OTwo Interviews: Kevin Sharkey

Anna Blackburn chats with artist Kevin Sharkey about his inspiration for his paintings and his presidential candidacy in 2018.

These days, it is rare to find someone so unattached from the influence of mainstream media and willing to speak their mind, voice their opinions without fear of judgement. Kevin Sharkey is an artist, but he is also a political activist, a rare combination of passions which complement each other well through Sharkey’s talents. 

Kevin Sharkey was born in Killybegs, Co. Donegal and adopted by the Sharkey family at the age of seven. He grew up in a society of people who saw and treated Sharkey, a young black boy, as an outsider. Sharkey said that being forced to deal with all of the attention from such an early age was quite traumatic because all children want to do is fit in. One of his recent paintings, “I’m a White Man Trapped Inside a Black Man’s Body”, is one example of how his being raised in a white culture, where he was stereotyped and called many names as a black man, directly clashed with his family, his interests in things such as Irish dancing, and his sense of identity. Sharkey said that simply having different coloured skin allowed for a very “vivid and visual experience” growing up in the 1960s trying to figure out why people acted differently towards him, which over time developed into “a real sense of identity attributed to [him] before [he] even knew who [he] was or what [he] was”. 

 ‘You don’t realise how much someone needed your art’

-       his support for the marraige refferendum was ‘not about gay rights- it was about human rights’

All of Kevin Sharkey’s art is an immediate expression of emotions which started around the age of twelve, when the Sharkey family decided to send him back to the orphanage. While writing letters to his adoptive sisters, Sharkey saw that his tears were blurring the lines on the page, but after a while he decided to keep them there to show them just how sad he was about being forced to leave the home and family he had loved. But Sharkey’s medium of expression was not always attributed to painting. Sharkey says that growing up he wanted to do so many different things that he decided to try them all and from his journey in the performing arts as an Irish dancer, a television presenter, and an actor, he realised that behind every great artist lies a great amount of energy and creativity. 

For years before he became a professional artist, Sharkey would paint when his emotions compelled him to, like when he was feeling particularly sad or lonely. He discovered that, in the twenty or so minutes it took him to create a work of art that he was proud of, he wasn’t sad or lonely, he was just painting. And so, Sharkey called one of his early exhibitions “A Cure for Loneliness”, a testament to the way he is able to escape the hardships of reality when he is painting. 

When asked about his technique, Sharkey said, “It's not about technique, it's about expression and you can’t teach true artistic expression”. Sharkey himself is an untrained, self-taught artist, but this is what makes his work so valuable to all people. By simply getting out of his own head, picking colours for the mood, and “doing something with your bare hands, that nobody taught you to do... it gives you a real sense of purpose.” One of the most powerful things that Sharkey mentioned was, “You don’t realise how much someone needed your art.” Whether you are a painter, a writer, a musician, or a florist, your art changes the way people think about the world and about themselves knowing that they are not alone. The subjectivity of art and Sharkey’s abstract colour fields allows for people of all ages, races, sexes, and backgrounds to find the magic in his work, magic specific to themselves. “Being creative is a lovely frequency in your life; to make things that make other people feel good and then make you feel good while you're doing it.”

Many artists are known for having an inspirational painter, but Sharkey says he does not have a favorite artist. He would rather paint than talk about painting, create and make a difference rather than discussing the deeper meanings of his work which are interpretable on an individual basis. However, Sharkey greatly admires artists who have made a lot of money from selling their work. Every good artist is a creator and a shopkeeper. “Art colleges in Ireland leave out so much about what to do with your art. They don’t teach you the value of entertainment and creativity.” If he had to choose an artist who he admired the most, he said it would be Picaso, not for his bold interpretations of women, but for his impact on the perception of art.

 ‘it is your job, as an artist, to connect with people.’

Sharkey prefers his paintings to be bold and unique, and to do so he changes his mediums. “So many artists use the same medium and the same technique and as a result all their work looks the same, but if you’re braver and you break away, unwittingly you create something very original.” Sharkey’s two primary styles of painting are his abstract colour fields and his figurative pieces. His colour fields are a result of his mood and he doesn’t let himself get caught up in trying to make every piece a masterpiece. “It's like jumping onto a rollercoaster and knowing when to get off: when I’m painting and the energy dissipates, I stop.” His figurative pieces on the other hand, are representative of families in all shapes and sizes which stemmed almost subconsciously from his longing for a family as a child. Sharkey says his favorite piece is called, “It’s the Devil Himself”, a phrase which his adoptive mother used to say to him, which represents “the things you grow out of, but never grow past.” 

