Don’t know if any of you know this fella from Blackrock-hobo type fella that sits on the bench everyday, drinking and feeding the pigeons. I work in Blackrock, see him everyday and I saw this article today about him in the Daily Mail today. Unbelievable I thought-just shows you shouldn’t judge people.
It’s a long Article-
THERE is a man who sits, every day, on a bench in Blackrock, Dublin, yards from its suave restaurants and boho bars. His trousers are falling down, his Mac jacket is painted with miscellaneous stains and his thick beard seems a botanists’ paradise. Occasionally he gets up
and shuffles across to the shop for more cigarettes and alcohol. Then he goes back to his bench. He is fed, for free, by Eddie Rocket’s, the American style diner.
Sometimes people upset him by teasing him. He ignores it for a while, puffs on a his cigarette, squints at his tormentors. But if it carries on he gets up and starts bellowing and waving his arms: ‘You’re disturbing my pigeons’ he shouts furiously.
To many passers by, he’d be written off as a homeless eccentric; a man who has fallen on hard times or opted out of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a man who has created some of the country’s most coveted artworks, and was at the cutting edge of Irish graphic design in the Sixties. In the world of fine art, the 78-year-old is feted and his genius compared to William Blake and Pablo Picasso. He co-authored several books with renowned writer and poet Gabriel Rosenstock, who has described him as ‘a dear friend’ and ‘a national treasure’. Outside art, he has played jazz trumpet with legends such as Louis Armstrong. To look at him now, you would never know.
His Blackrock flat is a mess of paintbrushes, empty wine bottles, oils, flowers, charcoal, treasured photos and unfinished artworks, from which he arises like a foam-swept Neptune. He says he cannot have a phone, ‘Imagine if somebody telephoned while I was working —
BROKEN by the death of his wife Jeanette, Pieter Sluis, is a bent shadow of the man he once was, caring nothing for status or worldly possessions, and oblivious to his appearance.
‘She just died’ he says. “The dog came back, Jeanette didn’t…”. He starts to cry. Pieter doesn’t understand how the death of his wife occurred. The truth remains a mystery. she went out to take their Irish Setter, Petra, for a walk on Dn Laoghaire pier, Pieter says.
Then, gardai fished her body from the sea.
“They told me she was in a mortuary” he whispers. There are theories that she committed suicide, as she was depressed, but most people point out that it was a stormy day with high waves which could have easily have swept Jeanette’s tiny, light body into the sea. Whatever the cause, it is clear that Jeanette’s death shattered Pieter completely.
“She looked after me” says Pieter sadly. “She was a beautiful woman and a wonderful cook. We had some heavenly times, running with the dogs in Glenamure. She was so bright and such fun”. The couple had no children so Pieter was left alone. Nevertheless, Pieter says: “I never took life for granted. I always knew that my beloved could die at any moment, so I was always sort of prepared. I have seen both the bright light and the swirling darkness”.
According to his friends, Pieter tried to keep up appearances for several years after his wife’s death. One Blackrock taxi driver said:
“He kept himself immaculate, going round in this sailor’s outfit with light trousers and a little scarf and smiling at everybody. But inside he was starting to fall apart.
'He would sit in the corner of the Avoca Bar with a whisky and milk, sketching madly, then he would screw up his pictures and throw them away in a fit of frustration. After chucking out time the landlord would gather up the pieces of paper, unscrew them and keep them.
“They’ll be worth a lot of money one day,” he’d say. 'He really missed his wife’s cooking though. He’d go into the Mad Hatter’s pub at lunchtime and eat businessmen’s leftovers, after collecting them all together neatly on one plate. He hated waste and thought it was an evil thing. What he couldn’t manage to eat, he would take outside for his pigeons”.
Then Eddie Rockets diner took over. “They’ve been so kind to me” saysPieter, “but it’s not charity, we are friends. I once told a newspaperthat the caf is ‘my home away from home’. The management liked thisand said I could have free meals for life. I go there every day for
chilli and ice cream, with a bottle of cola”.
