One Voice Festival: Tales from the Quay

The One Voice Festival: Tales from the Quay at Wexford Arts Centre contributes abundantly to the long and rich tradition of the monologue on the Irish stage, seven writers – several new to the format – and seven performers who prove that composition and performance can be one and the same act.

Although the concept of personal stories waiting to erupt was conceived by director Paul Walsh seven years earlier, Covid 19 restrictions and lockdown have acted as a catalyst for bringing this project to fruition.

Two of Wexford Drama Group’s senior stalwarts, Phil Lyons and Andy Doyle, persuasively bookend an evening of introspection and reflection, rooted in original material suffused with the cornerstone of any good monologue, empathy.

Wexford Town (Hello in There) is a humorous though heartfelt lyrical paean by writer and performer Lyons to his adopted town, whereas Doyle in Thomas O’Leary’s The Trip of a Lifetime eschews superfluous trimmings to confront the brass tacks of a pandemic: illness and loss. ‘No pubs, no hurling, no travel,’ he laments, resignation and irony laced with fortitude.

Wexford, specifically the harbour, is a central character. ‘Ah the marina. Thank God we have it,’ says Doyle. Director Paul Walsh is keen for Wexford to be a strong personality in its own right, not merely a colourful backdrop, but throbbing with soul, refusing to age. Defiance is omnipresent.

These monologues are by writers steeped in an understanding of their own relationship to Wexford, performed by actors attuned to the nuances on the page and gifted in extemporisation before a masked audience. Strange times.

In Michelle Dooley Mahon’s Boots – the only outlier because it is set in the 1990s – John Crosbie’s edges are pared. He is embedded to his own patch like Beckett’s Winnie, complete with bag (of beer), a man whose colourful history Crosbie conflates into a controlled flow.

The past is a foreign country in Tales From the Quay: wistful in Wexford Town; a house of horrors in Eoghan Rua Finn’s Dei Gratia (with Jeanette Sidney Kelly); a lamentation in Boots; a suffocation in Carol Long’s Living Like a Fugitive (with Mairead Ryan); indecisive in Heather Hadrill’s Coming Home, but dispatched like a frisbee by Danielle Fortune in Jack Matthew’s Revenge.

Stasis is the enemy of  electrifying monologue, so Fortune’s Vikki roams the stage like it’s a cage, her feral gait venomously dispatching great Matthew one-liners, recalling that she ‘guts sea creatures for a living’, and how she ‘threw away her virginity on the quay.’

And because these are real lives there is betrayal and exits and entrances, specifically in Dei Gratia, Boots, A Method in Menapia – Paul Walsh’s sitcom with a terrific Imelda McDonagh as social climber Pamela and a cast of dead paramours – Living Like a Fugitive and Coming Home, Stephen Byrne as Christopher nailing the swallow note of the migrant forever destined to return to the nest. Tales from the Quay is rich in character and incident, reconciling the past and the present, and unafraid to make the heart the centre of the world.

Caroline Ward

Thanks to excavations at Pompeii, we have long known that the practice of still life painting is (a) ancient and (b) remarkably consistent in its use of well-worn conventions. For example, the double or triple level in the arrangement of objects, and the selection of what we might term pieces of the ordinary. And, if you examined Still Life With Peaches, from Pompeii, circa 79 AD, and Still Life With Pink Fish by Margaret Olley, 1948, you will not discern any obvious tremor in the evolution of still life painting. What Olley and the anonymous Pompeiian artist set out to achieve was the depiction of an arrangement, where colour is the great harmoniser of the space between the objects, in the same way that darkness fixes the planets. But of course, still life’s viscosity to change could not withstand the catalyst of genius, the nature of which is to bypass convention. Both Louis-Léopold Boilly, who invented trompe l’oeil, and Paul Cezanne, did this. But while Boilly created a technique – the optical illusion of realism – Cezanne created a new way of looking at still life. And his experiments, though he would not have labelled them thus, bequeathed to us a modern version, so to speak, of Vermeer’s mythical camera obscura, so that, with a contemporary still life artist like Caroline Ward, we are amply equipped to recognise her flawless mixture of detached precision, compositional repose and perspective accuracy.

