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On a recent Thursday, James Kirwan strolls up Thomas Street, in a black coat and a farmer’s cap, searching for the perfect spot to leave his original artwork.
He looks around as he nears the end of the street away from the city centre. He pauses and glances up, hopeful, at a road to the left, but ventures on.
He wants somewhere off the main thoroughfare. “Not too busy,” he says.
But also a place where someone might find it. “It’s the kind of thing that a lot of people won’t see,” he says.
He turns onto the rightward sloping path along the Luas tracks down towards Heuston Station, where a high stone wall lines the road with arched windows blocked up with stone.
He stops, looks around again, and fishes a miniature abstract painting from his rucksack.
Over the last week or so, Kirwan has planted a number of paintings along the streets of inner-city Dublin as gifts to those who find them. “This is my project to cheer people up,” he says.
It is a random act of kindness to bring joy to someone’s day, he says of his latest project, funded by the Arts Council as part of its Covid-19 Crisis Response Award.
It’s a reprieve from the boredom of the restrictions, he says. “It’s artwork to uplift people.”
The paintings are on reusable wood which he got from a skip near his friend’s house. The colours are bright shades of blue, green and purple. “Some of them kind of allude to a landscape,” says Kirwan.
The back of each painting has a sticker that reads, “This is a free piece of art for you!”
It asks the finder to get in touch with him @jameskirwanart. “Art is for everyone. Have a great day,” it says.
This isn’t the first time Kirwan has given away free artwork. He did the same when he lived in Porto in Portugal in 2016. “It was a similar thing,” he says.
In Porto, some people got in touch on social media to say they had found them but some artworks he never heard tell of again. “It is out of your control,” says Kirwan.
That is the beauty of it. Someone older who doesn’t use social media might find it, he says, which would be great.
Leaving his paintings out on the street brings anxiety too. “Anything could happen to it, a bunch of kids could kick it down the street,” he says.
Kirwan was born in Wexford and has lived in Dublin most of his adult life, he says.
He started an art degree in NCAD back in 1999, he says, it took a few extra years to finish it but he got there. He just started to get funding for his art a few years ago.
Kirwan’s work can be viewed on the streets of the Liberties, because he often does murals on shutters.
Sometimes a business commissions him to do it, other times he does it for free, if the shutters have been down for a while.
Kirwan says it took him longer to get stuff done during lockdown. “It took me ages to make the work because my mental health just went down.”
But this project is cheering him up. Yesterday he left artwork on the street and posted a photo on social media that didn’t give the location.
A fan of his art saw his post and hit the streets in the Liberties searching for it, he says.
“She went walking around Dublin 8,” he says. “She was also really enjoying just walking around.”
But she wasn’t going to find the painting scouring the Liberties, he says. He had left that one near Smithfield.
No one had got in touch to say they found it so he decided to give her a tip, he says. “Within half an hour she had found it. She was delighted.”
Fellow artist Caoimhe Lavelle was heading to the bank on Tuesday, 3 November when something caught her eye near the gates of Dublin Castle.
“I was definitely intrigued,” she says of the colourful painting resting on a ledge against a railing.
She saw the “free art” tag and decided that if it was still there on her way back it was destined for her. Luckily for her, it was.
“I love the idea of just planting things for people,” she says. “Sneaking art into places.”
She recognised the style of the painting too. She lives in the Liberties and the artist also has murals on Meath Street.
Kirwan says he made the frames from wood washed up on Dublin’s beaches.
He usually paints on 2D surfaces – canvases, walls or shutters. It’s satisfying to make these bulkier physical artworks, he says.
Also, a canvas might blow away. “In terms of leaving something on the street it is just sturdier,” he says.
Back on the street near Heuston Station, Kirwan covers the painting he holds, as a woman walks into view then passes by.
He carefully places it on a window ledge and hangs a little handwritten note to tell the stranger who finds it first that it is “free art”.
“I’d prefer not to be here,” he says as he turns towards the river Liffey and walks away.