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Gemma Whelan’s brush with freedom

In the Portland writer's new novel "Painting Through the Dark," a young Irish artist fights for liberation in California.


Gemma Whelan, author of “Painting Through the Dark.”

You’re 21 years old and recently separated from an Irish convent and just landed in San Francisco, 5,000 miles from the only home you’ve ever known, with a three-month temporary visa and your American sponsor nowhere in sight and no plans except to start a new life as different from the old one as you can possibly make it.

Ashling O’Leary, the heroine of Portland writer Gemma Whelan’s new novel Painting Through the Dark, hits the ground running – or rather tramping, all over the streets of San Francisco, looking for work and a place to stay and just a toehold, knowing that if she overstays her three months and gets caught she’ll be sent back to Ireland and never allowed back in the United States again. She knows a little judo, which comes in handy on the rougher streets of San Francisco in 1982, and she’s an aspiring artist – a painter, with talent and some training but nothing much of a track record: Maybe, she hopes, she can find work in a gallery.

Oh. And there’s that business about men. Men with power, like parish priests, and fathers, and well-off older lovers, who assume things and do things and pretty much know the cultures in which they thrive are going to keep quiet and let them do what they want to do. There are girls in the little Irish town who disappear for a few months before coming home chastened and slimmed down and often bereft; girls in the convent who are favorites of the priest, and whose personalities undergo a sea change, not for the better. Girls who assume family responsibilities their parents ought to be fulfilling. “What was wrong with the adults, the parents?” Ashling wonders at one point. “Why weren’t they shouting and protecting the children? The whole bloody country was either oblivious or playing deaf and dumb.”

Is it any wonder that Ashling is determined to break away?

Ashling is young and ambitious and brave and bright and a little desperate, and as a central character, very good company. Whelan balances the two timelines of Painting Through the Dark deftly, moving the narrative with movie swiftness through that three-month tick-tock of time, but also delving into the insistent caverns of the past, a place that has shaped Ashling’s present, and with which she must come to terms if she’s to take control of her future.

The novel is divided into two parts, the first Ashling’s immersion in the glories and dangers of San Francisco, with its glitter and galleries and museums and side-by-side wealth and poverty and such signifiers of entrapment and escape as Alcatraz, the former island prison that holds a strange fascination for her.


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The second section plunges her into the mysteries of a house hidden deep in the woods of Mendocino County, cut off from almost everything, in the company of a former ballerina now paralyzed from the waist down, and two strange men. There, if nothing else, she can paint, and paint, and paint. Throughout the novel Ashling encounters the works and approaches of famous painters, who are guides of a sort as her approach to making art evolves along with her explorations of her past, her needs, and the world in which she finds herself. (The Brontës and Jayne Eyre drop into the narrative now and again, too, not entirely randomly.)

Painting Through the Dark is Whelan’s second novel (her first, Fiona: Stolen Child, was published a dozen years ago) and although it is very far from being autobiographical – Whelan was never in a convent; she is not a visual artist, although at one point she thought about becoming a curator – like any good writer she calls on what she’s observed from the experiences and circumstances of her own life. She grew up in a large family in Ireland, and, defying expectations, was the first in her family to go to college, at Trinity in Dublin.

“I fought to go to college,” she said in a telephone conversation. “I knew in Ireland, the way I felt at 21 was, there were no opportunities for me. I felt the options for me were nursing, primary school teacher, or working in a bank. And working in a bank was considered the good option. I guess I broke the mold that I was expected to stay in.”

Like Ashling, when she was 21 Whelan left Ireland for the U.S. – not San Francisco, but New York; and not on a temporary work visa but on a student visa. Like Ashling’s, her move was something like an escape. And eventually she did get west, to San Francisco and the Bay Area, and more college at Berkeley, and something that felt like a liberation.

“San Francisco was really like paradise to me,” she said. “I was just in love with it. San Francisco was such a haven. The openness. It was so open.”

And very different from the novel’s second section, in which Ashling is huddled in the Mendocino woods. “That’s absolutely based on something that happened to me,” Whelan said, “not in California but in New York, on Long Island. I was trapped. No money, no resources.”

Whelan’s own artistic journey took a sharp turn in San Francisco when she signed up for an evening class in acting at the city’s American Conservatory Theatre. “From that point it was all theater,” she said.


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Soon enough she was founding artistic director of the Bay Area’s Wilde Irish Productions. After a move to Portland, she founded the contemporary Irish company Corrib Theatre in 2012, with her husband, Adam Liberman. They retired last year – she as artistic director, he as managing director – although she continues to direct: She’ll direct Corrib’s May production of Brian Foster’s Myra’s Story, and she and Liberman will lead a Corrib theater tour of Ireland in the summer.

Through her theater career Whelan has kept writing, and the two disciplines have fed off each other. As Painting Through the Dark demonstrates, she knows how to shape a scene, when to make an entrance, when to move offstage and let the next scene take shape. And, from life and from the stage, she knows drama: She gets the simultaneous thrill and catch-in-the-throat nervousness of landing in a place you’ve never been, on your own in a strange city or strange country, with no plan of action but to feel its presence, start moving, and go from there.

Rather like Ashling. Don’t just stand there. Act.


  • Gemma Whelan will appear in conversation about Painting in the Dark with Portland novelist Rene Denfeld (The Enchanted, The Child Finder) at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, at Broadway Books, 1714 N.E. Broadway, Portland.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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