Standing before Caroline’s Cracked Egg; Emblem’s Weave; Four Mushrooms or Folded Napkin is not simply a matter of admiring the representation of verisimilitude: the rewards are too easy. However, understand how Caroline is not giving a single view of anything, and rather than an existential take on the transience of nature, she is in fact stabilising the impression, and how she does this is the kernel of her gift: a display of realism which is astonishing to the eye. And the astonishment, I hope you will agree, is instantaneous. There is no preamble, no eyes beating about the visual bush. There is about her paintings a cinéma vérité quality in that improvisation, however subtle, can unveil truths. This is observational painting at its zenith.  With Mackerel Still Life, the artist was motivated by the iridescence of a fish she was gutting for supper. The Alessi Platter, and specifically the play of light around it, was spotted in a shop, and once she combined both, the fish and the prop, she had the luxury of determining every aspect of the painting. The use of lemon for a splash of colour, and the fact that Mackerel Still Life is the summation of a flow of perception, never fixed, emphasizes how a still life of this quality cannot be moored to a single view. Since her last exhibition in Kelly’s Hotel, one can detect a profound assurance and confidence in her still life compositions, specifically the courage not to refrain from the complex. In La Chaise Rouge, Caroline gives us an antidote to the lack of nuance often found in the manic swiping of visuals on social media: La Chaise Rouge is almost Zen-like in its appeal to the image-obsessive, Twitter and Instagram nerd in 2019, to submit to its contemplative calm, step out of yourself and return to the essential. Look again carefully at La Chaise Rouge and there is the intimation of an absent presence, or perhaps an arrival. The door frame, through which the light bounces from one room to another, is a metaphor for the human condition: the walls are devoid of that which enchants us, a painting, and in this way Caroline might be saying that in the absence of a linear story, you can apply your own narrative. We might feel alone, but there is no anguish. William Crozier famously said that landscape was a vehicle through which he could say anything, and he saw it as a means, not a subject, through which he could express the intangible. Imperceptible or not, neither art not nature is ever as cold or as detached as a glass, or a plate, and the still life reflected in art always reflects the artist’s own mind, but the still life artist, beset by many challenges, walks the tightrope between stabilizing an impression and taming transience.  Caroline Ward is a still life artist of the soul, an interpreter of the visible world, but an artist whose precision never looks laboured, although you know it must have been, and therein is the magic and mystery of the creative act. (Caroline Ward, Kelly’s Hotel, 2019)

Olivia O’Dwyer/Creative Hub Wexford

Olivia O’Dwyer’s engagement with light remains an epic struggle on a par with Hercules subduing Antaeus. We are accustomed to her swaths of chromium sun, the ravishing cochineal blossoming, or indeed a landscape of woad-layering hinting at a subcutaneous pulse. The eponymous Recurrence (number 8) is suffused with an amplification of colour which engages the physical parameters of the canvas, but what might be a simple expression of a complex thought is not negated or affected by the black delineation. It is not difficult to imagine the artist juggling the bifurcation of colour and, yes, light. Light for O’Dwyer is an eternal unmasking, a profound spur in the overwhelming grounding of paint and its application. O’Dwyer doesn’t dilly dally with the materials at her disposal, and whether it is Recurrence or the more modest Ravine (number 10) or Making Molehills Out of Mountains (number 3), the application of oil is never less than painstaking. Addition. Erasure. Addition. Erasure. The smaller works, which focus on the rhythm, pattern and repetition of compositional motifs in painting, are geometric volumes of monochrome that are not interrupted by colour, though colour, very subtly, can find its way. The light is as shy as filigree. ‘The primary objective is to allow the painting to develop through a process of accident and discovery,’ suggests O’Dwyer. The temptation may be to focus too much on O’Dwyer’s raison d’etre at the expense of how she impressively builds a bridge between the accumulated impressions and sensations, with her precise and deliberate evocations.
This exhibition, small in scale, is a stepping stone, but it derives its power from the artist’s concentrated act of searching, concentrated act of probing and concentrated act of painting, what Ilse D’Hollander described as ‘a convergence of thoughts, and the act of painting itself.’ Intense observations always lead somewhere, but the most obvious reward of O’Dwyer’s work is the engagement with the self, the fruit of prolonged consideration and questioning. To stand before each painting in Recurrence is to wade in O’Dwyer’s subtle resonances, where the gravitational force is so strong that each has a commanding presence; it is to embrace the visceral attraction of the relationship between the symbiotic materials, paint and canvas, segued by an artist of intense thought.

