Artist Bernadette Kiely has had an almost uncanny proximity to water and its elemental effects for most of her life, so there is something almost pre-ordained about the focus of her work on river and flooded landscapes.
“My mother says she thinks the first thing I ever saw outside of the house was a flood. When I was a baby, we lived in a flat on the quay in
Clonmel. She says she remembered me looking out the window and the whole place was in flood,” says Kiely.
The family later moved from Clonmel to another flood-prone town in Tipperary, Carrick-on-Suir. “We were literally at the corner of the quay again and I remember the River Suir flooding all the time.
The quay would be completely covered in water. I remember my father took a little boy out of the river, he had drowned. The boy tried to jump from the quay on to a barge and he fell down between them.
“When you are a child, these things make a massive impression on you. I was drawn to flooded landscape.
"I remember as a child, looking at images of flooding in Bangladesh on television and in the newspapers, and thinking that it wasn’t just us. It seems to happen wherever I am. We lived in New Ross for a while and the whole house flooded.”
Kiely has spent much of her career as an artist living in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, right beside the river Nore.
“When I saw the house for sale besides the river, I thought ‘that’s the one’, I was drawn to it,” she says.
“I am very lucky, I have a vantage point, literally looking out on the river from the house, and I have used it to my advantage to make my
While Kiely’s work is concerned with how the world is affected by weather and natural phenomena over which we have no control, she also acknowledges that in such
terrible destruction there can also be beauty.
“When it is flooded here, I can’t get out, the only way to get out is by boat or climb over a ladder into the next field. People sympathise and say it’s awful but it looks spectacular,
"The landscape becomes something else and I suppose it is the artist in me that responds to that. I am very aware of the extraordinary beauty of a river, what it does and how it can mirror a person’s life.
"I am also aware of the immense destructive power of the river. People getting drowned and their whole livelihoods being swept away, all of a sudden, literally overnight. It is the duality of that which is difficult to get your head around. You don’t expect something really beautiful to suddenly turn into a raging destructive force.”
Rivers have had a symbolic significance in art through the ages but Kiely is hesitant to ascribe any spiritual meaning to her work. She says walks by the river provide more of a mental space to reflect on the technical challenges of her painting.
“Like Seamus Heaney said, it’s like a ‘work the head’ thing. Out walking, I get the time to think about what I need to do. I tend to think about the challenges of how to actually make a painting or drawing.
"It is the technical challenges that tend to occupy an artist in the normal course of events — that colour is not the right one, it’s not working at that size or whatever — not esoteric, spiritual thoughts.
“People have mentioned that they see something spiritual in my work. Living in this country, you can’t really help but tap into the spiritual aspect of the landscape because it is incredibly beautiful.
"I wouldn’t go on about it too much because I like the idea of realism as well as the poetic. In a way, maybe that is what I try to do — combine both.”