Pieter Sluis was born in 1929 in Le Hague, Holland. His father, a primary school teacher, was sent to a mental institution while Pieter was still a child. His mother, Dina Van Ber Veen, a civil servant, was a strong-minded organiser. Pieter said of his parents: “My father was a romantic and my mother was practical”. Throughout his childhood Pieter would spend hours watching his four-fingered Uncle Teun paint.
He recalls: “My uncle gave me a brush and once I started, I couldn’t stop”. Pieter only received a basic education and hated sport, infuriating his schoolmates with own goals. He sought refuge in art and music and would trail after the Dutch College Swing Band until, at the age of 14, a bigger boy felt sorry for him and taught him to play the trumpet.
After courting and marrying Jeanette, who was literally ‘the girl next door’, Pieter threw himself into the seductive, intellectual caf culture that flowered after the Second World War. Pieter became involved with the avant-garde CoBrA art movement and developed a style similar to one of its prophets, Karel Appel.
In 1956, he was offered a job with one of the first ever advertising agencies in Ireland – ‘Sun Advertising’ based in Earlsford Terrace, Dublin. They had been introduced to Pieter via a Dutch recruitment agency, impressed by his training in graphic design and calligraphy.
As soon as he arrived in Dublin, he says, “I fell in love with Ireland — the people, the landscape”.
He designed billboards for Aer Lingus and several other corporations, but was sent to live and work in Blackrock House by his boss, after his whistling in the office drove colleagues insane. There, he worked in comfort, with a whisky and jazz booming out of his record player.
Between pictures, Pieter would play jazz trumpet and from 1971 to 1981, Pieter was known as ‘Blue Piet’ of the ‘Peter Sluis jazz-band’.
At Bruxelles bar just off Dublin’s Grafton Street, Piet found himself playing with big jazz names such as Louis Armstrong, Ruby Braf, Wild Bill Davidson and Bud Freeman of Sinatra’s Tommy Dorsy Band who called Pieter “the finest trumpeter in Europe” and begged him to tour with him. Pieter often designed the posters for the jazz festivals in which he starred. He stopped playing in the eighties, he says,
“Because all my teeth fell out – at once!” and he bares his gums. “I blame the war” says Pieter, “Children didn’t get enough vitamins”.
He gave his trumpet away to a passing vagrant, a “wandering minstrel” in Piete’s words, with no idea how to play it. Piete’s flat contains jazz CDs scattered like petals. He plays the CD of his old band, lovingly preserved by a fan and starts to tap his ramshackle shoes on the floor. When he gets to his old friend Collie Walsh’s clarinet solo, he crumples into tears. “But oh we had some fun times!” he says.
With no teeth and no trumpet, he tried to capture the ecstasy of jazz in paintings and produced portraits of Miles Davis, Charlie Christian, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk. Between the Sixties and the late Nineties, Pieter produced hundreds of masterpieces. His work came to the notice of politician and art-lover Tom Caldwell and he exhibited his work in the Tom Caldwell gallery after its creation in 1969. In the following decades, his work appeared in every major gallery in Ireland. In 1993, one exhibition at Dublin’s Oisin Gallery earned him E60,000. Carmel Naughton of the National Gallery bought his ‘The Breath of Life’ and his paintings have been sold at top art auctions such as Whytes, De Veres and Adams for as much as E15,000. His name appears regularly in the ‘The Buyers Guide To Irish Art’. In 2001 art critic and journalist Paul O’Kelly wrote a book about Pieter’s art entitled ‘Pieter Sluis: Cobra and Beyond’. He says: “Pieter’s power is so supernatural, so extraordinary, that he can produce masterpieces with very little effort. He doesn’t even know where it comes from; it is greater than him. Pieter is definitely touched by God, but like many real geniuses, he’s got a screw loose”.
But it is hard not to be endeared by that loose screw. And certainly as we sat and talk, it is obvious that it has manifested in gaps in his memory. There are whole decades that cannot be accounted for, including a few spells in St John of Gods, orchestrated by Paul O’Kelly.
Paul says: “We tried so hard to help him — with nurses, counsellors, meals on wheels, but he’d sneak off to the bench when they were due round. I cleaned his flat with my own hands and escorted him to rehab. But then he’d do something crazy like when he took his front door off so he could use the hinge as a bottle opener — and I’d despair. I became very drained. He was very sweet, grateful and sorry for his behaviour but he just didn’t value himself enough to see the treatment through. He needs so much help and he always has to rebel.”
