Bohemians in Ballydehob!

My first visit to Ballydehob wasn’t until around 1990. I remember being struck by how busy a place it was then – I only wish my memories from nearly 30 years ago were clearer. I now know, of course, that this vibrant little community has a history of being a cosmopolitan creative hub of the arts going right back to the middle of the last century. It’s a fascinating story, and Ballydehob is celebrating it by establishing an Arts Museum and permanent collection, with the first exhibition opening this week in Bank House: please come!

Above: two batiks by Nora Golden. Left – The Rock of the Rings (rock art at Ballybane West) and right – detail from a work depicting Loughcrew-type passage grave art. Nora and her partner, Christa Reichel were early arrivals on the arts scene in Ballydehob. In the 1960s Christa bought a farmhouse and set up the region’s first studio pottery in Gurteenakilla then, with Nora, opened the ‘Flower House’ in the centre of the town: you can see it illustrated in the exhibition flyer at the bottom of this post. All this is well documented in the excellent book by Alison Ospina (herself a talented furniture maker) ‘West Cork Inspires’ (Stobart Davies, 2011).

These denizens of 1970s Ballydehob are not a Heavy Metal band (to my knowledge) but in fact four important artists who had settled here: John Verling – artist, ceramicist and architect,  Pat Connor – ceramic sculptor, Brian Lalor – artist, writer and printmaker, and David Chechovich – watercolourist. They are wearing the uniform of the time. Here’s Brian Lalor in his studio today (photo by Finola) – you can certainly see the similarity . . .

Brian still lives near Ballydehob, and is the mastermind and Curator of the new collection. And, if you can begin to see it all fitting together, John Verling (on the right of Brian in the exhibition poster above) took over the Gurteenakilla Pottery with his wife Noelle and together produced striking ceramics, examples of which are in the header photograph.

Gurteenakilla is lived in today by Angela Brady, an artist who works with fused glass. She is also an architect. And – she’s performing the most important task of opening the first exhibition in our new Arts Museum on Friday. Finola wrote about Angela and other artists who contributed to the 7 Hands show on the pier in Ballydehob two years ago: have a look at her post and see if you recognise any other names.

Beautiful stoneware goblets by Pat Connor, who is well represented in the collection. His maker’s mark is a memorable graphic. Another well known West Cork ceramicist represented here is Leda May, who with her husband Bob found Ballydehob in the late 1960s when they were invited by Christa Reichel to set up a pottery behind her own shop. Leda is still working in the area today, producing very fine painted porcelain ware (an example of which is shown below).

Above, from the exhibition – two earthenware mugs by Etain Hickey and Jim Turner, Rossmore Pottery 1983 and two Raku lustreware pieces by Jim Turner 1982. There are more stories to be told – to add to Alison’s comprehensive volume: the rise and fall of the Cork Craftsmans Guild, establishing the West Cork Arts Centre, exhibitions in far-flung places including Zurich, enigmatic repousee work – as yet we can’t trace its history . . . But all that is for another day, once the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM) is under way.

Below, posters by Brian Lalor and Repousee work by Shirley Day.

So here’s yet another reason to come to West Cork! This ‘taster’ exhibition starts on 10 August and continues through Heritage Week and Ballydehob’s Summer Festival until 26 August. We have to commend our Community Council in Ballydehob who are giving us the space in Bank House – right in the town centre (the former AIB Bank building) which they acquired for the permanent enjoyment of the local community. Also we have benefitted from Cork County Council who have given us a grant under the Creative Ireland Programme to help get the whole project off the ground. And most of all we have to thank local people who have freely donated pieces for the permanent collection – all will be acknowledged when the Museum is up and running.

Bohemians in Ballydehob! opens at 6pm on Friday 10th August at Bank House, Ballydehob

 

The Soul Expands with Beauty

We are so lucky to live in a place where the arts are valued as a necessary part of life and where we can attend art exhibitions, concerts, theatre, readings, film screenings. It all comes together every year at the Skibbereen Arts Festival. It somehow manages to combine fun, entertainment, wonder and beauty (like this West Cork seascape by Harriet Selka, above).

The Irish Memory Orchestra also enthralled us one evening – they play traditional and commissioned pieces entirely by memory.

Last time we wrote about this festival we said it was ‘hitting its stride’. This time the phrase that came to me was ‘it’s going from strength to strength.’ What a marvellous line up it was! You can see the whole program online and look at the sheer variety of experiences that we lucky West Cork folk got to pick from. A standout for us this year was the concert lineup, the art exhibitions and the poetry events.

