Dorothy Cross: An artist in tune with nature

As part of our Sustainability Week coverage, Des O'Driscoll spoke to the Cork artist about her adventures in the natural world and its representation in her work
Dorothy Cross: An artist in tune with nature

Dorothy Cross in 1999 in advance of her Ghost Ship project off Dublin.
Dorothy Cross in 1999 in advance of her Ghost Ship project off Dublin.

Dorothy Cross is considered one of Ireland's top contemporary artists, and her work has often had a strong connection to nature. As part of our Sustainability Week coverage, we spoke to Cross from her home in Connemara.

Born in Cork in 1956, Cross was raised in the suburb of Montenotte, and spent her summers on the coast at Fountainstown, about 13 miles from the city.

A keen scuba diver, she was also a competitive swimmer, and missed out on qualifying for the 1972 Munich Olympics by  0.1 of a second.

Tell us about your early days and how you became interested in the natural world?

In Fountainstown, I had the privilege to be by the sea for three months of the year, free to run around the rockpools and go out in boats with our cousins. Total freedom. I had an interest in nature through my parents and through my brother. I used to spend hours at the rock pools. I remember putting crabs in the pool at low tide and them coming back at the next tide to see where they'd moved to.

And in Montenotte too we had a big garden so it was a different type of contained nature. I was so lucky. My mother was a great gardener... I remember we had huge beds of lily of the valley.

Also in that time there was more opportunity for kids to connect... they were outside more, with less interior computer-based pursuits.

Swimming became a big part of your life?

Shark motifs regularly appear in Cross's work. Picture: Kerlin Gallery
Shark motifs regularly appear in Cross's work. Picture: Kerlin Gallery

I learnt to swim at a place called Shell Hole, a beautiful place on the rocks between Fountainstown and Myrtleville, where a little gully comes in.

There was a diving board at Shell Hole and my mother used to do beautiful swallow dives and jackknifes off it. My brother Tom – who went on to become a coach at national level – lured me into swimming more.

He said I had a good breaststroke kick and told me that if you trained at  Eglinton Baths in the city you got to go to Butlins. I'd seen a picture of Butlins in a brochure, and it looked amazing, with the glass walls of the cafe looking onto the pool.

I didn't enjoy the training all of the time – you'd be up at 6.30am and in the pool by 7am. I'd have to hop out between laps and learn Ovid or my Irish poems in the cubicles. And then run down to school with my hair dripping wet on the desk. I remember one year the roof had been taken off the pool while they were working on it, and we were actually swimming with snow falling!

But I'm really glad I did it. There was a real camaraderie among the team in the Sunday's Well club, and we were winning a lot of championships over the Dubs. And you knew that if you did the work, you'd progress.

You've been to the Galapagos twice – tell us about those trips?

I'd read about Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle, the Galapagos was a place of desire and  part of the romance of 'pure' nature. When I went there on my own in the 1980s, there was just one flight a week. I suppose I was part of the beginnings of tourism there -mea culpa!-. There was one dive master at the time and I had always wanted to scuba dive. I thought it was like swimming, but in fact it's the totally opposite to swimming – you don't swim, you float.

I went diving with this guy Fernando Zambrano. On my second dive, he brought me to dive with hammerhead sharks. There were so many other highlights... the bioluminescence in the sea at night, the marine iguanas walking over your feet. It was incredible.

What's amazing about the Galapagos is the lack of fear of humans that animals have. So on your first dive a sealion is looking you in the eye and bringing you a piece of seaweed to play with.

It was the most extraordinary 'relationship' with animals in their terrain where they are not afraid. If you look at what we do here with nature and how we strangle it, forcefeeding animals and keeping them in pens... the horror of that is the polar opposite of pure nature when you are in the Galapagos.

I went back later with the Gulbenkian Foundation [philantropic Portugese organisation]. They wanted to see how artists would respond to this pure nature. Fiona Shaw [actress and longterm friend] wasn't working at the time, so she came along.

We stayed at the Darwin Research Centre, and we were kind of like weird guinea pigs ourselves. That was about 15 years after I'd been there for the first time, and you could already see some of the damage.

At the end, I made a little film about how you cannot really make art about nature... that nature in the end always wins. It's an impossible thing to create art that's as powerful as nature.

