BALLYVAUGHAN, Ireland — Sometimes, when the sun sets, lighting the hills in the Burren on fire, Richard Hearns puts his paintbrush down and allows himself to wonder: What if?
What if Sister Patrick didn’t persevere?
What if Irish Army Commandant Frank Hearns didn’t listen to Sister Patrick?
What if he never left Beirut?
Richard Hearns, at 36, is one of Ireland’s premier contemporary artists. His studio, here in one of the most picturesque regions in the west of Ireland, has become a tourist destination. But as rich and as colorful as his work is, his life story rivals his vibrant art.
As an infant, he was spirited out of a civil war in Lebanon, where he was born, and adopted by an Irish couple. His father, commanding Irish peacekeepers for the United Nations, was trying to save lives en masse when a nun asked him to save just one life. A little boy.
Frank Hearns and his wife, Margaret, already had adopted two girls, Sarah, from Bethlehem, and Claire, from Lebanon. There was a nun from Donegal, Sister Patrick, working in Beirut with orphans from the civil war and when Frank Hearns, on his last peacekeeping mission, said he and his wife were thinking about adopting another girl, Sister Patrick had other ideas.
“What about a boy?” she asked.
Some months passed. Sister Patrick’s place had been shelled. She saw Hearns before he returned to Ireland and reminded him about that boy. The nun later called Hearns and asked for a name for the child, because they had to baptize the boy and get him out of Beirut. The situation was perilous. Frank Hearns gave her the names of his father, Richard, and Margaret’s father, Cornelius, and they picked up their 11-week-old son, Richard Cornelius Hearns, in London and brought him home to Malahide, a comfortable coastal town just north of Dublin.
He grew up like any other suburban Irish kid, playing Irish sports, cultivating an unmistakable Dublin accent.
“If I had grown up in Lebanon, I could have been easily caught up in the conflict there,” he says. “If not for my parents, if not for Sister Patrick, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Hearns says he believes his art is inextricably linked to his dual heritage, but says he hasn’t quite figured it out yet.
“We carry our heritage with us, like a passport,” he says. “I’m interested in my Lebanese roots, but it’s something I know very little about. I don’t know how it affects my practice. My dad says I have a lot of Lebanese traits. When I read Khalil Gibran’s poetry, I feel very close to Lebanon. Lebanese and Irish are similar. We live all over the world, we have been exiled. We wander. I think all my experience feeds into what I do in the studio.”
He spent a year painting at Boals Head, in Kerry, on an isolated peninsula below the more famous Dingle Peninsula. But in 2009 a post-graduate arts program opened up in County Clare, so he moved up one county, to study and paint.
“I just absolutely fell in love with the Burren,” he says. “The light in this part of the west of Ireland is unique. There’s a softness to the landscape and to the people. The further north or south you go, the more rugged the people are. This is in a bay, there’s protection from the hills.”
Hearns is inspired by the musicality of the place. This part of Clare is a hotbed of traditional Irish music. He and his wife, Boo, whom he met in 2002 on a small Thai island near Cambodia, regularly retire to nearby pubs to hear the impromptu seisuns of local musicians.
“The house we live in, this studio, was a place where people met for dances. There’s music in the walls, in the floors. I have a great feeling in the house. Locals have told me that the lady who lived here in the cottage, years ago, when children passed the wall on the way to school, she would have brown bread with jam waiting for them. There’s just a lovely feeling here in this house.”
His house doubles as a gallery, and an adjoining cottage is one of two studios, all of which is open to tourists. You would think a brooding artist would resent frequent intrusions by tourists, especially Americans with loud pants and louder mouths. But Hearns does not brood, and he is energized by the regular visits. Besides, he sells quite a few paintings that way. A professional cook, Boo feeds the visitors while his paintings feed something else.
“I see being a painter as being a privilege,” he says. “I have to participate as an artist. Having people visit allows me to develop as an artist, and as a person, more holistically. To be visible and approachable is important.”
More and more of that visibility is taking place outside of Ireland. Last year, he was in Barcelona for seven weeks, then the United States, including Boston, on a two-month tour, six weeks in Southeast Asia. More recently, he’s been in Paris, where he is represented by Mark Hachem.
“Mark is Lebanese and grew up in Paris. He has galleries in Paris and Beirut, and he wants me to exhibit in Beirut, which is something I really want to do.”
Since leaving as an infant, he returned to Beirut only once, as a young teenager, and he was overwhelmed by the smells, the spices. They triggered something deep in his subconsciousness.
“Dad really introduced me to travel. He was always overseas,” Hearns said. “I don’t think I’ve ever lost the wanderlust. It’s a catalyst for my work. It’s so Irish. Or Lebanese.”
Or, more likely, both.