Susan O'Shea: Artists doing it themselves helping to revitalise Cork business life

Susan O'Shea: Artists doing it themselves helping to revitalise Cork business life
Upcyclist, textile and papercraft artist Patti O’Leary in her studio at Fermoy, Co Cork, and below her work on display in Blackwater Valley Makers. Picture: Dan Linehan.

Blackwater Valley Makers, which incorporates an arts centre and creative hub in Fermoy, was born from the necessity of providing a shopfront for the many artisans in the Fermoy district and was a very welcome event following some high-profile closures in the the town, writes Susan O’Shea.

Fermoy, Co Cork , like most provincial towns, has struggled over the last decade, with many businesses falling victim to first the recession, and then the lure of online shopping. In recent weeks the town was dealt another body blow with the closure of the landmark Grand Hotel.

However, the news is not all bad, and in the square, an arts centre and creative hub, housed in the former Ulster Bank, is breathing much-needed life back, not only into a vacant building but into the town itself.

Ceramicist and chair-person, Siobhain Steele,describes how a small group initially got together in February 2018, and the idea for Blackwater Valley Makers was born.

“We were all working individually as artists in the area, some of us knew of each, others didn’t, but until we got together we had no idea such talent existed on our doorsteps,” she says.

Beginning with an art trail to coincide with Culture Night, the group then decided to open a pop-up shop in November 2018 — the Blackwater Valley Makers Arts Centre.

It traded until December 24. “Any trepidation we had in advance of the opening was quickly banished,” says Siobhain, describing the response as “phenomenal”.

That gave the Makers the courage to move to the next level, and in April of this year they signed a deal to lease the former bank,making the arts centre a fixture in the town.

Open seven days a week for December, and Wednesday to Sunday the rest of the year, Siobhain says the centre has tapped into an appetite to buy art that is locally produced, sustainable, beautifully made, and that will last a lifetime.

The 16 members of the Blackwater Valley Makers, artists whose studios are in Fermoy and the wider Blackwater Valley, manage and run the Arts Centre.

In addition to selling their work, the centre also provides a wide variety of cultural events including visual art exhibitions, artists’ talks, demonstrations, performances, book launches and poetry and prose evenings, the type of events which previously only happened in the town on an ad-hoc basis.

However, talent alone doesn’t pay the bills, and Siobhain says one of the reasons the group has been so successful is the strict guidelines laid down governing membership to maintain the highest possible standards.

It is run as a professional entity. We are registered as a business, with a board of management, governed by strict parameters as laid out in our mission statement and with absolute transparency.

“The centre will only continue as long as we can afford to pay the rent, and to do that, we have to sell, like any business.”

She is also fulsome in her praise for Cork County Council for grant aid, the business community for valuable assistance, and the extent to which the wider community has embraced the concept.

“We are keeping art, craft and design skills alive for the next generation and there’s such goodwill in the town towards us, and that’s what drives us to succeed.”

‘There is nothing amateurish about this, the standard of everyone involved is so very high’

Patti O’Leary, upcyclist, textile and papercraft artist

Blackwater Valley Makers Upcyclist, textile & papercraft artist Patti O’Leary with her dog Gaga in her studio at Fermoy, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan.
Blackwater Valley Makers Upcyclist, textile & papercraft artist Patti O’Leary with her dog Gaga in her studio at Fermoy, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan.

A Texan living in North Cork, Patti has lost none of her lovely southern drawl as she explains how the appetite for art has changed in this country.

“Certainly when I started out you didn’t see a lot of painted furniture, or recycled items turned into art. Now you have craft fairs, shops and pop-ups.”

Named after her granddaughter, Patti says she draws inspiration for her Lovely Things by Luna Claire range from the landscape surrounding her home, Moonlight Cottage, which she and her Irish husband bought and restored nine years ago.

She was drawn to the Blackwater Valley Makers as “it is such an amazing community, with a huge variety of artists involved, such a talented group”, she says with an infectious laugh.