London 2018

After a week mixing with (and grilling) visual artists, curators and public relations advisers to galleries etc in London, happy to recommend my pick of a large bunch, should you be passing through anytime soon. With the exception of Klimt at the RA, the exhibitions are in private galleries, and scattered throughout London. If you like what you see, and want some more info, please get in touch. Enjoy.

Behjat Sadr, at the Mosaic Rooms, Cromwell Road.

Liu Guofu, 3812, Ryder Street
Sue Williams, Skatstedt, Bennet Street
Ilse D’Hollander, Victoria Miro, St. George Street
Alabaster, featuring Anish Kapoor, Ordovas, Savile Row
Barbara Rae, Galerie Canada, (facing National Gallery)
Marzia Colonna, Portland Gallery, Bennet Street
Paul Feiler, The Redfern Gallery, Cork Street
Tom Lomax, Dadiani, Cork Street
Klimt/Schiele, Royal Academy
Sublime Hardware, Luxembourg & Dayan, Savile Row
Mala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, National Portrait Gallery

Dulce et Decorum Est


This week marks the centenary of the death of Wilfred Owen, and he – among many, many more – will be remembered at this exhibition in Bray until Sunday.
(from Dulce et Decorum Est)
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Caulfield at the Vine, Wexford

serena 1


The current exhibition, opened throughout the Bank Holiday weekend, by artist Serena Caulfield at the Vine Restaurant, Main Street, Wexford, is bifurcated into studies of the classical and a revisiting of the natural.

Irrespective of the medium, artists dice with the challenge of stabilising an impression or conveying their take on transience. In this Wexford Festival exhibition, Fragments,the smaller paintings are the outcome of a contemporary artist studying key apotheoses in sculpture and architecture in Western antiquity: the Elgin Marbles in London and the Pantheon in Rome.

As their etymology suggests, both are joined at the hip, the Pantheon – which still stands – was intended as a temple of all the Gods whereas the Parthenon, which is in ruins and from which the Elgin Marbles were stolen, was dedicated to just one, Athena.

Where they differ is in narrative: the Pantheon, whilst paying homage to the Gods, was intended primarily to be a symbol of the greatness of Rome. The Romans invented an ingenious special effect, which still works today, to display divine omniscience: the temple is illuminated by a circular shaft of sunlight, admitted through an opening in the hemispherical dome.

Caulfield’s depiction of the oculus in the Pantheon eschews the temptation to be overawed by the brilliance of the light, and instead the interior of the brightly lit dome becomes a study of something else: the relevance is perhaps less what is happening within, than the source from without.

In ancient Egyptian or Roman cultures, the sky was the destiny of the deceased emperor turned into a god, so Caulfield’s oculus is an orbit of blue.

In her series of oils emanating from her study of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, Caulfield is attracted to the energy of movement within the marble: one horse from the chariot of the Moon, with flaring nostrils, is exhausted.

Other studies here from the Elgin Marbles derive from the fractured pedimental groups of the Parthenon. Caulfield, like the original sculptors, uses the visual memory to mimic gait, and the postures are thus convincing.

The much larger canvases in Fragments are the verdant distillations of perceptions accumulated by the artist in her many visits to South East Asia: the palette is more effusive because the artist paints what she feels and the subject amplifies and fills the canvas, like O’Keefe. The narrative couldn’t be further from the Pantheon or Parthenon studies. Caulfield sees the work as transmissions of a way of seeing.

Looking Back: Sinfonia on Fire

1993 was a seismic year for conductor Fergus Sheil: he was honing his craft with the annual Wexford Festival Opera, and Wexford Sinfonia held its first rehearsal.