Natural themes were strong in the Virgin Shroud – made of a cow skin, udders, and your grandmother's wedding dress, and acquired by the Tate in London:

I'm going back through all my work at the moment, and at times i'm like, 'where was my head at?'. It's 30 years since I made the Virgin Shroud, and a lot of people were horrified by it.

It's so unsettling. It has the underbelly of beauty to make you consider the beauty. A lot of it is not comfortable. It's about mortality. It's about relating ourselves as animals to the animals.

The Virgin Shroud includes a real cow skin and Cross's grandmother's wedding dress. Picture: Tate London
The Virgin Shroud includes a real cow skin and Cross's grandmother's wedding dress. Picture: Tate London

In using a cow skin and using an udder on the head of that giant structure, it was grotesque to deal with that wet skin and to know that an animal had one time occupied it. But what I was trying to do was give the possiblity of a second viewing to that cow, and to relate it to the human.

'She' kind of took on that human form. She was called 'Virgin Shroud' and she was lined with the silk of my grandmother's wedding train. In some sense it was about the potential of virginity and the shrouding of death. But people are even afraid to consider that, because we are afraid to consider ourselves as mortal animals.

Representations of sharks have regularly popped up in your work?

I think why I'm so fascinated with sharks is this projection of fear, and how we hold the shark almost at the pinnacle of hatred... that misunderstanding of the animal.

We need the shark for the whole ecosystem to survive, and yet we're busy trying to kill it. There's a big drive at the moment to conserve sharks, as they've been decimated.

There was supposed to be a big shark hunt for tourism off the coast of Cork last year. I responded to the Instagram. It was supposed to be 'catch and release', and people think that's ok, but it's not. It can be hours of being dragged along by a hook in their gullet.

It traumatises the animal, and sharks' blood doesn't coagulate, so if they get cut by the hook, they can bleed to death when they're let off.

You're obviously very aware of conservation issues, but that's not so explicit in your art?

Yes, I remember years ago trying to be explicit about the Church, and being told the work had become propagandist. So instead, it's trying to shift the sands around the certainty of anything. By using the theatre of religion or the routine of our daily lives, and shaking that up and mixing things together and making us uncertain.

When I got the heart from the shark and put it in a kind of tabernacle in the wall, that then makes people consider the presence of some kind of Eucharist.

Life in Connemara obviously suits you?

Connemara is kind of like a balm for me, and I know I couldn't live in a city any more. I came here to do scuba diving years ago, and the place is exquisite.

To be locked down here is a treat. It gives you time to plant vegetables and not be on the road. Last week, we got in the water and went kayaking and snorkelling. It was like a pond.

But it's awful to see the plastic and other debris being washed up on the beaches. I also see that people dump stuff down on the beach. And as for the people who throw stuff out of their cars between here and Letterfrack... if I caught them!

Magic moments in the water?

You get a lot of them while diving. For instance I was down in Tahiti putting fingerbones into a pearl oyster so that the animal would cover the bones with pearl.

I stayed there about three weeks and one day I was out for a dive and I came up over this coral bommie and this manta ray came right over my head. It was so exquisite... the tears filled my mask.

I also went diving in the Antarctic about 20 years ago. I was in under the ice and it was like The Incredible Shrinking Man - you felt you were in this cocktail of blues. It was just amazing.

Favourite bird?

Gannets. They're so streamlined and beautiful with that band of pale yellow that goes around their head and the blue eye. They're kind of considered our albatross, but I think they're more beautiful than an albatross. I've used a few of them in my work, flying upside-down under broken currachs, etc. I find them dead on the beach; they dive into shallow water and accidentally break their necks.

In the past you've travelled a lot. Any concerns about travelling now?

Earlier in the year, I was asked to do this residency in India, but I decided I wouldn't fly as I didn't need to do it. But then again, I'm 64 I've already been to so many places; I'm not 18 and dreaming of going places.

And travelling is so different now. When I went to Peru in my late teens, there was no Lonely Planet guide, no internet. It was all about discovery and that sense of getting lost.

I feel sorry for the younger generation, as they can't really get lost, and they can hardly discover. That thing of the outback and the vastness of the planet... I'm so glad I was born for that.

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