BUTTE - Hauntingly dark with dense smoke roiling against a tell-tale burnt-orange sky, the “No Greater Love Than This” oil painting conveys a heart-wrenching depiction of the Granite Mountain-Speculator fire.
Created by Irish artist Stephen Madden, the painting draws in the viewer, trying to make sense of the in-the-moment disaster going on under the Granite Mountain headframe, when 168 miners died in a fire in 1917.
“It looks to me like a ship going down,” said Jerry Sullivan, part of the “No Greater Love” musical production organizing committee. “The fire itself represents the chaos going on underground – and the sacrifice taking place.”
Irish artist Stephen Madden has taken on the emotion, the heartbreak, the danger of a storyteller with his handsome 3-foot by 2-foot oil piece embellished with an appropriate dark, industrial frame.
“That was the idea – the fire and the smoke has a glow and a fierceness,” said Madden, 32, a native of Newry in County Down, Ireland – a 40-minute drive from Belfast with a population of about 30,000. He was in town to unveil his painting at a donors-only reception at the Clark Chateau on Saturday commemorating the 100th anniversary of the disaster. The unveiling is part of the original “No Greater Love” musical production to be staged June 9-10 at the Mother Lode Theater.
The realistic painting portrays the worst hard-rock mining disaster in American history that rocked Butte and its immigrant workers to the core. Madden used historic photos and his own present-day photos as guides back home, where it took him about six months to paint the piece.
The smoke trails from the defunct Speculator Mine on the right to the Granite Mountain Mine headframe in the foreground. Mine dumps surround the hoist house, headframe and other buildings.
“It’s kind of a reminder of what’s going on down below,” said Sullivan, hosting Madden for the second time in a year. “It looks a bit serene, but the mine is sort of ghostly.”
In Gaelic, the piece is titled “Nil Gra Nios Mo Na Seo.”
Personally, Sullivan commissioned Madden for three other pieces: scenes of the Stewart Mine, Sullivan’s mother’s home in Eyeries, Ireland, and another family home in Beara.
The two men connected through Madden’s grandparents, Louis and Olwen Morgan, who worked in Ireland behind the scenes for Project Children in the 1990s. At the time, Sullivan was the Butte lead, placing many Irish Catholic and Protestant children in Butte during the summer – an extension of the original 1975 program that provided kids a peaceful break from the religious and political strife in Ireland.
The Morgan-Sullivan friendship developed – and Madden visited Butte for the first time last year.
“After my visit to Butte, I read the book, “Fire and Brimstone,” which told me what the disaster was like,” said Madden. “It was big-time inspiration – very heartfelt.”
A self-employed artist, Madden makes a living as a painter. He graduated with a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Belfast at Ulster in 2013. He received a bachelor’s degree from Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art school in 2009.
Hoping to land back in New York City, Madden said President Donald Trump’s current immigration restrictions have made it more difficult to get a work visa. So he plans to move from Ireland to Germany – probably Berlin – because “it’s a big, arty city,” he said.
Madden hails from a family of stone-cutters, but he said an artistic bent runs in the family.
The “No Greater Love Than This” subject matter is “totally new” for Madden who added, “I do a bit of everything.”
His online website is loaded with a mix of realistic photography-like paintings, abstract portraits and still-life. He sells mostly from his website: www.stephenmaddenstudio.blogspot.co.uk/
“I had a gallery in Newry, but it just didn’t work out,” said Madden. “I may open an art gallery again in Berlin. It’s just better selling online. I’ve been very successful.”