JB Vallely was born in Armagh in 1941 and apart from a couple of years at the Belfast Art College and Edinburgh, has lived all his life in the city. He was always determined to express himself through painting.
“When I went to Art College at first I was interested in everything, it was a whole new experience, I loved every aspect of it, still life, and portrait drawing and all the rest of it, but at some particular stage we had to think of themes and what was always in my head was Irish mythology, so I spent a lot of time reading and getting ideas from literature.”
He sold his first painting in 1958 and in 1963 eight of his works were purchased for the Irish display at the 1963 World Fair in New York. By 1968 JB Vallely was regarded as one of more exciting Irish painters under the age of thirty.
“In the course of my life I’ve travelled the world a great deal. I’ve lived outside of Armagh but there’s something about Armagh, I couldn’t live anywhere else. Armagh has an amazing mythological past, an amazing historical past, religious past… it also has a more recent past, 18th century, 19th century buildings, it has monuments going back thousands of years. I feel very happy in Armagh, it’s a beautifully designed city… it hasn’t changed much, the earliest drawings of Armagh could be superimposed onto modern Armagh and whole street patterns are the same. It also has the distinction of being the only identifiable place in Ireland on the oldest map of Ireland from the third century”
“I’ve always been very conscious of my Irish identity. The name Vallely in its Gaelic form goes back to pre-Christian times so I have no doubts about my identity’.
As well as a love for painting JB had a passion for music. “I was getting interested in music and I suppose the themes that dominated my life would have been my culture, my identity being Irish… I wanted to paint what I knew and out of the blue I started painting musicians.”
“The first instrument I really fell in love with was the flute. I really wanted to play the flute, but at the back of my head I had the sound of the pipes in my ears. They are an instrument, that really grows on you.”
In 1966, JB helped to set up the Armagh Pipers Club and he also became involved with the National Athletics and Cycling Association.
“Around Armagh we have a traditional sport called Bullet Throwing. It’s a big locally based community sport. I grew up with that, the Bullet Throwing features in a lot of my paintings, and then of course in Armagh the dominant game is Gaelic football, so I have the odd painting of Gaelic footballers and hurlers”
“A lot of my life has been touched with what has been called ‘The Troubles’. The Pipers Club, teaching music and organising athletics, all took place against that background. I didn’t really get involved in what you might call politics, I was involved in social issues and reared my family here in Armagh, we didn’t go away”.
“I wouldn’t say I grew up blinkered from the realities of what was going on around me, but I persevered with organising sport, athletics and with organising music, in fact I got a lot of criticism from people who were more politically minded than I was… on how could I organise concerts and cross country races, bicycle races and all this sort of thing when we were living in total mayhem. I had something in the back of my head that when it all blew over, you know, there were certain things in life like the music, the culture, the athletics would survive, so I persevered.”
JB continues to keep a sense of a shared heritage alive. He remains the Director of Armagh Pipers Club, which has become an internationally acclaimed centre for traditional music with an excellent education programme.
“I’ve been lucky. Right from the first time I exhibited in Armagh I was conscious that people from every cultural background related to what I was doing. They like the musical painting. They like the sports paintings. Sometimes when I paint I’m thinking of particular tunes. Lots of people say they can almost hear the music, which I find great because I can certainly hear the music”.
“I’ve been painting professionally since the late 1950s, which adds up to 50 years of painting. Somehow or other I’ve been able to survive as a painter, that’s my life, painting.”