At night, you might find him dancing round his garage. That’s if his latest abstract art project is going well.
Yes, the man beneath the hard hat and high vis jacket is a gifted artist whose work is currently on display in Sheffield.
There are parallels between his two lives. Both require a process and faith in your ability to get that process to where you want it.
But a building site in Chesterfield is a far cry from an art school in Valencia. Declen is a man who juggles a double life and looks pretty content about it.
He lives in Meersbrook, where his cluttered garage acts as an art studio. His work is on show at the Dorothy Pax bar in Victoria Quays, his first exhibition for 20 years.
A father of three, he has two girls and a boy, aged from 13 to eight.
Art was a passion from childhood and he completed his education with a masters in fine art at the Norwich School of Art.
He fell into the building game by circumstances.
When his mum Bridget was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, Declen moved back home to Nottingham and helped to look after her.
He worked shifts in pubs and when his Irish-born parents decided they wanted to go back to their home, Declen needed a full-time job.
The pub shifts were not reliable but fortunately he had a friend who worked for Lovells, the house builder.
Declen started as a labourer. After 18 years, he is site construction manager. The hard work paid off. “I worked my way through the ranks,” he says
The 47-year-old is currently on a site in Holmewood, Chesterfield, building 150 houses. The regular hours have always suited his artistic passion. “I had weekends off so I could do more art,” he says.
Just like rising up the construction trade rank, Declen knew artistic success would be hard work. “At college I was never under the illusion that I would be painting full-time straight away,” he says. “Art takes time, it is a long process to learn.”
Fortunately, he is patient and trusts himself. “I had faith in the process of my work which starts with stories and I sketch these out.”
These can be myths or stories from the homeland of his Irish parents, as well as the Gaia theory of Dr James Lovelock where the earth survives instability by repetition and constant evolution.
Declen is a fan of repetition and evolution. These concepts are expressed through his art as large abstract pieces created from oil, gloss, and spray paints, wax, wood and canvas.
His parents' input included telling him about Kildownet in County Mayo, and the town’s rather forbidding looking cemetery plays a big part in his sketchbooks.
He loved the shapes and this is key to abstract painting.
“The stories are developed by the decisions you make over shapes like the stones and they develop to become part of the picture. It is a pictorial language,” he says.
He has scores of sketchbooks where the shapes have moved position and when Declen adds colour he says it comes from the environment around those shapes.
This is the process of his art, which he started at college and continued at the University of Southampton before going on to study in Valencia and Norwich.
There is a parallel with his work in the building trade. “The process you follow is footings, inspection, drainage, structures, pre-plaster. There is a process as there is in art.
“I’m not a shouty site manager and I know there will always be problems dealing with issues where something doesn’t turn up or is done wrongly, it’s what happens when you work with people.
“It is about problem solving and that’s the same with art. When you paint with confidence you can feel great, but you don’t know everything, you have to learn the process.
“You don’t instantly become a site manager and you don’t become an instant artist.
“You’ve got to build up confidence in yourself where if you see something going wrong you can put it right.
“On site, you have to be able to deal with people who don’t agree with you. I’m calm but I do have peaks and troughs in art.
“When it is going well I dance around the garage, but when it is not so good you have to detach yourself and trust that it will get better.
“When a painting is started I use the initial marks to form my decisions, then proceed depending on what it is I am painting. It can take years to unlock a painting - I believe in the work and working the process of painting. I normally have 10-15 paintings that are either sitting waiting to be unlocked, or are still unfinished and constantly on the move!”
During the pandemic, he was furloughed for eight weeks which gave him a chance to re-assess his work.
“I had time to stand back, get the paintings out and clean them down and re-evaluate.”
So those 15 paintings which are in progress at any one time take time. “I started one in 1999 which I didn’t finish until last year. You’ve got to have faith.”
He was invited to do the Dorothy Pax exhibition by Rebecca Hearne who curates shows at the bar.
Declen knew this could throw up possibilities of making some money but is cautious. He says: “I wasn’t looking to sell the work, if you have to rely on art for your wage you might 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 lots of offers but I don’t know what price to put on them.
“That’s why I’ve never sold any of my work, the work has been to get an audience and get them to react to it, whether they like it or not.
“I would like to make money from it and go full-time, but it is a different process. My thing has been to do the painting, I’ve got to build the confidence to sell it.
“Gallery owners have started to follow me and we’ll just see how it goes. I’ll carry on painting and working in construction because I’ve got to pay the bills.”
There are four works on show and Declen says he has been told they could fetch between £2,500 to £3,000. He’s 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 pictured with a painting called Biarritz, the colours 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 gates of the art school are at the bottom of the picture. I sketched them in 1996.” You see what he means about taking time.
Declen enjoyed his time in Spain. “The weather helps! It makes you want to work late.”
Unlike a freezing cold night in Sheffield in his garage, but once Declen starts he gets wrapped up in the work and those shapes. His influences include Sean Scully, the Dublin-born artist who came to international prominence as a painter of abstract works featuring combinations of squares and stripes. “They are shamelessly blocks of colour and you’ve got to have confidence in it,” says Declen.
Another is Basil Beattie who Declen saw presenting his work on Newsnight and felt encouraged by. Beattie’s work revolves around abstraction and is known for its emotive and gestural forms “I related to the language of his pictures,” says Declen.
Aware of Sheffield artists like Joe Scarborough and Pete McKee, Declen is a fan of city-born John Hoyland, regarded one of the most inventive and dynamic abstract painters of the post-war period. “He had a show at the Millennium Galleries, big expressive paintings, amazing.”
Born in Nottingham, Declen has been in Sheffield for the last six years and now calls it home. He is a big fan of its history. “What I like about it is the industrial heritage.
“Imagine all the people who grafted and put the hours in to make the beautiful factories. I drive round Attercliffe and remember that it fed steel to the world. Of course, it changes and that is fascinating.
“Sheffielders have a real sense of civic pride and this is definitely home.”
He has an Instagram account called the Loneliness of an Abstract Painter, but remember, the loneliness is part of a process which can make him dance. And you don’t get much of that on a building site.
His show will run at the Dorothy Pax in Arch 17, Wharf Street, Victoria Quays, throughout May.