At night, you might find him dancing around his garage. That’s if his latest abstract art project is going well.
Yes, the man in the helmet and hi-vis jacket is a gifted artist whose work is currently on display in Sheffield.
There are parallels between his two lives. Both require process and faith in your ability to take that process where you want it to be.
But a construction site in Chesterfield is a far cry from an art school in Valencia. Declen is a man who juggles a double life and seems quite happy with it.
He lives in Meersbrook, where his cluttered garage doubles as an art studio. Her work is on display at the Dorothy Pax bar in Victoria Quays, her first exhibition for 20 years.
Father of three children, he has two girls and a boy, aged 13 to 8 years old.
Art had been a passion since childhood and he completed his training with an MFA at Norwich School of Art.
He fell into the construction game by circumstances.
When her mother Bridget was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Declen returned to his home in Nottingham and helped look after her.
He worked shifts in pubs and when his Irish-born parents decided to move back home, Declen needed a full-time job.
Shifts at the pub were unreliable, but luckily he had a friend who worked for Lovells, the house builder.
Declen started out as a laborer. After 18 years, he is a construction foreman. The hard work paid off. “I climbed the ladder,” he says
The 47-year-old is currently at a site in Holmewood, Chesterfield, building 150 homes. The regular schedules have always been adapted to his artistic passion. “I had weekends off so I could do more art,” he says.
Much like climbing the ladder of the construction trade, Declen knew that artistic success would be hard work. “At university, I never had the illusion that I was going to paint full time right away,” he says. “Art takes time, it’s a long learning process.”
Fortunately, he is patient and trusts himself. “I had confidence in the process of my work which starts with stories and I draw them.”
These may include myths or stories from the homeland of his Irish parents, as well as Dr. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that the earth survives instability through repetition and constant evolution.
Declen is a fan of repetition and evolution. These concepts are expressed through his art in the form of large abstract pieces created from oil, gloss and spray paints, wax, wood and canvas.
His parents’ contribution included telling him about Kildownet in County Mayo, and the town’s rather forbidding-looking graveyard plays a big part in his sketchbooks.
He loved shapes and that is the key to abstract painting.
“Stories are developed by the decisions you make about shapes like stones and they develop to become part of the picture. It’s a pictorial language,” he says.
He has dozens of sketchbooks where the shapes have changed position and when Declen adds color he says it comes from the environment around those shapes.
This is the process of his art, which he began at university and continued at the University of Southampton before continuing his studies in Valencia and Norwich.
There is a parallel with his work in construction. “The process you go through is footings, inspection, drainage, structures, pre-casting. There is a process like there is in art.
“I’m not a screaming site manager and I know there will always be problems solving problems where something doesn’t show up or is done wrong, that’s what happens when you work with people .
“It’s about solving problems and it’s the same with art. When you paint with confidence you can feel good, but you don’t know everything, you have to learn the process.
“You don’t instantly become a site manager and you don’t instantly become an artist.
“You have to build your confidence in yourself, so that if you see something wrong, you can fix it.
“On site, you have to be able to deal with people who don’t agree with you. I’m calm but I have ups and downs in art.
“When it’s going well, I dance in the garage, but when it’s not going well, you have to detach yourself and trust that it will be better.
“When a painting is started, I use the initial marks to make my decisions, then I proceed based on what I’m painting. It can take years to unlock a painting – I believe in work and work the process of painting I normally have 10-15 paintings waiting to be unlocked or still unfinished and constantly moving!”
During the pandemic, he was furloughed for eight weeks, allowing him to reevaluate his job.
“I had time to step back, get the paintings out, clean them up and reevaluate them.”
So these 15 paintings that are in progress at any given time take time. “I started one in 1999 which I only finished last year. You must have faith.
He was invited to do the Dorothy Pax exhibition by Rebecca Hearne who organizes exhibitions at the bar.
Declen knew this could create money-making opportunities, but he’s cautious. He says, “I wasn’t looking to sell the work, if you have to rely on art for your paycheck, you could just knock them out to pay the bills.
“Rebecca had seen my work on Instagram and approached me. The reaction has been really good. I’ve had a lot of offers but I don’t know what price to put them at.
“That’s why I never sold any of my work, the job was to attract an audience and make them react, whether they liked it or not.
“I would like to earn money and work full time, but it’s a different process. My thing has been to paint, I have to build the confidence to sell it.
“Gallerists have started to follow me and we will see how it goes. I will continue to paint and work in construction because I have to pay the bills.
There are four works on display and Declen says he has been told they could fetch between £2,500 and £3,000. He also had offers to do shows in London.
“If I was offered £2,500 I would take it because it would give me the opportunity to do the shows in London,” he says.
He is photographed with a painting called Biarritz, the colors are bold and the shapes pronounced. It is classic abstract painting.
Another is called Lilac Gate which started when he lived in Spain and went to art school in Valencia.
“The art school gates are at the bottom of the picture. I drew them in 1996. You see what he means by taking time.
Declen enjoyed his stay in Spain. “The weather helps! It makes you want to work late.
Unlike a freezing night in Sheffield in his garage, but once Declen gets started, he’s engrossed in the work and those forms. His influences include Sean Scully, the Dublin-born artist who achieved international fame as a painter of abstract works featuring combinations of squares and stripes. “These are shameless color blocks and you have to trust them,” says Declen.
Another is Basil Beattie who Declen saw showcasing his work on Newsnight and felt encouraged. Beattie’s work revolves around abstraction and is known for its emotive and gestural forms. “I was tied to the language of his images,” says Declen.
Aware of Sheffield artists like Joe Scarborough and Pete McKee, Declen is a fan of the town-born John Hoyland, considered one of the most inventive and dynamic post-war abstract painters. “He had a show at the Millennium Galleries, big, expressive, incredible paintings.”
Born in Nottingham, Declen has been in Sheffield for six years and now lives there. He is a big fan of his story. “What I like is the industrial heritage.
“Imagine all the people who got grafted and spent hours making beautiful plants. I drive around Attercliffe and remember it powered the world with steel. Of course, it changes and it’s fascinating.
“The people of Sheffield have a real sense of civic pride and it’s definitely home to them.”
He has an Instagram account called the loneliness of an abstract painter, but remember that loneliness is part of a process that can make him dance. And you don’t get much of that on a construction site.
Her show will run at Dorothy Pax at Arch 17, Wharf Street, Victoria Quays, throughout May.