Sharkey not only felt prejudice as a black man, but also as a homosexual. He said at first he didn’t believe in love, but after he fell in love for the first time, he felt honoured to have experienced such a wonderful feeling while at the same time feeling betrayed by his country for not allowing him to marry another man. “I was brought up during a time where homosexuality was considered a mental illness, then it became an arrestable crime and all I wanted was love and to not be told it was wrong to love who I loved.” Sharkey believed that stereotypes created by harmful and isolating perceptions, which were associated with homosexuals during that time, were denying him and others the opportunity to marry someone of the same sex. Sharkey began advocating for same sex marraige in Ireland in 2005, filing a suit against the Irish government for not allowing him to marry a man. He then went on to be interviewed by Gay Byrne, stating that his support for the marraige refferendum was “not about gay rights- it was about human rights” and putting a stop to being treated differently by the law as a result of others’ interpretations of him.

This advocacy started a powerful discussion in Ireland and Sharkey found that he had more to say. “We live in a world where the truth is like an explosion. We repress our emotions to be nice and civil but not expressing those emotions is societal and self abuse.” While his paintings were an expression of his emotions, Sharkey wanted to do more, so he announced his candidacy for President of Ireland during the 2018 election. When asked why he ran for President, Sharkey said, “because I could. I wanted people to know that you don’t have to be a politician to apply for the job, you will not necessarily get it, but it gives you a platform to speak about things that you feel are important in relation to your country which is what I did.”

Sharkey’s campaign slogan was “Make Ireland Fair Again”, a direct result of his belief that globalisation had created a government filled with politicians, who were only interested in money and power, and who were making decisions for the Irish people without really listening to them. It was Sharkey’s intent not only to voice his political standing on major issues like Ireland’s immigration policy, but to get people to “think for themselves”. “Irish people don’t question things. It used to be good to be proud of your nationality, but the globalists changed the rules in that everything became somehow racist and that sense of tribalism, that tribal instinct, became too politicised. My crime was to question if we had a good immigration policy.” Sharkey believes that open immigration policies create a clash of cultures, and therefore bring tension and racism into the country as a result of these cultural variations. 

In September 2018, Sharkey decided to withdraw from the election. Sharkey stated that it wasn’t because of the vast amount of criticism he received regarding his views on immigration, but because he had gotten no votes and decided running for President was no longer a battle worth fighting. Sharkey said was well prepared for Ireland not being ready for a black, gay president, but he noted that, in his advocacy for political change or at least reassessment, all of his opponents resided in a bubble of like-minded people where things never change, and this was not a bubble he was willing to be a part of.

“Speaking your mind is all you can do, you get an opportunity to express yourself and you take it.” 

Kevin Sharkey doesn’t own a television. He doesn’t read the newspaper. He gets all of his information from what he sees with his own eyes and in doing so it gives him a unique perspective on the world around him that many don’t agree with. However, Sharkey didn’t argue with the criticism he received from others, instead he identified the importance of “the psychological journey we have to take with ourselves which includes criticism and accepting that people have different opinions.” Sharkey said that when he feels something is wrong, it is his moral responsibility to do something about it.

“It is a difficult time for humanity, compromised under the influence of the media.” Many people either choose not to or don’t know how to think for themselves. When running for President, it was Sharkey’s goal to plant the seeds of ‘what if?’ in the minds of the Irish people, and like in his art, he tried to help people think for themselves. Even just saying that you disagree with something is an important part of change and standing up for yourself and your beliefs. 

Sharkey feels that “dialogue is the most potent form of power”, however the power to advocate change is present in art, music, and literature. Colours and strokes convey emotion, melodies and beats can change the way you feel, and words make you think and question, but most people don’t know how to do this. So, “it is your job, as an artist, to connect with people.” If you’re being held back by doubt or weighed down by the uneasiness your opinion may cause: “fight the fear and do it anyway because you have no idea how much someone needs to hear what you have to say.”