Meet the Cork artist who can transform landscapes into paint 

Kari Cahill can make herself at home anywhere in the world. We discover the sustainable secret of her uniquely personal artwork
Meet the Cork artist who can transform landscapes into paint 

Cork artist Kari Cahill grew up in Ballintemple.

The pandemic may have changed our concept of home forever but Cork artist Kari Cahill has always had a relationship less ordinary with where she lays her paintbrushes down before she sleeps. 

Since graduating in 2012, the Ballintemple native has moved house no fewer than 13 times.

In between folding clothes into suitcases, Kari has been busy painting, working on residencies and travelling. “My houses have been transient. Home for me is less about the house I’m in, or the location I’m in, and more about how I feel,” she says.

“I have a friend who jokes with me that every time I arrive in a new space I immediately unpack and make a nest for myself. Whether it’s unpacking a few belongings out of a backpack in India, or quickly hanging paintings on the wall after a house move, I always need to create comfort, familiarity, and safety around me, in order to feel ‘at home’.”

Probably not surprising for someone who makes her living as a site-responsive artist. As such, Kari encourages us to engage with the landscape surrounding us through the medium of art.

Cork artist Kari Cahill.
Cork artist Kari Cahill.

Kari, who grew up in Ballintemple and is a past pupil of Ashton Secondary School, spent three years living in Greece as a child. “This shaped my interest in architecture and design,” she says. Back in Ireland, she spent “weekends and every summer in West Cork climbing rocks and jumping into the sea”.

She went on to graduate from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin with a degree in fine art and today she is a landscape artist in every sense: Kari extracts pigments and inks from her surroundings to use in her paintings.

Creating colour from the environment creates a tangible connection to the land and draws attention to sustainability, history and heritage

Ask her and she will create a bespoke work featuring colours from land you hold dear — your favourite location, your hometown or that scenic spot where you got engaged.

Inside/Out January 16
Inside/Out January 16

Kari has been awarded a visual arts bursary from the Arts Council to develop and produce a site-responsive collaborative book tracing her journeys through colour and landscape. She has been named among 21 people who will shape culture in 2021 by The Tenth Man Creative Agency.

Her plans for 2021 include a huge cliff painting along the North Atlantic Coast and an exhibition in Japan, as well as a series of online colour-making workshops.

Crisscrossing the globe has been the hallmark of her career to date. Kari has shown work throughout Ireland and in France, and more recently in Brazil after she was presented with the Arts Council’s Travel & Training award. She has participated in residencies in India and Brazil.

And during the last recession, she and three friends encouraged the local authority and Government to open vacant buildings for cultural use, starting with a 10,000sq ft warehouse in The Liberties. This project, Basic Space, was a direct response to the number of empty spaces across Dublin city.

But it is the wild energy of landscapes that feeds her imagination as well as inspiring her unique pigments and colours. “There are a couple of landscapes that have totally stopped me in my tracks, and others that have been slow burners,” she says. 

“India, for instance, blew my mind. It was a completely different atmosphere than I had ever experienced before; made up of colour, noise and people. Big and bold and unruly with everything packed against each other, cramped spaces and smiling faces.

“I also adored Iceland for its monochrome expansiveness. When I spent time in Brazil I couldn’t help but notice a pink haze enveloping the city of Sao Paulo, and that the sky was a different shade of blue than we see here in Ireland.” 

West Cork has prompted many of her projects. “I’ve probably explored the landscape of Brow Head on the Mizen Peninsula more than any other place. It’s a headland between Crookhaven and Barleycove Beach,” she says. “Brow Head is the site for Tombolo — a site-responsive outdoor exhibition.

This was part of Lay of the Land, produced and curated by Kari and Hazel McCague in 2016 with the aim of building a largescale sculpture on the west coast.

Kari says: “Our first project saw collaboration between six female emerging artists working across music and visual arts.”

Lay of the Land produced over 60 sculptural installations and collaborated with almost 30 artists. 

“Together we presented 15 site-responsive artworks on the most south-westerly tip of Ireland to an audience made up of farmers, friends, local business owners, lighthouse keepers, school kids, curators, artists, families, and the massive crew who helped us pull it off!” says Kari.

The pandemic made me put time and effort into other areas of my life

The pandemic she describes as “a whirlwind” in her life and work. “I decided to leave Dublin for Sligo in March. As it turned out the move coincided with the first lockdown,” says Kari. “I struggled at first to slow down, to really slow down and felt that I must continue to produce and use this time to get ahead.

“That didn’t work for me and I ended up pretty low.

“Since then, I’ve really worked on my work/life balance — it was part of the reason I moved to the countryside in the first place, but the pandemic made me put time and effort into other areas of my life.”

Kari now lives in a cottage beside the Atlantic Ocean. “And I plan to stay here for a while. I think everyone has been on some kind of journey due to the pandemic, one where we value creativity, culture and moving our bodies. It’s been cool to see,” she says.

Now I feel like I’m in a really good flow with work and home life — I have more projects in the pipeline than ever before

“Now I feel like I’m in a really good flow with work and home life — I have more projects in the pipeline than ever before, and have more time off than ever before. I’m not sure if it’s being close to the ocean, or the pandemic, but either way, I couldn’t be happier to be in the Northwest.”

From her Sligo base, she creates bold, abstract paintings, and harnessing colours and pigments from wild berries, rocks, seaweed, lichen, barks, and discarded copper remnants, she has built up a unique site-specific paintbox.

Kari sells original artworks on canvas and paper, measuring between A6 and up to two metres. 

“I extract pigments and inks from the landscape to use in my artworks. This is a truly unique feature of my work. Creating colour from the environment creates a tangible connection to the land and draws attention to sustainability, history and heritage.”

Kari says her paintings attempt to capture the essential aspects of colour, texture and emotions she finds rooted in landscapes: “I drip, scrape, bruise and blush colour onto surfaces.”

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