Autobiography

Central to my being is my work.

I now recognise a sort of inner numbness when for whatever reason I have not been working in my studio for some time.

Though I grew up between two brothers I was a lonely child becoming an avid reader at can early age. The other big influence on my childhood was the ever-present river.

We never lived more than a few yards from it and summer and winter if ever I were missing (which was often) the search party would find me in some spot or other on its banks. I think I was regarded as an odd child and I definitely felt always a bit alien in that then tight knit community.

For what seemed long periods I would, during holidays or after school go to my relation’s slaughterhouse behind their butcher shop,

The waste pipe poured directly into the river.
Although I could never bring myself to stay-
For the shot on the forehead
I would watch for hours
alternatively fascinated and revolted
By the whole process.
The particular sound of the skinning,
of flesh parting with pelt,
The hot smell of blood,
the colours as flesh yielded to bone,
and the hands of the butchers
as red as the flesh they handled,
their language
as coarse as the green contents
Of the entrails they sluiced into the river.

I would go every day until my revulsion would overcome my fascination and I would tear myself away until some months later when the whole process would start again.

On one of my first art classes we were asked to draw from on of those flexible wooden figures to be found in practically every art room, I found myself going over and over the lines I had drawn in trying to get it right. In comparing my effort with the neat single lines of my neighbours, I despaired of the “mess” and all the other messes. To my surprise, when the teacher came ‘round to me it was clear that she was impressed and praised my drawings highly. Later when all the drawings were hanging together on the wall I started to see where she was coming from, my drawing had an energy and boldness that the others lacked.

This was a pivotal moment for me as nobody had been at all encouraging about my “messes”; they did not fit into the accepted notion of drawing with its required prettiness. In that moment I saw that there were other criteria than I had ever imagined and that somehow I, however awkwardly fitted.

From that moment the art room became my home. As it was also the home of this remarkably encouraging and energetic teacher, Sr. Grignon O.P., it tended to be open most of the time and I was nearly always welcome. The art room was also a recreational option if it rained; I used to pray for rain. When it came time to choose a career, I had no difficulty in choosing art. The thought of being able to work at this all day every day seemed to me like an eternal holiday, it still does. I my first term at art school (the old N.C.A.D., Kildare St.) I discovered and fell in love with clay. I quickly abandoned my first year foundation course and took up residence in the sculpture room. At the time this meant drawing and modelling from life all day every day.

This was to become the pattern all my working life to date first the excitement at the material then the exploration through the material.

It was not until the latter end of my three years there that working from life, as an end in itself began to pall, but that concentration on the figure trained the eye and the hand and as importantly embedded a natural sense of proportion that remains always.

At the end of that three years I married a Trinity post-grad student of chemistry and we moved to Belfast, he to do his doctorate in Queens and I to finish my diploma in Belfast College of Art. This was to be Belfast last year in the top floor in the old tech. A time of transition in every way. I think that I might have thrived there but I became pregnant very early on and had other things on my mind. I had dropped out by Easter…
I was twenty-one.

Four years and three children later I woke up.
From that moment of awakening and more or less extricating myself from this situation took four or five painful years. A year later we were moved to Holland and six months later I was back in art education. By this stage I was so hungry for direction I knew I needed. I knew enough to find the right teacher. Her name was Hanna Mobach, she was the sculptural ceramics teacher at Artibus in Utrecht and a fine sculptor.

Although I had struggled to work in a lost sort of way all through those years in Northern Ireland; the work made no reference to the political atrocities that were a part of our daily lives.

Now that I was out of the situation the work that poured out at this stage contained all sorts of references. Worms, blood, dismembered body parts. The odd thing was that none of this was conscious; it took retrospective view and other people to point this out. These two factors remain a constant in my work. One that I only seem to make reference to events in my life after the event, and two, that the references are usually semi or unconscious and it often takes other people to make me aware of what is often glaringly obvious. During this period I met a number of strong women who helped me enormously. I took matters into my own hands, spent a week in Dublin during which I arranged rented accommodation, enrolled the children into school and got myself accepted onto the teachers education course in N.C.A.D.

Three weeks later the children and I were sailing back to Ireland having made a hair raising drive from Holland to Le Havre.

The following year was tough and challenged me to my limits, I was on a full time academic course, teaching eight hours a week and trying to take care of three children aged four, five, and eight.

