Crocosmia is the official name for that exuberant roadside flower that blooms all over the west of Ireland. (We call it Feileastram in Irish, or Montbretia). It actually comes from southern and eastern Africa but it has adapted impressively to our misty shores and it now flourishes in the hedgerows adding a luxurious splash of orange colour to the verdant Irish countryside .
Crocosmia is also the name of a group of writers and poets who are seeking asylum here in Ireland.
Today I want to tell you about a collaborative art project between the artist Clodagh Emoe and the poets of Crocosmia. It all started in the garden of the Spirasi Centre – Spirasi is the intercultural NGO that works with refugees, asylum seekers and disadvantaged migrant groups in Ireland.
A weekly gardening session led to the creation of a shared space of equality and a mutually supportive environment. Storytelling developed naturally in this environment and this led to a series of audio works that were subsequently transmitted on the river Liffey, the Lee, the Corrib and the Barrow.
The audio works were sited in specific places along the rivers, on bridges and boardwalks, ‘in-between’ places evoking the precarious situation of each of the writers. Voices in Croatian, French, Kinyarwanda, Luganada and Urdu could be heard on the wind, revealing the hidden narrative of the asylum seekers’ stories.
The project was also presented at Visual, the Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow and then, just recently, a beautiful collection of poems was launched in the Pearse Street Library in Dublin. The poems are complemented by drawings which show the various contours of the countries wherein they are set, the empty linear forms perhaps echoing the experience of the asylum seeker “disconnected from their homeland.”
“I believe that art offers an alternate perspective”, writes Clodagh Emoe, “one that allows us to re-imagine our world. In re-imagining our world, we question the status quo, opening up the possibility of embracing difference.”
As I’ve written before – in these days of global conflict, mounting racism and intolerance, artists can lead the way in promoting diversity and showing concern for minorities.
The artist Agnes Martin wrote that a studio should be a sanctuary for inspiration, a space devoid of busyness or clutter, where one is to be disturbed “only if the house is burning”. ( Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances ) I’d have to admit that mine is more along the lines of the Francis Bacon studio but it is interesting to read someone else’s impression of it (especially a teenager’s impression) so today, I have a guest writer on Scéalta Ealaíne. My niece Ella Gregory has written an article entitled: “The most interesting place I have ever been” (!).
I was eleven years old when I first saw my uncle’s workshop. My mum just dropped by for a quick cup of tea, since we were in the area. He answered the front door in his worn overalls, his forehead glistened from the heat and his stubble was flecked with colour. His rough hands were stained blue and his eyes twinkled when he smiled. A cool breeze hit us, freeing us from the heavy summer air. He led us through the dark hallway to a sun-filled kitchen.
The house smelt of weak tea. They chatted while sitting at the table, as I sneaked quick glances at the packet of biscuits but, not daring to move, trying to resist the temptation. A blue-stained hand dug into the packet noisily. It struggled to be freed, but the hand emerged, closed. My eyes drifted up, he grinned down at me, his opening fingers trailed crumbs, and in his palm, he revealed a chocolate Digestive. He winked, offering it to me.
I clutched it tightly, the chocolate melting at my fingertips. I wandered towards the open glass door, feeling the light air breeze through my hair and freshen my sweaty skin. I gazed at the colourful scene, mesmerized. The different colours moved as one. I slipped outside. Walking alongside them, never taking my eyes away, I watched in awe at the fluttering petals moving like butterflies. I knelt down, my bare legs against the damp grass. I didn’t notice the shed until my uncle approached me, kneeling down to where I sat, inviting me to take a look. I tore my eyes away from the exotic flowers and followed in the shadow of my uncle.
The door creaked open and he ushered us in, mum and I, as the light from the door streamed in. At first, the only thing I saw was a big table covered in newspaper, stained in blues, reds and greens. On the walls he had paintings, some finished, most unfinished. I saw sketches, plans, ideas drawn onto the newspapers. I saw eyes, sad eyes, looking at me. I saw piles of waste and rubbish, all strewn in the corner, waiting to be made into something spectacular. Something he made. Something he will make. I saw paint bottles, full, empty, splatters of paint dried up. I saw colours I have never seen before. I saw a man, looking at me with loss and guilt in his eyes. A woman’s lost eyes. I saw beauty and sadness. I saw sculptures that people will never see – paintings that will not be put in galleries, beautiful leftovers that were not rubbish. I saw a face that I recognised and others that I didn’t. I saw my uncle like I had never seen before. His paint brush elegantly stroking a man’s face to life. With such ease. I saw magic.
I could have stayed for hours but we only came for a quick cup of tea. I did not leave the studio as a different person. I left as me. But I had gained something. I was unsure of what I had gained, yet sure it was powerful. I was led back through the house, through the sun-filled kitchen towards the light coming from the door. Inhaling the last scent of weak tea. Opening the front door and once more gazing up at his face, breaking into a smile. I walked out, the hot heavy summer air hit me, as I turned towards my mum.
Now friends, I did consider adding a photograph of the inside of the studio but then I thought the better of it; I thought that Ella’s description sounded much more interesting than messy reality. So I added a couple of images of my older paintings instead. Perhaps these were the ones she saw hanging there at the time. These days, I’m working on some more Tinteán paintings, for an exhibition in An Gailearaí in Co. Donegal this April, as well as some work relating to the Easter Rising. As always, your comments are welcome. Slán go fóill, eoin
Roddy Doyle Ha Ha Ha – I’m sure you heard of him, the author and Booker Prize winner, but did you know that he was also the co-founder of Fighting Words. Yes indeed, Fighting Words is the charitable organisation that he founded with Seán Love to provide mentoring in creative writing, free of charge, to young people. More about that at: https://www.fightingwords.ie/
So why am I talking about this? – Well, the Olivier Cornet Gallery has a group show entitled “Hopscotch”, which will be first seen at VUE in the Royal Hibernian Academy this weekend. It’s a show based around childhood memories and children’s games and he has been working in collaboration with Fighting Words to inspire some young people to get writing.
Each young author chose an artwork and then wrote a piece which will hang alongside the work in the exhibition. Christian Pierce (aged 15) was inspired by my apple paintings and he wrote a passage entitled: “Climbing” – I am delighted to reproduce it here on Scéalta Ealaíne…
“I bet you can’t pick the highest apple in the tree!” your friend says. But you’ll show him. You’ve been climbing trees for as long as you can remember but you can only remember about four years or so, and having to get help out of the tree in the garden.
But this time you won’t need help, oh no, no help needed today. All the eight years you have lived have led up to this moment. “The first steps are easy”, you think as you pull yourself from the ground up to the branch.
The next parts are like a climbing frame: up you climb, branch by branch, one by one. Through the tunnels of leaves, a bright green colour this time of year. Ignore the other apples; they are of no purpose to you. You are searching for the holy grail of apples, the golden apple, the one Adam and Eve took a bite from, the most treasured apple in the whole wide world.
You’re in the heart of the tree now, rustling through the curtain of leaves to reach the ladder of branches that will bring you to your watch tower of north.
You’re here now. You have arrived at your destination. The bronze apple is glinting in the sun. Go and pick it. You have earned it. It is your prized possession.
You are above everyone now, like a king. Look over your kingdom at the summer colours: green, yellow, purple, orange. This land is yours now. You control all the things, alongside the apple.
But really, it’s just an apple. You passed dozens on the way up. Your time of rule is over, you were the best king ever but for now, it’s time to go back to your friend.
Your comments are always welcome – but especially this time 😉 Click on the little brown speech bubble up at the top right of this post and you can put your comment there. Thanks, eoin