The opera to which he was attached, Ferdinand Herold’s Zampa, left a lasting impression on the young conductor, so much so that he opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with its rousing overture.

1993, in retrospect, was a vintage year for artistic director Elaine Padmore and the Festival: she unearthed the Canadian conductor Yves Abel – who conducted Zampa – and resuscitated a little known opera, but a gem, Cherevichki, by a composer who was also on Sunday’s programme, Tchaikovsky, directed by the soon to be great Francesa Zambello, at her fourth and last outing at Wexford.

Revisiting the overture again, you can see the attraction for Sheil: it is infectious, lively, spontaneous, which explains its almost universal popularity – it has been recycled incidentally often in animation, Banquet BustThe Band Concert and Two Gun Mickey – and is best described as happiness in eight minutes and 54 seconds, or there about. And because it opens at 90 mph, both orchestra and conductor are connected instantly, and the enthusiasm swiftly engages the audience, as the triumphal fanfare is addictive. Shame, however, about the rest of the opera.

The first time I saw violinist Ioana Pectu-Colan perform, outside of Ensemble Avalon, was with Philip Glass in Dundalk, and the last time was at Wexford Opera House, soloing in Glass’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by, who else, Fergus Sheil. She returned on Sunday for a musical mano e mano with Beth McNinch, in Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major KV 364, in which Mozart specified that the viola be tuned up a semi-tone and played in D major to counter balance the brilliance of the violin.

A most amiable joust, then. There are, as the programme noted, irrepressible high spirits, yet Wexford Sinfonia – no percussion – was sufficiently at one with Sheil’s sensitive guidance to embellish Mozart’s unstated poignancy, an enchanting palimpsest with the reversal of roles of the violin and the viola.

The composer intended that both instruments should soar, and Sunday’s concert was blessed by the performance of both Pectu-Colan and McNinch, the effortless virtuosity of whom was never in danger of being disassociated from the sensuous expressiveness of a large orchestra, from the opening tutti to the coda. In a word, magical, a performance framed by Sheil’s composure, which also attest to his warmth and breadth of vision.

Oh Martha

‘Intense and personal,’ is how Martha Wainwright, daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and brother of Rufus, described her approach to song writing and performance in Wexford.

Bookending the Spiegeltent Festival, Wainwright, about whom I previouslu knew precious little, was phenomenal, in a sort of what you see is what you get type of way. Feisty and energetic, her voice has the crescendo bark of a wounded animal, and her syllables soar and extinguish like spent meteors.

Wexford was a launch pad for new work, most of which she didn’t introduce with a title, but she also dipped into a classic repertoire, with a powerful rendition of Everything Wrong, literally sculpting the lyrics with venom:

‘My husband’s been lyin’ and cheatin’

I turned my cheek and reason

I change my tune every day’

At heart, Wainwright is a storyteller, and each song is preceded by a walking preamble, occasionally too long, as in Radio Star, but when she finally switches gear, and croons

I’m at the controls in the big old chair

Nothing has changed except the atmosphere

the magic is instant, passionate and animated, and her choice of mood and rhetorical affect produces that grimace of a fallen angel, a seductive combination in her performance of Jesus & Mary.

She’s the jewel in your crown

But I’m the goal that’s gonna weigh you down

I’ll keep you around this dirty old town.’

The spirit of Aldeburgh

The Aldeburgh festival, started by Benjamin Britten in 1948, a few years before the Wexford Festival, is multi-faceted, and the emphasis is almost definitely on music andthe arts, and not just your average accumulation of exhibitions with dodgy depictions of floating swans, collies on amphetamines and jumping horses.

For example, facing Snape Maltings Hall, the main concert venue which is surrounded by the gorgeous and occasionally moody vistas of the North Sea and the tranquil River Alde, were huge images by Anya Gallaccio, inspired by Orford Ness, apparently the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe.

Because the aura of the sea is ever present, whether walking along the attractive Victorian hub of Aldeburgh, or, further in land, at Snape, the work of Gallaccio is a reminder that Orford Ness is tenuously connected to the mainland, just about four metres above sea level.

