Being sheepish about her art: Orla Barry’s new book looks at her life as an artist and farmer

Orla Barry’s new book describes aspects of her life as an artist and a sheep farmer, writes Colette Sheridan

Orla Barry on her farm in Co Wexford, where she tends a herd of 100 pedigree lleyn sheep.
Orla Barry on her farm in Co Wexford, where she tends a herd of 100 pedigree lleyn sheep.

ORLA BARRY describes her Facebook page as “kind of schizophrenic”. She explains:

“I have friends who are farmers while the other half are artists. The farmers post anti-vegetarian stuff while the city people, the artists, post the opposite.”

Barry, who has 100 pedigree Lleyn sheep on about forty acres in her native Wexford, is well used to straddling two worlds.

The fifty-year-old says she is rooted in ‘barefoot anthropology’, a term used by American anthropologist, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has studied bachelor men in Ireland by living here rather than doing it at a remove.

This week, Barry is launching her book, Shaved Rapunzel, Scheherazade and the Shearling Ram from Arcady. The book is a collection of her performance texts and written works. It follows the seasons of a sheep year in Wexford. While it’s embedded in the reality of that situation, the book is a fictional and humorous series of short stories. They tell of the artist’s interactions with different characters and animals from her unique circumstances. The book, explains Barry, is also a performance.

It has literally been researched ‘in the field.’ The combination of culture and agriculture is an ongoing activity that leads to the book’s distinctive vocabulary and tone.

“The book isn’t just about sheep. It’s about the art world and the craziness of being an artist and a shepherd, having your feet in two different worlds at the same time.”

Barry studied art at NCAD (National College of Art and Design) in Dublin and the University of Ulster. She attended the artists’ Institute, Ateliers, in Amsterdam where she completed her MA before moving to Brussels where she lived for sixteen years.

She built up her art career in the Belgian capital, doing video and performance.

On the phone from Brussels where Barry was rehearsing for a performance (with her sheep being minded at home), she says the city was always a great breeding ground for cross disciplinary practices involving dance, music and art.

But subsidies for artists in Brussels have recently been cut by 60% with priority being given to big institutions that reflect Flemish culture.

NEW BEGINNINGS

In 2009, Barry returned from Brussels to Wexford. Her partner followed her and they had to find a way of making an income. Barry’s father runs a tillage farm. She wanted to do something in farming that didn’t involved chemical sprays.

“To cut a long story short, I went straight in at the deep end. I bought thirty sheep. I worked with another farmer for two years learning all about lambing. My father thought I was crazy. Ten years later, I’m still doing it and I think I’m going to continue sheep farming. It hasn’t been a money maker. It’s like a hobby although maybe not, because it’s so much work. I do show sheep as well.”

Combining art — which sometimes takes Barry away from the land —with sheep breeding sounds like quite a challenge.

“It’s hard but it’s good for your soul. It keeps you out of the psychiatrist’s chair. Sometimes, I doubt if I’m going to keep doing it.”

Barry says she now appreciates the plight of the farmer. “What’s happening in agriculture is just not glorious.” It is, she says, a tough existence. “I think my book tells that story to a city audience.”

As a child, Barry gravitated towards sheep whenever she was brought to livestock shows.

“But if somebody said to me twelve years ago that I was going to have sheep, I’d have told them they were out of their mind. It just seemed to happen in the roll of life. There’s a ball rolling and you just pick up stuff along the way. I picked up a flock of sheep. I’m taking risks, walking on glass. I’m really involved in a part of society.”

Is it a fulfilling life? “Sometimes when I’m really tired and fed up, I just say to myself ‘You can’t fit anything more into your life.’ It’s exhausting but it’s also rewarding. It’s about being outside in all weathers. You have to do it.

“When I was younger, I had a French boyfriend who had to do military service. I feel people now should have to spend a year working on a farm. It would make people understand where the food comes from and how difficult it is to produce it. And then you have the capitalist overlords who tell you what you’ll get for lamb this week and you’re struggling to survive.”

Among Barry’s concerns are consumerism and people’s detachment from the land. She can understand why people are turning vegetarian or vegan.

“It’s hard in a city to source food. I think the only way to do things ethically is to buy directly from the farmer. But that would involve a lot of time and putting more money into food rather than spending it on mobile phones and fancy cars.”

As to the move away from meat because of climate change, Barry says:

“Live and let live.”]

Though Irish farming has become more diverse in recent years, Barry could hardly be described as typical. “I’m kind of the weirdo farmer alright. But I’ve had great support and help from the community. All the knowledge I needed was around me, like a hedge school.”

Barry says the highlight of her artistic career was the first time she did a performance at Wexford Arts Centre. “It was a really mixed audience, everybody from farmers to people who knew me and my family as well as art people. Some thought that bits of what we did were weird but people were kind of carried along through the storytelling.”

BEAUTY OF THE BEAST

Barry says that her book includes a very technical section about showing sheep and what the judges look for at livestock shows.

“But in a certain way, it’s about the art world as well. It’s about aesthetics and the beauty of an animal.”

When she’s not out on the land, Barry works from a studio in her home. “I do a lot of collaborative work so people come there to work with me. I have a foot in everything. I’m in a theatre at the moment in Brussels. I was on a farm yesterday and a gallery the day before.”

So, what is more important, agriculture or culture?

“I’ll have to say they’re equal. Sometimes, you might think ‘who cares about culture?’ But when you see what’s happening here (in Belgium with cutbacks), you realise that people need to be able to express themselves and do things that are different and go and see art. But people need to be outside and have their hands in the dirt a bit more.”

Orla Barry’s book will be launched at Wexford Arts Centre tomorrow (November 27); Crawford Art Gallery in Cork on Thursday with readings by Alice Maher, Timmy Creed and the author. The Dublin launch takes place at Temple Bar Gallery on Friday

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