In day two of our look at some of the artists of the Blackwater Valley Makers, Susan O’Shea chats with photographers and ceramicists, graphic designers and woodturners, and finds a scene and a place revitalised over the past year.
Maria Dowling,visual artist
Working full-time as an artist since 2006, Maria Dowling has seen the appetite for art grow and the circumstances for artists change over the last two decades.
“Things were quite good when I started out, then times got lean for a while, but they are definitely on the up now.”
Apart from Blackwater Valley Makers (BVM), Maria also sell her work in galleries in Greystones, Dungarvan, and Ardmore.
“Things have certainly got much busier. Have tastes changed? Well I think styles have certainly evolved.”
Maria is proud to declare that one of her artworks calls the Áras home. “I was commissioned by British Telecom Ireland to paint the Áras and the president’s two dogs, Bród and Síoda, and present the painting to President Michael D Higgins at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition.”
Maria says the collaboration that BVM entails has helped her enormously.
“I was very much working in solitary, painting on my own, I didn’t even know the other makers.
“It is unusual to have a centre that balances both fine art and craft, usually it’s one or the other, and with the great layout, and lighting and design of the shop, I think everything compliments each other beautifully.”
And because the artwork is literally flying off the walls, and shelves, stock is continuously being replenished and refreshed, a temporary exhibition space at the back of the centre, currently occupied by Fermoy Camera Club, changes occupant every two months, so frequent visitors to shop — and there are many — are never bored.
Maria works four half-days in the arts centre, and being a native of Fermoy, says she knows a lot of the customers personally.
The paintings she sells in the shop are primarily local, scenes of Fermoy, while those in the other galleries tend to feature the sea and coastal areas.
Spending up to two weeks on each individual painting, they retail from €400 to €1,200, but she also offers limited edition prints and cards, so there is a mix of price ranges.
She is in agreement with the other makers that egos are left firmly at the door.
“There’s no backbiting or bickering, everyone sees the benefit of making this work, and it has done so far.”
Lorna MacDonald, photographer
Glaswegian Lorna MacDonald was lured to Conna, in North Cork by love. “It was definitely a love story that brought me here,” she laughs, with her partner, who moved here to establish Sanmina, pursuing her for more than 25 years.
“I finally agreed to come for a weekend 14 years ago, and I never left. It was the longest weekend ever.”
She has integrated so completely she is now a member of Conna Community Council.
“Can you imagine, a Scot on the community council? But they have been so warm and welcoming.”
Starting out life painting and sculpting, she progressed to mural painting, then an apprenticeship as a stained glass artist, which she had to abandon when she became pregnant with twins because of the use of chemicals. It was then she turned to photography.
“My father was a photographer, so I grew up with a camera, and there was nothing more glorious as a kid than spending hours in a darkroom seeing that magic at work.”
She went on to qualify in photography and says she now uses her camera as a ‘tool’, often photographing a subject or place multiple times, and spending hours using her computer to add layers to her photographs before being happy with the end result.
Attitudes to photography have changed for the better. “Before, it was a case of if you said I’m a photographer, then people would say, oh take a picture of my family.
"Now there is a much greater appreciation of the fact that it’s an art form. People are more prepared to spend money on a piece as a gift for someone, or for themselves.”
Lorna is full of praise for the members of the Fermoy Camera Club who currently occupy the temporary exhibition space in the BVM.
Lorna’s photographs are expensive to produce, as she uses very high-quality archival texture paper, which lasts 70 years. Smaller prints sell for €20-€25, while framed photographs sell for €60-€170.
“I love being in the shop, it’s a pleasure to take my turn on the rota, it’s such a calm, beautiful space. The people who come in love to chat.
"There is one woman in particular, she spent all her time caring for her elderly mother, who has now passed, and she has taken up her camera and I love to be able to offer her help and advice.”
Siobhain Steele, ceramic artist
Siobhain swapped a career in nursing for life as a ceramic artist and has never looked back.
Graduating from Cork’s Crawford College of Art and Design with a degree in ceramics in 2013, she set up her own business, working out of a shed in her home in Rathcormac, where she had to be a ‘jack of all trades’, doing everything from the art itself, to marketing, accounting, processing orders, social media to packaging up the finished product.
Her range includes everything from personalised gifts to suit family occasions, her very popular ‘Message On A Bottle’ line, to corporate commissions, with prices ranging from €15-€1,500.
She sent a bottle inscribed with a Heaney quote to the family of the great man himself, and was delighted to receive a phonecall from his wife Marie a few weeks later to say it was sitting on the great poet’s desk.
"In the beginning it was a 24/7 job, but I love what I do. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you set yourself a goal, and art is no different to any other business — a coffee shop knows how many cups it has to sell to be profitable, an artist know how many pieces he or she has to make.
"I started out in the middle of a recession, and if you can make it in a recession, well…”
A piece can take her two weeks to complete, and everything is handcrafted and designed with care.
“I have the most lovely studio space, and am influenced by the beauty of the local landscape.”
Bespoke wedding gifts are big business, and Siobhain says customers love that they are giving a gift that’s been made locally, or they picked out themselves, or even had a hand designing.
As for Blackwater Valley Makers, she says the centre draws upon the skills of all its members.
“We are working to promote each other’s work, and to give back to the community who have been so supportive.”
