Working mother of three among new graduates from Crawford art college

Orla O’Byrne is one of the graduates showing their work in the Crawford Degree Show from Friday

Orla O'Byrne is excited about embarking on a new career in art, having always maintained her interest in it while working as a baker and running her three cafés in Cork since founding the Natural Foods Bakery in 2002. 

O’Byrne, a 43-year-old mother-of-two, is one of the graduating students exhibiting in the CIT Crawford College of Art degree show from tomorrow, which is being launched by Dee Forbes, director general of RTÉ.

O’Byrne’s mother, a former hippie, set up Natural Foods on Paul Street decades ago. 

When O’Byrne returned to Cork from New York where she had worked in galleries, her mother had shut down her bakery. 

O’Byrne and her sister, Ellie (now a journalist), decided to work in the wholesome food business for a few years, and then study their areas of interest.

“Seventeen years later, I finally get to graduate in art,” says O’Byrne, whose business also expanded to Blackrock village and Fitzgerald’s Park. 

She says that “life has a way of chucking things at you constantly” so, after putting her plans to study art on hold for a while, she enrolled as a student at the Crawford in 2013, where she spent six years doing a degree which normally takes four years. 

Her supportive partner Roddy Henderson took on the bulk of running the business.

The couple’s children, 13-year-old Freya and Suan, 11, soon got used to their mother being a student.

“Freya is really into art and loves the chance to come into the college to see what I’m doing,” says O’Byrne.

Being a mature student didn’t bother O’Byrne who says she mixed well with the younger students. She feels that being older is an advantage at art college.

“When I finished school and did an art course in Thomastown, Kilkenny, I was 18 and had so many distractions in my life. 

"Now that I’ve done my degree, I’ve seen all these 18-year-olds trying to make art and do stuff that other people have thought deeply about. I think everyone benefits from a bit of time out in the world before doing a degree. 

"That’s not to say that the youngsters don’t make great art. But you can see the lack of life experience in the work they produce.”

As O’Byrne puts the finishing touches to her work for the degree show, the question on her mind is how did Cork lose more than 200 Canova casts?

A modest number of the casts (modelled from the marble originals in the Vatican and gifted to Cork in 1818 via a circuitous route) are on show at the Crawford Gallery where they are undergoing conservation work this month, with fig leaves being removed from the genital area of the figures.

O’Byrne welcomes the revival of this skill and values the tradition of the Canova casts being used as tools for art students honing their craft. 

But she says that Cork has treated the casts “appalling”. She points out that 219 casts, made by the renowned neo-classical sculptor, Antonio Canova, came to Cork.

They were housed in different places and stimulated the founding of the Cork School of Art, which later became the CIT Crawford College of Art and Design. 

“Some of them were kept in cupboards and there are accounts of them being robbed and broken by students. 

"Even if 100 of them were broken, there must be other ones around Cork. I think I’ve found one. 

"I’ve taken a soft cast of it as part of my degree show. It’s part of a face. I need to get it verified.”

O’Byrne is going to take some time over the next couple of years “to research the missing Canova casts which I might turn into an MA. It will be a bit of detective work.”

Her degree show work involves large format photographic negatives and sculptural objects with the tension between transience and permanence explored.

The CIT Crawford College of Art & Design Fine Art & Applied Art Degree Show runs until June 14

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