Rachel Ballagh’s approach to art is quite different from her famous father’s, writes Colette Sheridan. Artist Rachel Ballagh, may have followed in her father’s footsteps, but her style is very different from that of Robert Ballagh.
Rachel, who is exhibiting at the Sarah Walker Gallery in Castletownbere, Co Cork, at the moment, points out that her father’s training in architecture influenced his approach to art.
“His work is incredibly precise whereas I trained at art college (NCAD) and I have a looser style. I’d love it to be even looser. Using pencil and charcoal, once I make a mark, I can’t go back. I stick with it and go with the flow.”
A run of bad luck resulted in Ballagh moving from her native Dublin to her family’s holiday home in Ballycotton in 2002. Ballagh’s job at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios came to an end in 2002 because after a certain period, artists working there have to make way for other artists.
At that time, she also lost her job teaching photography at Youth Reach and she lost the house she was staying in as it was being renovated. So she headed down to Ballycotton, only intending to stay there for a year or two. She is still now firmly ensconced in the East Cork fishing village.
Ballagh finds living in her family’s old cottage isolated but she likes her own company. Asked if moving from the city to a rural setting has resulted in changes to her work, she says it has.
Always “obsessed with mortality”, Ballagh says it is expressed through her drawings of dead birds, animals and road kill. She had a severe brush with mortality some years ago when she suffered from diverticulitis which is inflammation of the bowel, as well as a subsequent illness.
(Ballagh’s mother died from the diverticulitis in 2011, having been misdiagnosed. Robert Ballagh sued the HSE and two consultants. The case was settled).
In 2015, about three years after her illness, Rachel got sick again. A fistula formed between her bowel and bladder. “I had to have the bad bit of the bowel cut out. I ended up getting sepsis and pneumonia and was in an induced coma for a week. It took a long time to recover.”
Living in such a beautiful rural area adds to Rachel’s concern about the environment. “I get swallows every year in my shed but this year, only one pair came.”
She doesn’t feel it’s too late to try and reverse ecological damage.
“My whole notion is quite Marxist in the sense that we need to change everything and get rid of greed and capitalism. It’s a bit idealistic but that’s how I see things changing, through people power.”
Ballagh says she was always a rebel and was asked to leave a Catholic school she attended for a while as she refused to recite daily prayers. In her teenage years, she was “an adamant atheist”, and a member of Militant Labour Youth.
Her father has campaigned against the poor pay that most artists have to get by on, but he never discouraged his daughter from pursuing art as a career. “He let me find my own way.”
Father and daughter have collaborated together. While Robert has had a hugely successful career, including designing stamps for An Post, his daughter doesn’t have his high profile. She says that trying to make a go of art, if you’re not in the top four, is almost impossible. “You either have to be completely mad or you just can’t do anything else. I’m a bit of both.”
Rachel, who has a brother (a car salesman), says her father doesn’t comment on her work. He just says ‘get on with it’ and, as it says on the painting of himself on a T-shirt, ‘F**k the begrudgers’.
Rachel Ballagh’s drawings are exhibited in the Sarah Walker Gallery in Castletownbere until the end of June