Suzanne O’Sullivan, glass artist
Suzanne O’Sullivan has been working as a glass artist since she left college, combining it with the even busier career of being a stay-at-home-mum.
Suzanne began by using weavings and textiles and wanted to put them into a form that would keep, and glass was the natural option.
“Twenty years later I didn’t think I’d be still working with it, but it’s a material that has completely captured my imagination. I love it. I love the quality, the way it interacts with the light, its texture. It has such a diverse form.
"In its molten form it is so liquid, pliable, in its solid form so hard, tough and yet brittle, and I am delighted to be sharing something that is so beautiful.”
Suzanne says the Irish appreciation for glass as an art form has grown, and while it’s not as common as other mediums such as painting or ceramics, there’s an appetite for it, which has seen the Crawford School of Art expand its glass and textiles department.
Suzanne’s range is extensive, and includes delicate pieces, art pieces, corporate gifts, awards, commissions, and in the last 12 months she has added jewellery and decorations for the home.
She says it’s impossible to calculate how long she will spend on a piece.
“I just finished a commission of 28 pieces for CIT for Student of the Year and then revisited a project I started six years ago. Some processes I could spend a week on, another I could work on for a year.”
She believes the appetite and appreciation for locally-produced work has grown, and more and more of us are looking for that ‘unique’ piece.
“People are moving away from the mass produced, you hear the word ‘bespoke’ used quite a lot now, and glass offers that as every piece, by its nature, is bespoke.
The reaction of first-time visitors to the centre she says is one of genuine surprise.
“People are blown away by what they see, by the space, it has a real gallery feel to it, but prices to suit all budgets. People are genuinely intrigued, excited, they are eager to have a conversation about it, and often they come back again and again to finish that conversation.”
John O’Shea, wood turner
Two years ago, John O’Shea gave up the day job — then a van driver for Arbutus breads, and the 5am starts — to become a full-time wood turner.
“I’m in my mid-60s, the kids are grown, I don’t have a mortgage, so it was possible to do this full-time.” All of his wood is Irish grown, and either storm felled or removed for building work.
“Storm Ophelia delivered me a bounty,” he says.
He is currently using trees felled then, and has enough stock to last him well into next year. Of the bowls he turns, the natural-edge ones are his favourite, with their slightly oval shape, and each one is unique. These are a real labour of love.
Customers like to buy them as wedding or housewarming gifts, or for themselves.
“There’s not a great tradition in this country of using wooden bowls for salad, but it is increasing the more that people travel. People are definitely more interested in ecology and the environment.”
He was approached by Siobain Steele to join the Blackwater Valley Makers (BVM). “I knew there was talented people in the area, it just wasn’t visible until they were all brought together under the one roof.
“There was no guarantee that it would work and succeed, but everyone is very committed to the project. Making the art is the easy bit, selling it is the hard bit.”
John says without the financial aid from Cork County Council, BVM would never have got off the ground
“The grant aid was vital to get the thing up and running, you are not going to make much for the first two to three years, so we needed the grant for the set-up.”
The goodwill shown by other local businesses and the local community was also key, and he is confident BVM will continue to thrive.
“Somebody has a birthday every day, and people areon the lookout for something local, that’s a big selling point. We have stuff from €10 upwards so they know if the come into the centre they will find something.
“They love meeting the makers, they’ll ask you ‘what do you make’, ‘where’s the wood from’, they might see something in the centre and commission something similar that they want.”
Gerard Harris, illustrator & graphic designer
Ger describes his becoming a member of Blackwater Valley Makers (BVM) as “serendipity”.
“Siobhain [Steele’s] child goes to the same school as my son, we got talking, and that’s how I got involved.”
A writer and illustrator of five storybooks for children, when his son Noah was born, Ger was keen to find a tale that incorporated the name, but “without the doom and gloom and religious connotations” of the traditional ark tale.
Hence, Noah’s Park, where a flood sees the animals flee to a park and enjoy a big Glastonbury-style music festival.
Noah has now turned six, and to date Ger has written and illustrated five beautiful storybooks, including The Amazing Adventures of Caterpillar Pete and the Incredible Buck Butterfly, Dragupons Pocket Mouse, The Ballad of Hu and Ali, and Frankie goes to Hospital, which are stocked in Cork city and county libraries, and were also on sale in the arts centre before being snapped up.
The books take about four months to write and then more to illustrate, and as Noah grows older the stories will progress.
In lieu of manning the arts centre, Ger does all the necessary graphic work required by the group, everything from posters to signs, brochures, and stationary.
In terms of the artwork that he sells in the centre, his abstract illustrations are proving popular while his vintage-style posters of Fermoy are literally flying out the door.
“They sell in a frame for €60, or in a tube for €40, and people are buying them to post as gifts to friends and family abroad.”
He says that word is “slowly seeping out” about the centre, and people are genuinely wowed when they walk through the door.
"All pockets are catered for, for example my story books, before they sold out, were retailing at €100 euros.”
Feedback received from customers has been great, with the other makers reporting back customers’ reactions, and joining the group has helped Ger to open up new streams of creativity.
“Having this space to exhibit and sell gave me a reason to diversify, for example I didn’t do the vintage-style posters before joining the group.
“It takes so long to write and illustrate a book, and then try and get it published, joining the group has given me an excuse to do art again”.