Roseanne Cash and John Leventhal

It started off with Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny. You might think – what? Country Music? I know that’s not everyone’s taste, although I have a soft spot for it myself. But Roseanne sings a wonderful mix of Appalachian Folk, bluesy ballads and her own material along with the classics of country. She has a gorgeous voice and a husband accompanist and they both play a mean guitar. Here she is singing one of her father’s songs along with a touching tribute.

Skibbereeen was only her only other Irish stop besides Dublin and she came because of a line in Johhny’s song Forty Shades of Green (did you know her wrote that? I didn’t) that refers to Skibbereen. Watch him singing it at a concert in Dublin back in the days of Big Hair. It was Roseanne’s closing number, and predictably it brought the house down. She was in tears. We were in tears.

Something completely different a couple of nights later – The Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine is from the formidable talents of singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke, backed up by an excellent group of musicians that includes John Sheahan of The Dubliners. Declan has been working on this song cycle for years. He describes it “an attempt to bring fresh air to an unhealed wound, and to remind the Irish people of what we have overcome.” There’s a good overview of the project here and you’ll witness Declan’s unique voice and engaging personality. The subject matter was tough – we are in the middle of a major Famine commemoration event here this summer and we are becoming more familiar every day with its horrifying stories. Having written about the Coming Home Exhibition and the 110 Skibbereen Girls Project already, we found this concert to be poignant and powerful.

Lúnasa have long been recognised as one of the best Irish groups performing traditional music today and we’d been looking forward to this one very much. The bonus was the addition of Natalie Merchant as their special guest. I’ve been a fan for a long time and it was a great pleasure to see her in person. That voice! Take a listen.

She sang this one for us and Lúnasa transformed before our eyes into this amazing back up band. Imagine a version where instead of just guitars the harmonies are provided by a flute, an uillinn pipes, a fiddle, a guitar and a double bass. Magic.

Jim Turner’s ceramic pieces catch the eye at Anseo

We took a day to do the Art Trail. There’s a couple of large exhibitions including one curated by Catherine Hammond that Robert wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The other large show was called Anseo (on-shuh meaning ‘here’). Each artist was asked to write a statement addressing how he/she responds to living/being in West Cork and it was revelatory how different each one was – both the statement and the art.

Helen O’Keefe’s Neighbours – Long Island

But there were also hidden gems all over the place – in converted empty stores, in back rooms and unused office space. I enjoyed Sonia Bidwell’s quirky pieces constructed from fabric and found materials, upstairs in Lisheen’s House. Her Veronica is below.

School children had participated in a ‘City’ project where they explored design and architecture and built their own cities. It was fun and relevant and, in fact, mighty impressive what they had accomplished!

A local group of fabric artists, Wild Threads, had taken over a space near the supermarket to mount an exhibition of sea-themed work called ‘Littoral.’ As expressed in the program – ‘For some this means intimate vignettes of everyday views and for others it is the colourful explosions that Mother Nature throws at us.” It had never occurred to me that you can paint with fabric until I encountered the work of this group. It’s both a constraining and liberating medium, and the results were varied, imaginative and beautiful!

Piece by fabric artist Sam Healy

I can’t finish without a word on the poetry. While there were several events, the one that made the most impact on me was the launch of two new books by Pól Ó’Cólmáin and James Harpur. I’ve written about Pól before and used his poem in my post Pagan and Pure. This time it was a book, The Silence Unravelling, of Haiku and Tanka – just a few words to capture a moment, a feeling. I hope to use some of them in a future post – they’re brilliant. 

Pól Ó Colmáin – here not reciting his poetry but performing some of his songs

James Harpur is one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets. He’s a member of the Aosdána, an affiliation of artists whose election is based on a distinguished, creative and considerable body of work. He read from his new book The White Silhouette. Here is an extended quote from his Book Of Kells series of poems, this section dealing with Gerald of Wales, Geraldus Cambrensis, who comes to see the book.

Beauty is not so much a thing

as a moment, unrepeatable,

although the moment needs the thing

as a flame needs a wick

or images a page.

Or it’s a streak of lightning

connecting heaven to earth

whereby in a flash we breathe

the enormity of something Other

beyond our tiny grasping selves

and fill our lungs with it,

before the dark returns again.

The soul expands with beauty –

it cannot help itself; our task in life

is to prevent it shrinking back.