Symbolically, the relationship between the sea and the land, is in essence tenuous. No one knows when the sea might just throw a wobble.

There were many exhibitions and installations at Aldeburgh of the highest quality: Lily Hunter Green’s Bee Composed (a piano with an a busy hive of bees), John Cage’s Music-circus at the Peter Pears Gallery, Chikato Goto’s traditional Japanese woodcuts at the Pond Gallery, a nod perhaps to Britten’s 1964 church parable Curlew River(1964), when his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese nō theatre and English medieval religious drama.

The Suffolk coast is the most beautiful setting for a musical festival: Snape Maltings rises like a liner: it dates back to 1846, was converted into a concert hall in 1967 and it looks out upon heath and marsh and the great River Alde, a winding signature under a huge and expansive Suffolk sky.

Britten the composer of course was fond of allegory and Church themes: besides the aforementioned Curlew River, two other religious parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace(1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’sFludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester miracle plays.

And then The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival, which slowly became one of the most important alternative English music festivals and, specifically, the centre of Britten’s musical activities.

The current director of Aldeburgh is Pierre-Laurent Aimard , who , according to a report in the Financial Times on the eye of this year’s Festival, stood accused of not being ‘quite English enough’, which can hardly be his fault.

The charge sheet against him is petty: he is closely aligned in spirit with the postwar European avant garde, which Britten had little time for. But, if the opera cognoscenti didn’t split hairs over such trifling matters, it wouldn’t be the blood sport we have all come to admire.

The Festival proper runs for the second half of June, with operas, recitals, film, concerts, masterclasses and lectures, in a plethora of venues, including Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Church, Britten Studio, Jubilee Hall and the concert hall at Snape Maltings where I attended a performance by Ensemble 360, wandering at the interval, ice cone in hand, like a blithe spirit, among the reeds and water and Gallaccio’s photographs.


Four is a special number

Like Telemachus, I find myself on the shore awaiting the telltale configuration of silhouettes on the horizon to signal the return home of those whose reputation was forged abroad. Since Ben Barnes informed me about WexFour earlier this year, the adaptation for the stage at Wexford Arts Centre in October of new work by four Wexford writers who continue to bestride the world, far and beyond the anadromous caul of Loch Garman, has had the swallow note of Odysseus’s lyre.

Why a swallow? As every dabbler of Homer knows, swallows migrate and return to the nest they previously inhabited. Ben Barnes was born a stone’s throw from the Arts Centre and got his short back and sides from Syl and Willie Carley at the bottom of George’s Street; Billy Roche’s first incarnation of A Handful of Stars – the raw The Boker Poker Club – was directed here by Patrick Sutton, with a very young Gary Lydon, last seen in the Arts Centre in Roche’s One Is Not a Number; Eoin Colfer’s first full length play, The Crescent, saw the light of day in the Arts Centre when he was still unknown, and both Colm Toibin and John Banville have given readings here.

Four celebrated Wexford alumni: Homer’s lyre also had four strings, and one knows that Barnes is best suited to pluck Toibin, Banville, Colfer and Roche to enable us to admire the multifariousness of the works you are about to see which – having read the text – will have an enduring hold on your imagination.

Nicky Furlong maintains that the riches of the many parishes of Wexford fertilise the proliferation of living characters, ‘many of whom choose to express themselves with urging pens.’ I have to imagine that for Barnes, Colfer, Roche and Banville, raised in Wexford, and Tobin, who was educated here, the soundtrack of an average year in the life of the town when they were young was a riotous cacophony of the musical and the theatrical on its streets, especially during the Wexford Festival which continues to segue mild autumn and cold winter.

Arias, declamations, perorations and proclamations would have cruised colourfully through the cloistered and multilingually-baptised streets and lanes, forever descending in cobbled free fall to where Wexford began, the sea, a recurring source of the cathartic and the catalytic in their novels, short stories and plays.