“Maybe it’s something in the water. It definitely seems to be unique to have such a variety of talent in a small catchment area, and the community have been so good about supporting local artists.

"We are lucky to have the arts centre in such a good location, it’s a great addition to Fermoy, with such wonderful exposure for all the artists.”

Patti says it can sometimes be a challenge, working as an individual, and that she draws inspiration from working with the other makers and seeing their work displayed.

“The standard is so very high, there is nothing amateur about this, and I think, as like-minded individuals, we do inspire each other, and the arts centre could act as a model for other communities to follow.”

She says those who come into the centre, to browse or shop, are definitely more interested in sustainability, knowing where the artwork came from, what inspired it, and have a growing appreciation for their natural environment.

“They love to chat, ask questions, are hungry to know more.”

Patti’s range is extensive, with something to suit all pockets, everything from handmade cards which retail at €4 and framed paper craft, called after her beloved Moonlight Cottage to handmade cushions, up to pieces of painted furniture styled using unique techniques, which sell for a couple of hundred euro.

Trees, flowers and animals feature prominently, and her inspiration comes the land surrounding her studio.

“It’s so beautiful. I can’t imagine ever leaving here.”

‘I never took a formal woodmaking lesson, Everything I know, I learned from YouTube’

Pat Murphy, Woodworker

Former butcher Pat Murphy in his workshop at Kildorrery, Co Cork, and his extensive handcrafted wooden range below.
Former butcher Pat Murphy in his workshop at Kildorrery, Co Cork, and his extensive handcrafted wooden range below.

Pat has a history as chequered as the unique and beautiful chopping boards he produces.

After “having a ball” studying electrical engineering in UL, he took over the family butchery business in his native Kildorrery.

He had no history of working with wood in school, and has never taken a woodwork lesson. “Everything I know I learned from YouTube.”

When he was forced to close the butcher’s in December 2007, he converted the premises into a workshop, and began his new journey with wood.

“The wife went to a craft fair in Ballymaloe and bought a small chopping board for €15, and I thought, I can do that, and off I went.”

There was a degree of regret that the business had closed after 120 years, but the name for his range CK53 Design, comes from his registration as a butcher, so something of the family business lives on.

His wife is his “stylist” and advises him when he produces a prototype … “no that’s too big, that’s the wrong shape. She has a keen eye and she’s always right.”

Initially unsure, a positive response at a Christmas fair to his artwork convinced him he was on the right track.

“Confidence was my problem, I thought I’m not at this level, and then I thought maybe I do have something to offer, I applied cap in hand to Blackwater Valley Makers and they accepted.”

Pat uses sustainable hardwoods to make his range of bespoke chopping boards, knives, and coasters — a mix of walnut, cherry, purple heart, which is native to South America, oak, and maple.

It’s this use of different woods that gives his work such striking colours and contrast.

“It’s the natural colour of the timber I use that first got me recognised. I just use a small piece of purple heart but it’s a real showstopper. It’s massively expensive, one board will last me a year, so a little bit goes a long way.”

While some may be uncomfortable with the use of hardwoods, he says the wood he uses is grown commercially, it’s a sustainable business, and it keeps people out of the Amazon.

Absolutely nothing gets wasted, every scrap is used. And I can guarantee that any board I make will last a lifetime … as long as it’s not put in the dishwasher!

Pat’s signature offering is the Kildorrery Butter Knife, which went down a storm in a recent meeting with American trade buyers, facilitated by Enterprise Ireland. He is also in talks with Blarney Woollen Mills about carrying the range.

While continuing to work three days a week in a pharmacy he’s hoping eventually to make wood his full-time profession as well as passion.

“BVM is a fabulous concept, and it’s only in its infancy. Long-term it has huge potential, people coming in here know they will find something unique.”

