One hundred years ago, in early December, Cork went up in flames. The burning of Cork by British forces destroyed 40 business premises, 300 homes and Cork City Hall. 2,000 job losses resulted and many were made homeless. Now, the city faces new challenges in the form of the Covid crisis, but artist and printmaker Shane O’Driscoll says there’s no better time to commemorate the challenges the city has faced and overcome in the past.
“Cork was on its knees after the fire and I really felt like, we’re at that stage again but in a totally different sense,” O’Driscoll says. “We need to rally people together and lift people up and help to support each other. You saw that in the lockdown: massive support for local shops and that human spirit.
“This is the way we can do that as artists, bring people together on a bigger scale and hopefully positively affect people at a time when globally people are on their knees.”
Ardú, a series of seven murals with the theme of 'Rise', inspired by the burning of Cork in 1920 and its subsequent rebuilding, is the brainchild of O’Driscoll and fellow artists Peter Martin and Paul Gleeson, the latter of whom also organises Cork’s annual Graffiti Jam event.
The arts sector, of course, is on its knees even more than many other areas of life, with venues hit by repeated closures and restrictions on numbers and the country’s national cultural institutions currently closed for the second time in a year.
Ardú was originally conceived of last January, before the Covid crisis struck, but received funding and support from Cork City Council, as well as the Creative Ireland Jobs Stimulus Package, due in no small part to the outdoor, inherently socially distanced nature of the project.
“We thought maybe all the money would be needed to help people in other ways, and maybe there’d be no money for the arts,” O’Driscoll says. “But this is definitely beneficial to people. When we pitched it to the council, they thought it was great. It’s outdoors. Now everything is closing down again, but you can’t close the streets.”
As well as organising it, O’Driscoll is one of seven contributing artists, and he’s been painting his largest ever canvas, a 46m x 6m wall on Harley’s Street, the lane that connects MacCurtain Street to the Mary Elmes footbridge.
“When you arrive on day one, the scale of it kind of hits you,” he says. “But the response of members of the public has been massively positive. I’ve encountered one person who isn’t a fan of it, but everyone else has been really positive and I’ve even had people change their walk to work in the morning to see the progress. The staff of the Metropole are delighted with it because it’s brightening up the street.”
The wall O’Driscoll has been painting for the past six days is opposite the side of The Metropole Hotel, one of Cork’s landmark buildings and a survivor of the 1920 blaze: O’Driscoll has worked shapes and elements derived from The Metropole’s architecture into his bright design.
It’s a large project and that can be daunting, O’Driscoll says: “The daunting part is when you’re physically doing it and the clock is ticking and you’re working against the elements. But like anything in art, it’s all about making the first mark and once you’re in the flow it’s fine.
“I’m used to working in the studio on my own, so you’re definitely conscious of people watching you when you’re doing things like this. But because you get chatting to so many people you learn loads of stuff about the area. Being in the same spot every day for a week, you see patterns in the flow of the city: the same people at the same time of day and stuff."
Other murals in the ongoing project include Deirdre Breen's completed pattern at Wandesford Quay; and Aches' hurling-based piece at the junction of Anglesea Street and South Terrace.
O’Driscoll is, he says, a “late arrival” to street art. A graduate of CIT’s Graphic Design degree, and always a fan of street art in other cities, while he was living in Dublin and working in Graphic Design, an artist invited him to collaborate on a mural at the Tivoli Car Park.
“I got the bug from that and I started painting walls,” he says. “There’s a great community in Ireland and all the artists are well connected. That’s great fun. There’s a graffiti jam in Cork every year too, and I suppose the idea for Ardú came out of that. We thought it was about time that Cork had some really large-scale murals.
“I love the vibrancy and the changing visual landscape that street art brings. Myself and my wife, whenever we travel, we go and seek out the street art wherever we go. It’s a way of engaging with people that isn’t in private galleries or museums: it’s open to all and to everyone’s interpretation.” Street art’s origins in the Graffiti subculture, and about-face from subversive art that was unwelcome and even illegal to art that is sanctioned and funded by the arts establishment, has evolved rapidly within the past two decades. O’Driscoll was never a hooded teen with a rattling rucksack of spray cans. He’s aware of, but not deterred by, the tension.
“Street art is funded, approved by councils: it’s mainstream,” he says. “Graffiti comes from a counter-cultural background, definitely. Then it becomes more visible, and then it becomes appreciated. It’s strange how things come into the fold alright.”
When the two worlds collide and taggers start adding to recently completed murals, some street artists take offence. But O’Driscoll takes a sanguine approach to this eventuality.
“That’s the nature of the game,” he says with a shrug. “Because my work is bold and abstract, it’s easy enough to get tags and stuff. But if someone defaces it, that’s their choice. I’m not precious about it. The buzz for me is in the making of it.”
“Once the wall was selected, I went along the street and took photographs and joined them together in Photoshop,” Shane O’Driscoll says. “Then I created my design for the artwork on an overlay of the wall in Adobe Illustrator. That way, if there’s a window or a pipe there, I know I need to work around it.”
All the artists involved in Ardú are working on scissor lifts to enable them to reach the top of their wall safely. “You have to do a course in how to drive a scissor lift and you work with a safety harness,” O’Driscoll says. “You’re clipped in with a carabiner, almost like you’re doing a bungee jump. You also have to do traffic plans and block off the street.”
The wall gets primed with an undercoat. Then a base coat of emulsion paint in O’Driscoll’s colour of choice, in this instance a pastel pink, is applied. Then a grid of 2m x 2m squares is applied to the wall so the artwork can be scaled up from the design.
A combination of freehand and stencilled designs are painted over the base coat in a combination of Weathershield emulsion paint and spray paints. “We pick the colour swatches and phone in how many metres of each colour we need,” O’Driscoll says. “I don’t know what the budget is for paint but it’s certainly generous. We get everything we need.”