Belfast-born artist Paloma King talks cosmology, art and how a dropped spoon in a café in Covent Garden can turn lives upside down

Paloma King travelled the style capitals of the World as a fashion model before studying painting at Ulster University, where she won a National Award for portraiture.

King first started drawing when she was 17,  “I was really good at drawing accurately - I put that down to having a very engaged relationship with my hands.” King says of her introduction to her future vocation. She certainly had a good grounding in using her hands confidently as a child; playing enough instruments to fill a small orchestra - piano, french horn, oboe, guitar, tambourine and congas. King attributes some of her talent to her mother who taught her intricate skills like knitting, sewing, embroidery and calligraphy.

“All these things teach you patience and a kind of fortitude - to keep going, to take care, to have determination in your decisions and your engagement with materials. Playing music teaches you to open yourself to become a kind of instrument for an energy you don’t feel you’re generating yourself but that is working through you - and that’s fundamental to making art."

As a fashion model, King jetted between NY, London, Paris and Florence, spending night after night in luxury hotels and being met at airports by limos. I ask her if she ever misses it. “I knew it was a world I was only visiting and yes, there was much fun to be had and famous people to meet and I found all of that interesting, but it was only back home in Ireland with my dogs that I felt free. I knew I didn’t need all the other things to be OK.”

Now King lives in Belfast full-time. “I live near where I grew up, in the Belfast suburbs. Life’s pretty easy going here, I love it. The people are so funny and it’s such a rich culture; a brilliant live music scene, vibrant film industry and Ireland has always been crammed with writers, poets and artists of every kind.”

Though she thrives in isolation when she’s working, “To get to the depth, you need time alone”. King makes sure to get out and speak to people around her local community every day. “It’s a good idea to get up and get dressed properly every day, even if you’re working on your own. I find wearing sloppy clothes is a disaster, it makes me feel less dynamic.”

“I go for a walk every morning with my beloved little dog, a Morkie. I love to get out into the day, to meet the air, the sky and feel part of the nature surrounding me, it’s good to connect with nature, it soothes the system.” This stems from King’s deep interest in cosmology, the science of the origin and development of the universe, which began with a magical gesture that she credits with shaping her whole outlook on life. 

“One Christmas Eve around midnight, when my brothers and I were very small, my Dad - much to our mothers protest, got us out of our beds, put on our duffle coats and took us outside into the midnight. Snow had been falling and everything was perfect - pristine, sparkling and beautiful. He just wanted us to see it. The sky was so black and so incomprehensibly vast. The stars were brighter than I’d ever seen them. It changed my life. It’s stayed with me all this time and is one of the most precious memories of my existence.” King adds ”We never really know what we’re doing when we do wonderful things, do we?

She is a big fan of cosmologist Professor Brian Thomas Swimme. His book “The Universe is a Green Dragon” is King’s favourite and number one go-to when she’s looking for something inspirational and grounding.

“It’s a wonderful book, a cosmic creation story that talks about the cosmic allurements that form planets and galaxies, the great mystery of the attractive force of gravity, which we still can’t understand. We don’t create our individual attractions we uncover them, each of us discovers a field of allurements, the totality of which bear the unique stamp of that person’s personality. You do not know what you can do, or who you are in your fullest significance, or what powers are hiding within you. He says that our most primal desire is to become this allurement, to become this fascination”

At art college, King became so fed up with painting in a representative style that she threw everything out and started again. “After, I let myself be guided only by intuition and feelings” King’s work draws you into a contemplative world of ethereal, chalky hues with scrapes and dashes scattered, the softness interrupted by an industrial edginess.

“My paintings have a highly worked surface. I put the paint on then take it off, allowing the scraped back remains to build up and form the body of the work.” King openly admits she begins with feelings of failure which, in this age of imposter syndrome and comparisonitis, offers a parallel for the rest of us – who doesn’t question themselves when starting something new?

“I never set out with a plan of how it will look” she says, words that will gladden the heart of those of us who champion just getting going, plan or not. King reflects, “Many think that the more detail you add to a picture, the better and more talented you are. In fact, adding detail is very easy it’s just a matter of patience, it uses the logical side of your brain. I start by making this one mark, then another mark wants to be made, so I do that. It has its own power and energy - it’s very strange and never easy. Some of my paintings are worked on for over a year, others around 4-6 months.

Another cosmological influence is her firm belief in the power of the small gestures in the world around us. “I do think we have more of an impact than we realise. What each of us brings to the world is necessary and can have incalculable effects - it’s not always the grand gesture that has the power for change.”

King recalls a moment from the day before. 'A lovely older man was in front of me in the queue at the supermarket. I only had a couple of items. “Go ahead” he said, “get yourself back home on such a cold day.” He said it with such kindness, and that old-fashioned courtesy gave me such a feeling of warmth. It only took seconds, but it’s stayed with me - I told my sister about him and now here I am telling you… he probably wouldn’t dream for a minute he affected me so much.'

The little things are clearly important to King. She says, “We can’t presume to know when we’re doing something of importance. Once, my friend dropped her spoon in a cafe in Covent Garden. A group at a nearby table gave her one of theirs and she sat with them. Dynasties were born out of that spoon falling – many lives turned upside down.”

I’m keen to explore more of this story but I don’t ask her to expand. The detail isn’t important, understanding the power of any given moment is. And instead, we will sign off with one of my favorite quotes of the interview...

“No matter what you do in life, always bring your heart and the truest version of you”.

Paloma King worked in the fashion industry in London, Pairs, New York and Florence. Inspired by the art galleries of the world, she returned to Belfast and studied painting at university where she obtained a BA Fine Art (Hons). While at university she won a national award for portraiture and was selected to show her work in a private exhibition for President Clinton.

She has exhibited extensively throughout Ireland and has had one man shows in London and Dublin. She has had works in the Royal Ulster Academy and in the Royal Hibernian Academy. Her work has been placed in many private collections and are in public collections including NIE, AIB and The Office of Public Works.

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