Bénédicte Coleman’s Beach Storage Project involves collecting debris off the shore and placing
it in mesh cages, says Marjorie Brennan
The stunning natural beauty of the Beara peninsula, in Co Cork, has served as a muse to countless artists. For visual artist, Bénédicte Coleman, it was the threat to that precious seascape which inspired her to create her latest work, the Beach Storage Project.
The work is part of the Beara Arts Festival; participants will collect debris along the shore, before sorting it into metal units at beaches along the coast.
“I had started collecting debris, along the coast in Beara, about 15 years ago. I was seeing more and more rubbish when I was out walking. It was horrible,” says Coleman.
“I was picking it up and bringing it for recycling and it was soul-destroying; it was an endless, depressing task. I decided to use a different approach and turn it into a positive, so I started selecting items I liked and taking them home and building up a collection.”
She developed her idea further during her studies at the Crawford College of Art, when she began constructing cages out of mesh.
“That is often how I start — I come across a material that attracts me and then I think of a way to work with it. I started making different-sized containers, manipulating the material by hand. I got the idea of bringing the storage units to different beaches around east Cork and collecting debris and storing it in situ. I was finding lots of plastics, silicones, toilet brushes, syringes, bits of lino, clothes. People passing would ask me if I was doing a beach clean and I would explain, and, straight away, they would click into what I was doing.
“They would become really interested and start looking in the different compartments. They said they knew the rubbish was on the beach, but they would avoid looking at it or focusing on it. I did this in Ballybrannigan, on a beach near Garretstown, and on the pier in Blackrock, and also on the estuary walk. I got a lot of feedback and engagement.”
Coleman pursued a career in art later in life, after raising a family and working as a sports coach and restaurant manager. However, just as her dream was becoming a reality, fate intervened and presented her with another challenge.
“I always wanted to be an artist, but when I left school, in 1977, I wasn’t allowed go to art college and I went to UCC, instead. It was pretty much 30 years later, to the day, that I got my place in the Crawford, in Cork, but I began to suffer vision loss about six months before starting the course. I developed a condition called CSR [central serous retinopathy] and I lost the central vision in my right eye and some in my left eye.
“Since then, the condition has stabilised, but it takes a while for your eyesight to adjust.”
While Coleman said the diagnosis came as a shock, she was determined to keep going.
“It was horrible, but I thought I could turn it to my advantage in some way. I knew that I would have my peripheral vision. I started with a positive attitude and the Crawford were amazing, so supportive and helpful.”
Ironically, the diagnosis also led her to pursue a career in visual art.
“I thought I would be drawing and painting, but I found that doing any kind of precise drawing wasn’t going to be an option. We were doing a lot of 3D work and, straight away, I tuned into that and realised I loved it. I found it really exciting. I’ve always liked adapting things, making them work for me, and I realised this was right up my street.
“I also did photography, which worked very well for me. I work with 3D and multimedia installations, very often using found objects.”
Coleman hopes the Beach Storage Project will develop into a teaching programme. She believes its approach is a valuable for raising awareness and educating people about the damage being done to our oceans and coastlines.
“The project invites people to come and work things out for themselves and develop their own awareness of this huge issue; there is no blame attached, which is a much better way of doing things, as people tend to shut down if the approach is confrontational.
“I do see this programme as something that could become permanent, if I devise a way to make the units non-perishable and affix them permanently, in such a way that they could survive the winter and storms, and so on. Then, it could become an interactive, participative structure.”
The Beara Arts Festival will also host the world premiere of On the Edge of Darkness, David Harmax’s commissioned, 30-minute work for piano, strings, and electronics.
It will be performed at the Sarah Walker Gallery, a converted fisheries warehouse overlooking the harbour in Castletownbere.
“The building’s maritime association appeals to me as much as its beautiful acoustics,” says Harmax, who has studied under numerous prominent composers and orchestrators.
He has scored both feature and short films, and conducted and recorded many live scores for ensembles.
On the Edge of Darkness is inspired by the many boats and ships that have been wrecked along the Beara peninsula.
“I was asked to create a work that took inspiration from the landscape of Beara, and I immediately felt drawn to the underwater world around its coast. I have always felt a strong bond with the sea, and it seemed like the perfect project with which to make that connection,” says Harmax.
On the Edge of Darkness, Sarah Walker Gallery, Castletownbere, 8pm, Saturday, €15.
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