And being from Wexford, it is inevitable their paths would have crossed: Billy Roche sheepishly gave the manuscript of his first novel Tumbling Down to the eminent historian, the late Dr. Billy Colfer, for his perusal, only for his young son, Eoin, to borrow it first and gobble it up. When an older Eoin, a teacher in Coolcotts and a member of the local opera society, was on the cusp of introducing Artemis Fowl to the world, he shared a stage at a reading event with both Roche and Banville in the Talbot Hotel, the scene – eight years earlier in 1992 – of his first foray into playwriting, the one actStereotypes.

When Ben Barnes was appointed artistic director at the Abbey at 43, he had already directed 28 plays from the Irish repertoire and 20 premieres of new Irish plays, including John Banville’s adaptation of Kleist’s The Broken Jug; he initiated the adaptation of Toibin’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush for the stage (they were at St. Peter’s College together and played tennis against each other) and Barnes awarded the Abbey Writer in Association to Billy Roche, which would culminate with On Such As We at the Peacock, featuring Brendan Gleeson.

Is it too much to consider, in the context of WexFour, that the town which binds them together can consolidate their identity, if only for the duration of a performance? Writers, however, are not tethered to the same vernacular, so what is important, to paraphrase Colm Toibin, is that ‘the word somehow remains – the beauty of the word.

Walking on the Wind


Listen to the music in these lines:

With rasping sighs the breeze-brashed branches

 fling their russetness 

 through churning skies to crust the ground

The leaves, which are not mentioned by name, just don’t cover the ground, they crust it, like a hardened layer.

Isn’t that a beautiful line: note how the poet used the alliteration of breeze-bashed branches to move the poem from a standing start to third gear.

And then these breeze-brashed branches fling their russetness through churning skies to crust the ground.

But the poet isn’t finished, not by a long shot: he is directing a film sequence for us to conjure…the breeze brashed branches/the churning skies/

And he continues

To crust the ground with autumn’s pall/ a detritus to delight us in the cough out calm that follows squall.

The poem is Walking on the Wind, the collection is Turn Now the Tide, and the poet is Joe Neal, from Wales but living in Wexford.

Joe is one of those poets, in the great Welsh tradition of Thomas and David Jones, who is concerned with the sound of the spoken word, and the relevancy of sound to form.

Caroline Ward


Theory aside, which most artists avoid, the progenitor of a still life deploys their gift to shepherd the eye to what they think is important. With the best will in the world, the artist’s ambition is impotent without an endowment of a special talent that is nursed, but not taught.

The evolution of Caroline Ward (pictured with her still life entry to the 2014 RHA exhibition) into one the Ireland’s foremost still life artists has been breathtakingly rapid: a trajectory from aquifer to surface in recent years has been marked by a technical virtuosity to match the broadening of her visual spectrum, from memento mori to the transience, both emotional and physical.

For Ward, light emerges as chiaroscuro, the gradation of contrasting tones, though her light is never harsh or dramatic. It has none of the aggressive voltage of Caravaggio’s tense tenebrism. Ward’s light is not the battleground of opposites. It is, however, despite its transience, a source of endless possibilities.

Her signature is instinctively recognisable: she has carved her own niche with a collection of work that is immediately distinctive, an intense study in metamorphosis, the remorseless quest to recapture the initial impulse of excitement and curiosity on the canvas.

Book Emporium


Best bookshops in the universe? I’d recommend two in Bath: Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and Topping. They are, as the crow flies, around the corner from each other and boast both readings by visiting authors (David Mitchell in Mr. B’s and Lee Child in Topping), and a plethora of signed books, with Topping offering the weary bibliophile free coffee. It is, however, difficult to find a bookshop quite like Topping of Bath anywhere. There are as many signed as unsigned novels, a genuine collector’s paradise. Further afield, I’d recommend the very pleasant and quaint The Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury, which also has author readings,  Helen Macdonald etc.



I don’t know what’s happened to Summertime: 9A in the Tate. I normally visit it whenever I pass through London, but it wasn’t there this time. Maybe it’s on tour. An awful pity, really. Tate had located a seat almost as long as Summertime:9A, facing it, and if you turned round, there was a large Monet verging on abstraction from his late period. There is, however, the wonderful Yellow Islands (pictured), painted some years after Summertine:9A. If anybody knows where Summertime has gone, let me know. I feel bereft without the promise of seeing it again soon.