He still lives in the huge imposing manor house, although now his quarters are a first floor flat. Mercifully, alcohol seems to have erased many of Piete’s memories regarding the details of his wife’s death. But what he can say, with authority and a serious jabbing of paintbrushes, is that he is faithful: “I waited eight years after my wife had died until I got a girlfriend”.
She is Anne Richardson, a 68-year-old Canadian poet and former model.
“I love Anne very much but I can’t sleep with her. I am still faithful to my wife” Pieter says, clinging to his wedding ring. Luckily, Anne understands and respects his feelings.
“I’ve never stopped him talking about his wife” she says, “I just try not to start the subject because it makes him cry”. Anne is a valuable distraction from Pieter’s pain, she recites poetry, paints with him and the two reminisce about the magic of the jazz scene. While I am still there, Anne starts singing ‘Summertime’ with a slow and shivering tenderness and Piet joins in.
The couple have been together for ten years. When they first met, on the bench, Pieter said to her “I’ve seen your face before”. Indeed he had — 42 years previously on the cover of a magazine called ‘Telefood’ that was delivered to Sun Advertising. She was wearing a black linen
mini dress with bouffant hair. “The true artist never forgets a face” says Anne proudly.
But Pieter has also been betrayed. He has an unfortunate habit of befriending the poor and the needy, some of whom are good souls down on their luck, others who are unscrupulous opportunists. Over the years he has given out paintings like sweets and pressed notes into hundreds of eager hands. Paul O’Kelly says: “Pieter is very vulnerable to exploitation. He had priceless paintings under piles of clothes and junk in his flat. We gathered a lot of them up, priced them in a list then lodged a copy with his solicitor, but many of his works have vanished”. On a Youtube video made by a curious American ‘rtlbeaton1’ Pieter also reveals: “A close friend stole my whole record collection, which went back years, and sold them all”. Renowned writer and poet, Gabriel Rosenstock says: “I wish I’d done more to help him over the years. The line of creativity is quite close to the line of self-destruction. There are large sections of his work that are undocumented and nobody knows where they are. Like every truly good person and wandering sage, Pieter has always attracted a lot of negative people, because negative people are always looking for something to save them from their own damnation. Sinners see Pieter’s goodness and cling to his coat”.
For all his chaos and eccentricity, there is something remarkably life-affirming about Pieter. His whole face lights up as he says: ‘I wouldn’t like to presume that there is an afterlife, but I would certainly hope for one. I would love to see Jeanette again.’
I want to protect Pieter, get forty nuns to organise him, bathe him and cook for him. But he insists, ‘I’m healthy enough’.
Gabriel Rosenstock says: “You could search the Himalayas for weeks and you would never find such a free spirit as Pieter. Pieter is a truly transcendent spirit. Of course there are times when he comes crashing down and might bring other people down with him. But then he will take them soaring upwards again”.
But Paul O’Kelly is angry: “If only Pieter could stop drinking for just three months, he is perfectly capable of producing four masterpieces a week. His hand is still steady and his eyesight is still good. To get him off the drink, we need a miracle. But when I look at Pieter’s paintings – especially ‘The Breath of Life’ and ‘Earthly Harmony’ I can believe in miracles. I’m not prepared to give up on him and leave him to drink himself to death just because he is 78”.
Pieter claims to have cut down on his drinking a great deal and only has wine, not whisky. His friend Dermot says that at times he “rants and raves like King Lear”. Personally, I find him no less charming and profound after several glasses of wine and he completes a stunning sketch of me after two bottles.
But Paul O’Kelly says: “At the moment, Pieter is only producing a hundredth of what he is capable of. He claims not to enjoy worldly success but he was so happy at his last exhibition with everybody praising him, he was smiling and jumping around like a little boy. The alcohol is not just robbing him of his quality of life, but robbing Ireland of a supreme talent. He is very ill and an enlightened populace, that cared about is heritage, should step in and save him.
We cannot, we must not – leave this wonderful artist to rot on a bench”.