Janet Murren’s Creaky Stairs. I love her multi-layered atmospheric constructions

The Fertile Crescent – A Review

Just about a year ago I reviewed a most stimulating exhibition which was running in Skibbereen: West Cork Creates. It featured collaborations between local craftspeople, visual artists, photographers and designers – combining their skills and expertise to produce exciting, original work. In my review I asked if there was a difference between an artist and a craftsperson, and this sparked off a lengthy online debate. My favourite sentence from this exchange was penned by Colin Murray, an artist printmaker who had taken part in the Skibbereen exhibition:

…I think all creative workers share the essence of making a lingering dream and the effort of sharing one’s dreams with others is an urgent business of us humans…

All the work in the Skibbereen exhibition was outstanding, but I was drawn more than anything else to the collaboration of artist and writer Brian Lalor and ceramicist Jim Turner. They have continued to collaborate, and the current exhibition at the Blue House Gallery, Schull is an extraordinary display of their combined talents.

One of Brian and Jim’s larger works currently showing in the Blue House Gallery in Schull – a gold capped obelisk

The exhibition has the title The Fertile Crescent, a phrase that might seem strange, at first, encountered on the small main street of a village in the far west of rural Ireland. It conjures up, of course, the images we had in our school text books of the beginnings of human society, including the development of writing, the invention of the wheel, the use of glass – and irrigation which enabled settled agriculture to develop. This led gradually to the exploration of metalworking – some of the earliest figurative bronze work is from the area:

fertile crescent bronze

Not in the Schull exhibition – but original bronze figurines from Tell Judaidah, Turkey. These are the oldest examples of true bronze (combination of copper and tin) known. They are dated to around 3000 BC (photo – University of Chicago)

At school we learnt about this land and its features and I remember the romance of the names that were conjured up: Mesopotamia, Assyria, Egypt, Tigris, Euphrates… geographically far away but important enough to be titled The Cradle of Civilisation. That’s where our ancestors came from, we were told: that’s where our religions began.

great mosque

Minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra, an etching by Brian Lalor

That geography today is at the forefront of our news. We now think of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine as well as the older names. We now think of idealogical war zones, we think of suffering, of displaced people; we think of bombs, human carnage, ruined ancient sites – and refugees. The mission statement for the exhibition begins:

…In this exhibition Jim Turner and Brian Lalor have devoted their attention to the current tragedy unfolding in the Middle East where the ruins of the civilisations of the past are being destroyed, and the present-day populations forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives, to become refugees in adjoining countries and in Europe. Our world heritage is under threat of total destruction as the cycles of violence recorded by history continue to occur…

It’s this modern view of what is going on in The Fertile Crescent that occupies this exhibition, and for that alone this work is as important on the main street of Schull as it would be in any major world capital.

Children pot

The ceramics – pots and bowls: the decorations on these utilitarian objects portray urgent messages for our society today. Jim Turner is the potter and Brian Lalor provides the illustrations

In the exhibition there are references everywhere to the cultural history of the Fertile Crescent. Jim Turner has made a series of cylinder seals, which involve inscribing a clay roller which is used to impress calligraphy on to a clay tablet; the same techniques have been used to decorate ceramic plaques.

cylinder seal

(Top) one of many ‘cylinder seals’ by Jim Turner on display in the gallery; (above) two of the ceramic plaques with impressed patterns

Obelisks and ziggurats are architectural features which we associate with the history of the Middle East. The two artists have produced a huge array of artefacts using these distinctive forms. Some stand in serried rows like an army (top picture), while other are decorated by Brian with motifs ancient and contemporary. The juxtaposition perhaps sometimes perplexes the viewer but the overall effect within the galleries is arresting and we are left in no doubt that these artists are giving us – Europeans – clear and deep messages, not only about our endangered world heritage, but our own responsibilities towards the chaos that is engulfing The Fertile Crescent in our own time.