‘Egos aren’t a problem, people know weneed to strike a balance to make this work’

Carol O'Sullivan, mixed media artist

Blackwater Valley Makers Mixed media artist Carol O’Sullivan in her studio at Kilworth, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan.
Blackwater Valley Makers Mixed media artist Carol O’Sullivan in her studio at Kilworth, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan.

Starting out as an artist in 1987, after graduating from the National College of Art and Design, Carol moved to Kilworth where a Craft Council of Ireland/Fas course for 10 fledgling artists offered her everything from business mentoring to workshop space.

“I think the Blackwater Valley is such a creative hub because it’s a naturally beautiful area. It’s almost unknown to many, but it suits artists as it is tranquil, yet accessible.”

The Blackwater Valley Makers Arts Centre has been invaluable, she says, as it gave her the first opportunity locally to showcase her work.

“Up to then, I was producing my work and heading to Cork, or Dublin or elsewhere to showcase it. This was my first opportunity since the 80s to show my work locally. The exposure BVM brings with it is invaluable.”

Carol says while many may feel intimidated by stepping into a traditional gallery, that’s not the case with the arts centre.

“One of us [the makers] are always here, and people love that they get to talk to the person who made the work. We all studied a mixture of mediums when we started out, and are so familiar with each other’s work by now, we are very comfortable talking about it.

“People feel they can ask us questions about the work, they are engaged, not intimidated by it.”

Carol believes the public have become more visually educated, driven by things like Pinterest and Instagram.

“People definitely have more confidence about what they like. Before, you were either interested in art or you weren’t, that’s no longer the case.” Carol’s own work features a cross-section of styles, and thus appeals to a range of audiences.

Understandably, older age groups tend to be more reserved in their tastes. They like local themes, more traditional artwork, while the semi-abstract style appeals to the younger generation.

Carol says she loves the days she spends in the shop, and the chance to speak to customers. For more expensive pieces, customers can put down a deposit, and pay in instalments, and the centre also offers vouchers of €10, €20 and €50.

With so many artists involved, Carol says egos aren’t a problem.

“We all get on well together. People know we need to strike a balance to make this work. It’s unique in that we didn’t follow a model, we got together originally for some company, and a creative connection, and it grew organically from that.”

‘People are prepared to travel to see a pair of shoes, why wouldn’t they travel to see artwork?’

Simon Barber, Jeweller

Jeweller Simon Barber in his workshop at JJ Barber in Fermoy, Co Cork.Picture: Dan Linehan.
Jeweller Simon Barber in his workshop at JJ Barber in Fermoy, Co Cork.Picture: Dan Linehan.

Fifth-generation jeweller, Simon Barber is one of the BVM’s most famous names, his family having operated a jewellery business in the town for 150 years.

He says he has many loyal customers, with returning families saying things like “my grandmother bought a ring from your dad”, which is “always lovely to hear”.

Simon handcrafts the Findings range of rings, pendants, necklaces, and bracelets is his workshop in Fermoy, using skills handed down by previous generations.

Each piece is loving handcrafted and ranges in prices from €80 to €200.

When he started the range originally, many of the pieces were made from recycled elements, for example the inner workings of a watch were turned into a pendant, a spoon was lovingly crafted into a ring.

And while Simon will still refashion a favoured piece of jewellery into something different for a customer, demand for his product is such that he can no longer rely on just recycled materials.

As well as selling from his own store, in other outlets in the county, and online, Simon is a proud member of the BVM.

Asked if he thinks the centre will act as a magnet for Fermoy, he replies: “People are prepared to travel to see a nice pair of shoes, why wouldn’t they travel to see new artwork?

“I think over time it will be a draw. Certainly there has been an improvement with more shops, and coffee shops and it’s more of a destination town.”

He is one of the few makers who doesn’t man the arts centre, given his commitment to his own store and producing his range, and instead pays a higher percentage from his sales to help fund the cost of running the centre.

