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Did you always want to be an artist?
I always wanted to be practicing art in some form. Music would have been my main passion for a long while. But around 8 years ago I shifted focus towards visual art. As long as I’m doing something creative that tells a kind of story.
Who has been or currently is an influence on your work and why?
I think Studio Ghibli and anime in general would be a major influence on my drawing style. Alice Maher, Alison Bechdel and, recently, Tillie Walden would be influences, especially if I’m working on comics and stories. I always consider Joanna Newsom as a huge influence in terms of wanting to make work with that balance of crafted, layered story and raw emotion. If I get a bit lost with work, I listen to her albums and its like “oh yeah, this is what I want my work to do”. I saw an exhibition and retrospective of Kerry James Marshal’s ‘Mastry’ lately and it totally blew me away. I haven’t produced any new work since, but its sort of making me rethink a lot of things about my own work and what I want out of it.
Were you self taught or did you study?
I’m self taught. My mother was an artist and would have always encouraged art, having us draw pictures and asking what they might mean. I’ve had classes and workshops on drawing and printing techniques, but I wouldn’t have a great deal of formal training.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Visually, a lot of inspiration comes from the natural world, from growing up in the countryside; running around forests. Most of my work would be figurative, but there’s always elements of trees and flora creeping in. And the ideas for illustrations come from trying to figure out things that trouble me or interesting things I’ve read and heard. I’ve always used drawing as a sort therapeutic tool to try to figure out worldly issues that don’t make sense. Which is mostly social politics and inequality, and environmental concerns.
Your ‘Wilderless’ series incorporates concerns with homelessness in Ireland – how did this issue find its way into your work?
I had been producing drawings on the theme of idleness when I was asked to produce work that tackled more contemporary issues on a national scale. I had been drawing these figures who were overgrowing with blankets of hair and foliage and flowers. They were partly inspired by images of derelict buildings, so it felt a natural progression to have these characters set in a broader landscape. I have a brother who works in homelessness prevention and outreach services. Much of the ‘Wilderless’ series was borne out of conversations with him, and a shared concern with surrounding social issues.
Can you talk more about your focus on Ireland’s relationship with the home? What is this definition of home to you?
It’s odd, it’s like the financial crash did nothing to alter this economy-driven focus on housing. Homes still seem to be viewed primarily as assets to buy and sell, a financial goal, as opposed to places where people actually live. You hear government officials praising rising prices of the housing market, completely ignoring people’s inability to afford the growth. There was this study I had read about, ‘A Child’s Experience of Place’. In a town in New England in 1971, a geographer, Roger Hart, looked at the behavior of kids when unsupervised by adults. The conversations they had, the games they played, the range of territory they had to explore. In 2011 he attempted to recreate the study but failed because there was no longer any time in the day when the children were unsupervised by adults. To me it seems like an example of this great disconnect that can exist between children and their environment now. Where home is no longer a town or community or wilderness, but a bedroom and a backyard. And then what does it mean for the 2,200 kids whose home is a hotel room, or even a tent? To be honest, I don’t know what the definition of home is for me, in this context. The drawings were my own way of exploring these different issues, but they’re huge topics and have probably given me more questions than answers. And then it’s also a subject that’s tied into issues of loneliness and identity and civil rights and gender equality. I think the geography of home is influenced by broader subjects, like social status, sexuality, ethnicity. It could be this simple thing; a building where you’re safe and secure, but home should always extend beyond the walls where you sleep. Especially as a kid. I think home is maybe the territory you feel safe to explore.
The combination of pencil and watercolour is visually striking, what lead you to this mix of mediums?
I’ve always liked the ascetic of pencil drawings but for a while I felt like an image had to be “coloured in” to be considered a finished piece. Like pencil is just for sketching or as scaffold for paint. I’m far more comfortable now with seeing pencil as my preferred medium, and using watercolour to make the line work stand out. I like watercolour as a paint medium, for how immediate it is, it can have a similar raw looseness that I think works with pencil.
Hair seems to be an overwhelming presence in a lot of your work, particularly women’s hair – is there a reason behind this?
A lot of it is to do with gender identity. I often use masks in my drawings, and I think the hair in them is another kind of mask. Whether its a mask that’s hiding something or exposing something kind of depends on my mood. Much of the time it has a dual meaning; a nest and a prison. I have these drawings where the figures are wrapped up in a nest-like shape. The hair is a comfort, a safe space, but it’s also this restrictive, binding thing. Gender and sexuality can have a similar duality. How we choose to present ourselves can offer this release and freedom, but then it can just become a different construct for society to define you and tie you to.
It’s the image I probably connect with the most on an emotional level. I find something very fascinating with the idea of masks. A friend talked recently about how the face is the first mask we put on, and I think that’s something that I love exploring; how there’s rarely just one story told in a face or a body, simple gestures can have this multitude of meaning, and they all tell a different kind of truth. Like, any mask a person wears says something honest about them, and somewhere in these layers of masks is the person. I think a lot of the process of art is peeling back and looking for these unmasked connections.
What are the differences between exhibiting your work in your hometown of Monaghan and abroad in Japan?
In the last few years there’s been a nice community growing in Monaghan around art and music. I’ve been involved in the scene here for a long time, so there’s a lot of support for when I do put something on. The opportunity to exhibit in Japan was amazing but of course no one knew who I was and I knew very few people there, so it was a much more isolating experience. But then, when they happen, connections made are especially meaningful.
‘Beginnings and Ends’ is accompanied by an illustrated story – are narratives important to your work overall?
Yes. A lot of the time, a series of drawings won’t feel finished unless there’s a story around them. But it usually happens naturally or there’s already a story in mind. Most of my drawings revolve around a particular set of characters, in a particular world, and when I draw something it’s like filling another part of this world, if that makes sense.
‘Wilderless’ is also accompanied by audio recordings – why do you take a multidisciplinary approach to your work and what do you think it can say outside of your series?
For that particular series, the drawings had a lot to do with idle spaces, and I’ve long had a love of the sound of different spaces, playing music in empty buildings, large echo-y rooms, on abandoned pianos and old guitars. The room the ‘Wilderless’ exhibition was held in has a lovely grand piano and great acoustics. I did an improvised music performance as part of the exhibition cause I wanted to do something on the potential of idle spaces. I guess the idea that these spaces have this sound just waiting to be explored. Previously I’ve recorded music that serves as a kind of soundtrack to a story or a narrative. I like the idea of just getting as much as you can out of a subject. I’d love to produce work that had theatre and film and song and written word. It’s just different ways to explore a theme. When you’re drawing a picture, you’ll find something in a subject that you wouldn’t find writing music or poetry, and vice versa.
The names of both series are quite provocative – how do you go about naming your work?
Oh, I hate naming stuff! It’s usually the last thing I do. Projects tend to change a lot as they go, so when they’re finished they mean all these different things to me, so finding one name or phrase can be awkward. But I like word play. If I’m really stuck, I’ll brain storm associated words and play about with them until something sticks. Or sometimes I’ll happen to read something in a book that just makes sense. I love when you get these little sychronicities that tie things all together.
What are your long term goals?
I have a few story projects that I’m always working away on that I’d like to see realised. I have an imagined book shelf of stories I’d like to see filled. Mostly, I just want to get better at making things. I’d love to see some work of mine as an animated feature or a theatre piece. Or cosplayed!