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Everything Flows



Sonja Landweer at the Greenacres Gallery

A piece of art needs to connect. And how it achieves this state of connectivity has as much to do with the input of the viewer as it has with the existence of an object. We cannot have one – a presence or the resonation of recognition – without the other – a piece of art which is the outcome of a conscious malleability.

Because clay or paint have their own ideas, the artist may not end up where they thought they were going. A shared conscious malleability is needed to segue the relationship between what the artist creates and exhibits and the individual sufficiently moved to acquire it. No artist sleepwalks to the easel or the kiln, and nor should we into an exhibition.

Acquisition or appreciation need not solve the mystery inherent in the transformation of an idea into something that is tangibly physical. From birth, our first instinct is to hold, to be tactile. And so it is with art.

Leaving the delectation of the senses aside for a moment, I have always enjoyed how Sonja Landweer’s work commands the arena of its space. Whether observing or clutching, I enjoy being led by a bronze, by a pot or a vase, by the striking colours and textures, so the relationship between the craft and the maker continues. This is how we connect, how we, to paraphrase Whitman, may contribute a verse.

Dutch-born Landweer is undoubtedly the most critiqued and documented potter in contemporary Ireland. You don’t have to cast your net too far nor too wide to find published reviews of her work and her career as she has been exhibiting since the 1950’s. Landweer has had over thirty solo exhibitions, has participated in twice as many group shows (she was a regular at the annual Art at the Vocational College during the Wexford Festival) and has been analysed and dissected and in the main honoured by some of the best critics and writers in Ireland and in Europe.

Yet the most prescient and discerning awareness of her work has not come from the pen of a critic, but of a friend. In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalls how Landweer as a fledgling artist was deeply marked by the cruelty of what happened to her father – murdered by the Nazis for helping Jews and the underground resistance – and by the beautiful windfall of a memory, emerging after a swim from the waters of the North Sea with the luminescence of plankton all over her body.

The dichotomy of these experiences were related years later by Landweer to Heaney, and were in turn revisited and reimagined by the poet at his desk in the privacy of his own smithy. Perhaps with an unconscious nod to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, he recasts Landweer as ‘a nymph of phosphorous by the Norder Zee.’ Heaney’s ekphrastic poems tend not to end up in anthologies of his work, but the poem inspired by his knowledge of Sonja Landweer, ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’, was the first he recited at his acceptance of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1995.

I reference Heaney specifically because he was a close friend of Landweer and a frequent visitor to Wexford, where he read from his collection, District and Circle, in 2006, in the Talbot Hotel. His unerring eye for the detail that eludes others unearthed an aesthetic and anthroposophical essence to Landweer that has not atrophied one iota in the half century since their first meeting: a fierce conviction about the value and necessity of good and beautiful work. Art critics may have touched upon it, but Heaney articulated it best: ‘she lives at a high spiritual pitch.’

In or about 1960, Landweer had developed her batik technique on ceramics, with  decorative motifs inspired by nature and Moorish influences: in contrast to the normal wax resist method where wax is directly applied to the once fired clay, Landweeer would immerse a bisque-fired pot in glaze and apply a wax decoration on some of the first layer of glaze. The process was repeated until it was put through one firing cycle.

Before committing herself to a future in Kilkenny in the mid-1960’s, the young Landweer enjoyed a peripatetic existence, visiting Finland, Lapland, Spain, England, Russia and indeed Ireland, staying in the Burren in 1959. ‘I loved the starkness of my first winter there. I loved it with a passion.’ She established her studio in Thomastown, ‘initially in a rambling Georgian house,’ with her partner, the artist Barrie Cooke, moving later to Jerpoint House. She had chosen Thomastown over Clare for logistical and practical considerations: the need to find a market for her work, proximity to the Kilkenny Design Workshop and access to good clay, which she sourced from within the country and further afield, importing a tonne at a time of her own composition from a factory in Holland.

Though she came to relish the dramatic and ever changing seasonal landscape of her rural existence by the River Barrow, she managed to hold nature, as an endless source of inspiration, at bay. The inspiration for her work came from deep within, the realm of instincts and archetypes: she is celebrated for her instinctive feeling for innate energy in objects, articulated seamlessly as an ensoulment.