In the last year or so in Holland I came across women in the art movement like Judy Chicago; who were talking of women being equal but different to men.

And how women artists no matter how successful in mainstream art invariably had private work that talked about their inner feelings. The more I explored this viewpoint the more convinced and empowered I felt.

There was a requirement for some personal work during this teacher’s year and it was then that I embarked on the fibreglass work for which I first became known.

The summer after this course, having got my teachers qualification I started to look up what teaching jobs might be available for the following year. I was busy circling the wanted ads in the newspaper when a painter colleague called and when he discovered what I was doing; reminded me of what teaching full time at second level with three children would entail. He advised me that there simply would be no time for my own work. It was good advice, which I followed. The following year saw me in all sorts of teaching situations from night classes in Coologh to setting up pottery classes in Arbour Hill Prison. I had been fortunate to have been given a studio in Dunlaoghaire School of Art at that time and the following year I was teaching there.

The Dublin that I came back to in 1975 was not the Dublin that I had left nine years before. The revolution had happened in N.C.A.D. The academy cobwebs had been blown out of art education and my peer group were now the teachers.

The work that I was producing was consciously feminist; the critics called it strong yet delicate; and consisted of layers of fibre glass incorporating resin impregnated gauze, loosely based on the dome, with references to breasts, pregnancy, hidden things. It took a friend to point out that open wounds, bruises and all kinds of hurts were also clearly visible. This work was raw and above all new; and although I rarely sold anything during this period; the critics loved it.

Although it was now the latter half of the seventies, the sixties were happening in Dunlaoghaire. The excitement level on art, art education was terrific.

Passionate positions were held and defended, furious arguments were continued for long periods; we were re-inventing the world and I was in the thick of it. Unfortunately, most of it was happening in the pub.

In the summer of 1979, on impulse; I rented a cottage on an almost deserted island off Connamara. At that time a Breton travelled all around the coast of Ireland in his yellow van buying periwinkles for the French market. The whole family embarked on collecting these for his twice weekly visits. This occupation necessitated long hours gazing into rock pools, which brought me back to a prime activity of my childhood.

Time to look, see and absorb the movements of the planets, of the moon, of the tides.

The spring tides brought the sea right up to our front door steps where we tied up the children’s canoe. This summer changed my life. Not at once, but gradually. After this summer my work and my life slowly but surely began to change. The work started to be much less self-referential, no longer one big scream; there started to enter into it the rhythms of nature, and the countryside. I continued to work in fibreglass for another year and then abandoned it for paper.

The following summer my mother was dying very painfully of cancer. My sister and I took it turns to nurse her and she died at the beginning of September. I quit teaching to take on my work full-time.

The process of healing continued; the work becoming more and more quiet. The Black Series – Graphite covered paper relief – evolved during that year. During that year, I slowly and somewhat fearfully got together with my present partner, though having great problems trusting my own judgement.

1982 was a huge year for me; I made a major installation for the Joyce Centenary in the Douglas Hyde Gallery and used the opening for the reception of our secret marriage of that day. Within a few short months I represented Ireland at a sculpture conference in San Francisco; we moved to Wexford; I won the major Guinness Peat Aviation Award and in November we had our much wanted baby daughter.

We spent four years in Wexford where we started a garden. I started to make paper and cast various organic objects in paper. It was another time of transition. All of my adult life had been spent in an urban environment; and I had become thoroughly urban.

The culture shock was huge; to live in a society again where art was largely irrelevant necessitated evolving a new language with which to establish a dialogue. This was to be the start of my ongoing work in the community. When we moved back to Kilkenny we bought a tumbledown farmyard with a courtyard of outbuildings. It was a major restoration task, which meant that I had no studio for about eighteen months.

When I resumed work I went through the bleakest period of my working life. Day after day I went to the studio knowing that whatever I produced would be rubbish. It is a curious thing that during long periods of not working, the head continues to work on. So the difficulty is, that on resumption of work all that can be produced is an illustration of the idea, a single layered nothing. Most artists would recognise the black moment of despair that is often the precursor of a breakthrough.
When it finally came, I had nine of the best months of my working life. It was the black work again, which had been stopped artificially because of our move to Wexford, but very different in structure and content. Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, I spent in the studio and the work made itself as if there was a being at my shoulder directing me.