‘This has opened up a whole new avenue for me, and a space to sell my art’

Pawel Wroblewski, Painter

Blackwater Valley Makers Portriat artist Pawel Wroblewski working on a theatre project in Fermoy, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan.
Blackwater Valley Makers Portriat artist Pawel Wroblewski working on a theatre project in Fermoy, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan.

The newest member of the Blackwater Valley Makers, Pawel only joined a couple of weeks ago, and is delighted by the concept and to be accepted as a member.

“I applied to join, and there was a waiting period, and originally I was accepted as an associate member, before becoming a full member.”

He has just completed his first two days manning the arts centre, and says the reception from customers coming in was great, and already he has learnt a lot from interacting with them.

It’s been very busy and people weren’t coming in just to look, they were coming in to buy, which is great.

A native of Gdansk, in Poland, where he graduated with a masters degree from Gdansk Academy of Art, Pawel moved to Ireland a decade ago, and three years ago to outside Kilworth village.

While not a big fan of the weather (“we returned to Gdansk in the summer and the weather was like the Mediterranean, the sea temperature was 20C”), he loves the view from his home of the Knockmealdown Mountains, and how the landscape changes depending on the weather, and especially the rain.

Making his living a bartender when he first arrived in Ireland, he then became artist-in-residence in Camden Palace in Cork City for four years, before setting up his studio in Kilworth.

From there he paints portraits, theatre scenery, murals and also offers art classes to children and teenagers (adult classes are done on a one-to-one basis).

Married to a dancer and musician from Drogheda, Co Louth, who met through their love of the arts. Pawel says he is delighted to have been accepted by BVM.

“Before this I wouldn’t have had much contact with other artists in the area, or even been familiar with their work, so it has opened up a whole new avenue for me, and a space to show and sell my art.”

‘The shop is key. It has to function, if it fails we will all have to walk away’

Charley McCarthy, Woodturner and carver

Blackwater Valley Makers Woodturner and carber Charley McCarthy in hisstudio at Fermoy, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan.
Blackwater Valley Makers Woodturner and carber Charley McCarthy in hisstudio at Fermoy, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan.

Since retiring from VHI four years, Charley McCarthy has worked full-time as a woodturner and carver.

“Insurance was my career, but wood is my lifelong passion,” he says.

“I love the fact you are making something, that there’s an end result.”

Charley’s interest in wood was sparked many years ago on a trip to Venice, where he passed what he initially thought was a clothes shop. “I did a double-take and realised everything in the window was carved from wood, jackets, bags, shoes”.

This was his eureka moment. Up until then his use of wood was for DIY, but from then on Charley took his passion seriously.

Largely self-taught, he took a number of courses, and once, on a holiday to Crete with his wife, spent three days with a wood- turner honing his skills. Among Charley’s items for sale in the BVM are a handbag and umbrella, carved completely from wood. They are exquisite.

“Something like that takes a long, long time to produce”, and so that is reflected in the price, at €550 for the bag, and €650 for the umbrella.

“The bowls, pens and candlestick holders, while also beautifully crafted, are less labour- intensive and thus more affordable.”

Charley relishes his two days a month spent in the shop.

“It’s bringing the whole area of art and craft to a new audience. A teacher from St Coleman’s College brought pupils in recently when I was here and they were mad keen to hear what I make, how I make it, to see that artists can make a living.”

But more than selling his own artwork, Charley says he wants BVM to succeed because of how it benefits the town.

It has brought a new dimension to Fermoy. When people think of art they used to think West Cork, but now they can think north Cork.

"I wasn’t even aware 18 months ago we had all these different artists on our doorstep, or what they did until I saw it all coming together.”

He admits it’s a challenge to bring a group of people so used to working individually together to work as a group.

“There were no guarantees it would work and go so smoothly but it has. We identified that we needed to use the individual talents available, be it social media, or finance or marketing to work.

"Everyone’s primary concern is the shop, the shop has to function, if it fails we will all have to walk away.”

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