event by pondering why such community subconsciousness is demonstrated through the art of murals in some parts of the world, but not in others (although someone in the audience pointed out that the murder of George Floyd was a catalyst for mural art in the US). Rolston added, though, that “once it starts, it can take off”. Perhaps there will be a future Beyond the Pale publication on American murals.


Images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

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