Try to catch this exhibition: it deserves a wide audience. Perhaps West Cork is a long way for some of you to come? I hope there will be chances for this work to be seen elsewhere. I know the artists are collaborating on a further venture later on this summer: doubtless that may well reach the pages of this Journal. Congratulations to The Blue House Gallery for providing us with this most thought-provoking and dynamic work.

panorama

poster

West Cork Creates

We were bowled over by the latest exhibition to open in Skibbereen on Saturday: West Cork Creates. It shows collaborations between local craftspeople, visual artists, photographers and designers – combining their skills and expertise to produce exciting, original work.

test pieces

Top picture – The Great West Cork Obelisk (see below) is featured by the entrance to the gallery; above – fired test pieces from the obelisk project

Here’s a riddle: what’s the difference between an artist and a craftsperson? If you have a definitive answer please tell me, because this is a debate that will last forever… Grayson Perry contributes to the discussion in this Guardian piece, starting provocatively with:

…I see the craft world as a kind of lagoon and the art world in general as the ocean. Some artists shelter in this lagoon, because their imagination isn’t robust enough to go out into the wider sea…

Grayson Perry makes pots, so is he an artist? Well, presumably the British art establishment thought so as they gave him the Turner Prize in 2003, the first time it had gone to a ‘ceramic artist’.

More from the obelisk project and – right – Brian Lalor, one of its creators

Where does that leave us? Is someone who makes flowerpots an artist, because a flowerpot might be an attractive object? Where do you place something like the Book of Kells? It’s a functional object – the four Gospels lavishly illuminated – created in medieval times by many different hands. Yet it’s unique, overflowing with stunning visual images, beautiful and priceless. It’s a wonderful example of collaboration between the functional craft of the scribes who penned the texts and the minds of the (undoubted) artists who produced the decorations around those texts: perhaps they were the same hands.

Left – metamorphosis of two of Alison Ospina’s Greenwood chairs and – right – Dee Forbes, President and Managing Director of Discovery International, formally opening the exhibition

What about Finola’s subject for today, Harry Clarke – artist or craftsman? Stained glass is not ostensibly functional (except, perhaps to change the quality of the light coming through a window) yet the making of it is a craft requiring a lengthy apprenticeship and a garnered knowledge of specific materials and their use. I have no doubts: walk into St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, and be dazzled by the Clarke windows there. They are inspired: true art. Harry Clarke designed and made these windows, so he was artist and craftsman rolled into one.

book of printsArtist and printmaker Coilin Murray with The Big Book

For me West Cork Creates (part of the Taste of West Cork Food Festival) demonstrates conclusively that you can’t differentiate between art and crafts. As you enter the gallery you are immediately presented with an iconic piece – The Great West Cork  Obelisk – which stands almost three metres high. It is a collaboration between two minds and two sets of hands: Brian Lalor and Jim Turner. Brian we have met before in the pages of our blog: he is a true polymath. He writes (prolifically), he produces art (prolifically), he has been an architect and an archaeologist. Jim is a ceramic sculptor of renown. Egyptian ‘obelisks’ are commemorative monuments of the Pharaohs and they usually carry a lengthy inscription praising the deeds of some significant individual.

obelisk in context

The Great West Cork Obelisk

This one is constructed from four terracotta sections made by Jim in his Clonakilty studio and fired in a specially constructed kiln. The base inscriptions are all quotations, two from social philosophers and two from writers, all concerned with the state of society. Brian’s images derive from these, from the contemporary world and from the local environment. The artists’ statement says: Obelisks may be the new round towers of the landscape… (remember that Brian has written the standard work on Ireland’s medieval round towers). I agree: I’d love to see this work prominently displayed in a public place locally – and many more like it. The obelisk absorbed our attention for a good half an hour, delaying us from moving on to the rest of the exhibition: it’s a show stopper!

Alison Ospina and – right – one of her Greenwood stools painted by Etain Hickey 

There are chairs and stools: functional objects to be sat upon. But you’d think twice about sitting on these. They are initially examples of the work of Alison Ospina who uses coppiced hazel to make distinctive seating, but they have been transformed by others (painter, sculptor and felt maker) into works of art which will primarily be looked at and appreciated.

for sale

The gallery space includes a sales area where you can buy the work of the participating exhibitors

There are thirteen collaborations in the exhibition including stone sculptor and furniture maker; metal sculpture and photography; basketmaker and visual artist; painter and felt maker; painter and boatbuilder; cutler and jeweller, all based or working within West Cork… This is just a taster – we have to go back and catch up on the other genres and artists and perhaps write a further blog post. The exhibition runs for five weeks from 8 August to 10 September at Levis’s Quay in the centre of Skibbereen, and is open from Mondays to Saturdays between 11am and 6pm. Be sure to get there – you won’t be disappointed: watch out for the gallery talks, too.

Sculptor Helen Walsh collaborates with photographer Rohan Reilly

Once you have seen the exhibition, you might like to comment and add your contribution to the artist / craftsperson debate.

wooden sun