Just before this breakthrough I went to Annamakerrig for my first residency there. It continues to be a place of refuge and strength after many visits.
As a child in the fifties in rural Ireland; I grew up with a sort of dual weight of the spiritual world. On the one hand there was the Catholic Church, with its rules and regulations, all of which had to be strictly obeyed. I always felt fearful that I had inadvertently committed a mortal sin by omitting a sin in Confession or some such detail. On the other hand there were all the pisogues still abounding to do with the fairy world, again the possibilities for inadvertent transgressions were legion. If you took away a stick from a Rath for instance, the fairies would come and get you etc. etc. This did not come from my immediate family, but from the wider society. The upshot was that on leaving school and coming into contact with all sorts of diverse views like existentialism, fabianism, and agnosticism; I tried to quickly shed Catholicism, but found that it was so deeply ingrained in me that I had to work very hard at losing it. This lostness remained my position for many years although I can pinpoint the start of a spiritual path in a growing interest in such subjects such as myths and symbols. Also there was sixties mysticism and although I was never attracted to Eastern mysticism; out of these conversations a slow process was set in motion.

I spent a good part of my forties in study, re-examining the basic tenets of the great world truth; sifting dogmas and shaking them to find the inner truth beneath. I also went back to the big questions; this time finding answers. I discovered a wonderful world where the physical is an expression of the spiritual, a holistic world where everything is interconnected in the most elegant way, and I am free.

All my work for the past number of years is an exploration of that world, however awkward and fumbling. The start of this was the second black series Earth, Air, Fire, Water.

Shortly after arriving in Kilkenny, a local Camphill Community contacted me and asked me to work with a middle aged resident with Downes Syndrome, gifted visually, he need a facilitator to help him realise his work. This was to be the start of a long road for me, working with people with special needs. In 1995 when the opportunity arose, to set up a P.L.C. Art and Design Course in Kilkenny I found myself intrigued with the idea. I decided to take it on, set it up and after two years find somebody good to hand it over to. The students who presented themselves were not at all the sorts of students I had expected. There were twelve, a mixed bunch of mature students, very immature school leavers, slow learners, psychiatric patients and more. In finding ways to address these students I discovered how much I had learned in my studio, from my study and I suppose from life itself. Having had unruly teenagers myself I was easier able to work with the rebels and with more sympathy. It was a tough challenging year but by the end of it I knew that something unique had happened, the visual standards were high, but more importantly there was strong evidence of radical behavioural changes, a healing process had started to happen among the students.

The next year I invited a number of people with special needs to study on the course full-time, from Camphill and elsewhere. Coupled with that as word got around a group of very bright school-leavers and mature people turned up.

The richness that this mix of people brought was wonderful. The odd thing for me was that although this work was exhausting, all consuming, physically and mentally when I DID get back in the studio it was as if I had never left. This intimate way of teaching became my work. By 2001 I felt a deep inner need to be back in the studio full-time again and I handed it over.

One thread that has been with me all my working life has been painting. I would feel the need to paint coming over me periodically. I learned to view this with real dismay but always some optimism. In a conversation I had with a painter some years ago, I stated that I was no painter, that I had given it a year once to no effect; he eyeballed me as he said, “A year is not enough”. In the summer of 2001 in Annamakerrig in seeking some light relief from the intensity of making one of my boxes, I started with this material the previous summer and again at Christmas to go on with it. This though was different; it was working.

In trying to analyse why this painting worked when the other attempts failed, I realised that ever the cause was bound up in the material. That this material precisely fits my needs and temperament. The slow gathering of the materials, the bees-wax, pigments from the South of France and damar, larger crystals that have to be dissolved slowly in pure turpentine. Then, when this mix is prepared and melted, it is necessary to work extremely fast. Then there is the nature of the material, enabling me to bring all of my sculptural considerations and experience to bear. Structure and Texture.
The subject matter I would have absorbed during long hours of gardening, drawing the subtlety of the colours from my very being. The last factor has to do with my long concern with number. As a child I unknowingly followed a long family tradition of counting everything, I knew how many steps there were on the stairs, how many candles on the altar at high mass, I delighted in mental arithmetic savouring the mental agility it took to keep all those numbers in my head. The first time that I cross –referenced a sum I clearly remember my delight in the constancy of the numbers.

Later, when I was mixing with the mathematicians and physicists in Queens I understood the concept of the elegance of the solution while not being capable of following the reasoning. When I came across sacred geometry and the famous quote of Aristotle’s that the whole universe is number, there it all was.




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