This residency was extraordinary. There is nothing quite like being SENT somewhere you love just to go love it.
My affinity for Ireland is not just because it is a beautiful place, which it is, but also because its tones and sub-sounds seem to resonate with those of my own personality.
As a painter, I usually avoid the big and beautiful and search out the passed-over and homely, which is hard to do in Ireland if you believe even some of the postcards. Although Ireland is pretty and I am not, Ireland and I are both bent in similar places, both have dark sides, some misfortunes in love and enterprise, and growing pains that seem out of proportion to our mass. We both favor the sad ballad, and need whiskey with a chaser if to enjoy a party. I, too, am complex and fiercely loyal to the few good friends who have stuck with me.
Technically, I am a studio painter, rather than a plein air painter. I tell people my paintings are a conversation with the subject, and for the same reasons I am not a good conversationalist in person, I am much more articulate later, after I have had some time to mull over things, perhaps like an Irish writer.
I spend a lot of time outside in the landscape itself, but the visual is not the only consideration. It is as much about spending time somewhere, experiencing the bad days as well as the good, the boring light as well as the ideal.
Finding interest in the face of someone you want to paint is harder but more potent when you can find it in the character that is stripped of the layer of self-concern that causes people to shave or put on makeup or even brush their hair. You have to have studied them. It is born of intimacy…you have to put in the hours.
People constantly recommend places to me that I may want to paint. I almost never go. They are usually beautiful postcard-type places and I am not interested in that. I am much more interested in vastness and space, in the puniness of myself in scale, the fragility of the line between the various opposing forces we as humans struggle with every day. Most painters I know paint the escape from that, the moment when the pressure lets up. I am one of those who likes a little piece of everything in every bite…
This residency was spent in southwest Ireland, in County Cork. The residency cottage clings to a steep hillside on the northwest-facing slope of Sheep’s Head Peninsula, looking out over Bantry Bay, with its boiling sky and the shifting shadows of Behr Peninsula across the way. The land is rocky and mountainous, wet, windy, and steep. Both the land and the inhabitants here remind me of something I wrote the last time I was here in “The Ireland Diary” up in Mayo. Speaking of Ireland, I wrote:
“Without her people, she is an unforgiving wet rock where Nature is relentlessly testing those who set foot, and which the sea is trying constantly to consume. Ireland’s magic is in its animation, its inhabitants who breathe myth and life into every challenge, who plow and plant between the rocks, and instead of ridding themselves of the weeds, extract from them the secrets of tenacity and survival.”
All of that energy is present in the rocky shores of the peninsula region of the southwest.
Our closest neighbor was the farmer Charlie O’Donovan below us on the hillside. I stopped in at one point and met him and his wife, and we became friends for the duration of the time on Sheep’s Head.
It was a joy to travel around with Charlie, who had spent his life getting to know the people of the area, whose ancestors’ gravestones mingle with his own in the tiny Kilcrohane cemetery, and whose dog Biddy could not bear to be without him. On one occasion he had cut a field of silage just below the cottage only to have it rain-soaked before he could get it out. So he stirred it many times to loosen the water before a dry-enough couple of days would let it be rolled. He never complained about it, but would instead smile and take a deep breath looking out over the bay…he just loves the place.
As the evening transitions from dusk to dark and the sparse lights across the bay start to glow, Charlie’s tractor slowly makes its way back down the winding road to the O’Donovan cluster below, Biddy running ahead of it in the headlight wash like a mystical figure from some dream…
It is out of this that the paintings come.
I have been to Ireland three times now for extended stays, and each time gets harder to return to my life in the U.S.
My first time was a longtime dream of riding a pack bicycle around the country in 1996 for three months, which was life changing in many ways… not the least of which was the connection that I knew would last a lifetime.
The second time was as a Fellow with the Ballinglen Foundation in 2005, which was a tough time to be an American anywhere outside of the United States. There was a lot of political tension, which diverted a lot of energy from the work of making connections. In spite of that, my time in Mayo became a continuation of my love of Ireland and an opportunity to stay in one place for two months and live among the same people. I also met some amazing other artists at the Foundation with whom I stay in touch to this day.
My third trip was made possible by the Claire Short Residency Award of 2011, which was a complete surprise. I had applied for support from Artist Trust like many artists trying to make a go of it in the present economy, and when I was notified of the residency award, I could not have been happier.
My father passed away right around that time, and I was tasked with cleaning up his affairs, which delayed our going in the award timeframe. Donors Emer Dooley and Rob Short graciously allowed us to go in May of 2012, after we were through with our obligations and free of the burdens of the family crisis. This may have amplified the joy of the trip much like the best rainbows follow the darkest storms.
Read more about Marc.