What are your earliest memories regarding the arts?
I was always drawn to nature. I grew up in Warrenpoint, which is a small seaside town. I remember being by the sea, playing with stones and shells making what I now would see as mandala type designs. I wasn’t very academic as a child, but loved reading and art. Art got me through when I wasn’t very good at other subjects.
Did you go on after school to do art?
Warrenpoint was a small, quiet, rural place then. People tended to follow in their parent’s footsteps. Most people I knew didn’t go on to university after secondary school. I don’t think I ever considered third level education as an option. I worked locally for a while but felt I did not quite fit in that box very well.
What was your next step?
I moved to Belfast and met lots of likeminded people. By chance I ended up going on a field trip with some students and the artist Neil Shawcross to Ballyvaughn in County Clare. The trip was an inspiration and Neil enthused and encouraged me.
Thanks to him I ended up going to Art College in Belfast, studying Fine Craft Design, specialising in textiles and embroidery.
It was a technically detailed course, with an emphasis on planning, design and drawing. A strict 9-5 attendance was required. With homework n top, you really did work, eat and sleep your art!
It seems like this required a lot of commitment?
Absolutely it was very structured. History of embroidery was part of the course, so I learnt the fundamentals of the craft. I think this really worked for me as I have been able to apply it to many of the different creative scenarios I have been involved with over the years.
What happened when you left Arts College?
I was working on my own art doing a lot of felting. This is a very old craft using wool, applying wet or dry processes to fuse its fibres together creating a fabric. The product is very versatile, and lead to several commissions to create decorative wall hangings. It’s a very tactile and therapeutic material and I have used it many times with countless individuals and groups in my community projects.
I am always learning something new about felting. It really is the gift that keeps on giving. I have learnt how to dye it using seaweed, onion skins, berries etc. The funniest thing was when a group of older ladies in the country told me that years ago they held felting parties, where they would lay the sheep’s fleeces on a sheet, pour urine on them and use their feet to felt. I researched this and it was true!
Does this lead you into Community Arts?
One of my best friends, an artist called Sally Young invited me to share her studio in Queen Street. It was a very difficult time during the Troubles with lots of bombs and bomb scares outside but inside we did great things, a lot of collaborating I felt part of something great.
I found the studios a breath of fresh air. The only negative being that craft was then seen as a second class art form, I think that has definitely changed now.
My focus shifted when I had a child, I moved towards facilitation of art projects.
I found that I really enjoyed teaching. I loved showing people how to go about making art.
You became a facilitator?
I started when Queens Street Studios had open days and I would get to show people around and make art. I got some work with the Workers Education Association and really enjoyed taking these classes.
I went on to work for the Community Arts Forum which became New Belfast Community Arts Initiative and finally Community Arts Partnership. I have been involved with outreach work for CAP’s TRASH Fashion, landmarks, and masque projects . I have also worked with many other arts organisations and health trusts, education boards, libraries and councils.
I love working with people and feel very privileged to have had so many special and interesting opportunities working as a freelance artist.
The down sides are it can be very time consuming, exhausting and frustrating. There is a lot of work planning, sourcing materials and preparing so that a class or workshop goes smoothly. Then there is all the dreaded paperwork, proposals, evaluations, invoicing and the nightmare of tax returns. My own work, my own artistic practice had to take a back seat during that time.
How do you get involved with The Vault?
I was aware of the Belfast Bankers on the Newtownards Road. Artists had taken over a building and were working together to create a hub. When the Vault was proposed I heard about it and thought I would love to be part of this.
It is an incredible thing, extraordinary, multi-disciplinary, lots of wonderful people with different approaches and interesting projects all sharing the one space. We have actors, circus performers, musicians, artists of all disciplines. Everyone is working off each other’s creative energy. It’s a wonderful and exciting place.
How did you get a space here?
Adam Turkington was the person who organised the building for the Belfast Bankers. I think they had the building for a year. That ended and now they have been offered this building in Tower Street for hopefully another year at least. It’s a bigger space and they decided to increase the number of artists involved. There was an application process online which I used and was successful.
And you are painting now?
Yes, I wanted to have a space separate from my community work, to sit and think and play around with my ideas and materials and then get into my own painting where ever that takes me.
I walk around the river Lagan every morning and I love to look at birds especially the lesser spotted kingfisher. Part+ of the joys of middle age I suppose, to get such joy from such a simple source. I feel that I have come back to the landscape that has always been my inspiration.
The Vault came at the perfect time for me. I always promised myself that once my children were older, I would make the time for my own art. That time has arrived and it’s the start of my new adventure. It’s very exciting!