Fortuitously, on the July afternoon I visited Landweer at her home and studio in the sylvan amphitheatre of voluptuous nature that is Jerpoint today, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow was hosting a lecture by Dr. Mark Wormald to mark the 40th anniversary of the first fishing trip upstream from Graiguenmanagh of Landweer’s friend, the poet Ted Hughes, and Cooke. As practitioners of their art – painting, poetry, pottery – they were saturated with the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what they wanted. Landweer is, contends Michael Robinson, the greatest artist in earth and fire yet to have worked in Ireland.

The exhibition at Greenacres is invaluable insofar as it makes the connection between the inviolable trinity of artist, subject and observer, the continuity of Landweer’s personal strength and integrity into that which she fires, which is beauty as truth, the edification of the individual within the artist, the unbridled celebration of what it means to think for yourself and to act accordingly, the ‘I am’ which makes the improbable possible in a studio, and finally the practice of art as the antithesis to the despoliation of nihilism. Art as hope.

Landweer is the liberator of the innate pulse held captive by the inanimate; she is the respecter of the holistic consciousness among the myriad forms of the earth which can soften like gossamer to her touch; she is a diving rod of what once was and what might become, the artist as a medium who extends her material beyond its boundary, or the limits we perceive, and becomes part of us.

And unlike other artists, Landweer gets to play with fire, she gets to both bring down the sun and bring up the earth, and this confluence of apparent opposites opens a door to a new way of seeing and a new way of being.

What a wonderful gift.

The catalyst in the metamorphosis from seed to flower.

The sun has never seen a shadow.’ (Leonardo da Vinci)



What is life exhibition, Wexford



The indisputable achievements of twentieth century physics – general relativity and quantum physics – are segued by this dichotomy: they both make sense and yet contradict each other, which only serves to accentuate the function and value of science.

What Is Life (Wexford Co. Council and Wexford Arts Centre) is a noble and inspiring endeavour to connect the public with Carlo Rovelli’s the ocean of the unknown, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception or Lieutenant Commander Spock’s ‘it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.’ Take your pick, because they all cover the same terrain.

And whether the world is curved space in the morning – general relativity – or flat space in the afternoon – quantum physics – reality is never less than interactive, and art offers the multi-disciplinary tools to explore this a little further.

The exhibition, curated by Deirdre Southey and Catherine Bowe, poses the question: what can art contribute to science, and vice-verse? On this evidence, artists stand to gain more, because the essential reality of the endless uniformity of space is that it is impossible to pin down, that it is indescribable.

We have yet to invent the language for what is at the other end of the Hubble telescope, but we are gifted with the imagination to probe. So, What Is Life’s selected artworks engage the viewer with concepts pertaining to the multiplicities of the here and now. Scientific responses nestle alongside each artist’s statement.

There are two strands: terra firma – the work of Fergus Doyle, Gerda Teljeur, Meadhbh O’Connor and John Cullen is rooted in the natural world – and terra incognita – Vera Klute, Bea McMahon, Andrew Kenny, David Beattie and Eleanor Duffin address the amorphous and the metaphysical, from alchemy to the paranormal.

Inspired by Erwin Schrodinger’s famous lectures in Dublin in 1943, the exhibits benefit from the incandescently illuminating interpretation by Cliona O Farrelly, Anna Wedderburn, Liam Hallinan and Colm Fives. As Schrodinger posited that the gene was a molecule of contradiction, What Is Life also poses the question, what is art? Maria McKinney’s dexterity with sculptures, installation and photography demonstrates how art can provide a platform to view a world which science is at pains to understand.

The correlation between art and science is also being explored presently at Sadler’s Wells in London by Wayne McGregor, who has composed 23 dance vignettes determined by an algorithm from his DNA, while the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University are tracing the relationship between artists’ response to space and scientific research, but I can’t vouch as to the efficacy or quality of either.

The wattage of What Is Life in Wexford is slightly diminished by splitting it between two venues, a small quibble, but if – like Hamlet – you believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, this is a show for you.