Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Sounds From Inside

This week I spoke to musicians Liz Clark and Justin Grounds about their efforts to bring music back into peoples lives despite the lockdown. While distinctly different musicians Liz and Justin have both worked for many years on the Arts for Health Partnership Programme as core artist team members and have community collaboration at the heart of their work. Liz a singer-songwriter, originally from Colorado whose work is folk-influenced, has originated projects such as Starling Song Project (http://www.artsandhealth.ie/case-studies/the-starling-song-project/) and is also director of Uillinn based Skibbereen Community Choir.

Justin is a classically trained violinist whose recent projects include Last Dance, (https://justingrounds.com/news/2017/12/19/last-dance-project-with-inma-pavon) with dancer Inma Pavon and Embracing the Universe, a new oratorio performed by a special Community Choir and 7 musicians at Uillinn this time last year, for Skibbereen Arts Festival.

I first spoke to Justin Grounds about what he has been getting up to recently. Justin is currently in the early process of composing new work  'Isolation 20'. While very much a work in progress, the plan so far is to first find a diverse range of 20 musicians from around Cork. Justin will then call them individually to discuss their experience of the lockdown and how they have been coping with it. After this discussion, Justin will ask them to compose a brief bit of music which attempts to capture their individual experience of the lockdown. Justin will then take those individual sounds and compose a melody from all of the collective sources to make a cohesive work.

After composing, the work will be installed in the gallery. The idea is that you can walk into a space and see 20 separate speakers spread out across the room with a portrait of each project participant above them. The listener can then go up to each speaker and hear the individual sound or else stand in the middle of the room to hear the collective sounds harmonizing together as one. Justin intends the installation to be experienced by one visitor or one household at a time, to underline the feeling of isolation. All going well, this will take place at Uillinn in early 2021.

More generally, Justin spoke of the ups and downs he's had when making music during the lockdown. ''The lockdown has of course been challenging in some ways but it has also opened up more opportunities to learn. I've been able to make music with people from all over the world who have been missing creating music together. Unfortunately, the joy of playing live in a room together has diminished with the current restrictions but the collaborative element has been great. I've been able to see people bring their music together in really interesting ways''.

I was also able to speak with Liz Clark about her work with Skibbereen Community Choir. The choir has been around for 3 years now and has members from all age groups and backgrounds. Typically Liz will pick a requested song from one of the members and then organize them to meet once a week so that they can sing the chosen song. In the past, they have sung anything from Crosby, Stills and Nash, to Neil Young, to Joni Mitchell, and even The Waterboys. These meetups usually take place at the West Cork Arts Centre but recent restrictions have made that impossible and the Choir had to be put on hold. Then, not long after Covid-19 hit, Liz would hear the awful news that her mother had contracted the virus. This was naturally a huge concern for Liz but fortunately, her mother went on to make a full recovery. Even during such a scary time, Liz said music helped her through it. She missed making music, and the people she made it with. She decided to reach out to her fellow choir members and like many others, they took to Zoom. Some members of the choir were unused to the technology involved which prevented everyone from joining which saddened Liz as she didn't want anyone to miss out. The members that could join were initially faced with the impracticality of singing together over an internet call. Liz said the latency issue was a huge problem because the delay in receiving sound would have everyone's voices out of sync. Singing and hearing your own voice louder than everyone else's took adjusting to as well she mentioned.

A clever solution was reached where everyone would mute themselves except for Liz. She would then start singing and people would join in while recording themselves on their phones. The participants would then send Liz their recordings for her to sync up using audio editing software and once it was successfully edited, she would send it to everyone involved. Liz had prior experience in sound editing which stood to her but there was still a lot of time and effort involved. It was hard for me to imagine the difficulty involved in perfectly syncing up audio from multiple recordings. When I mentioned this to Liz she said ''it was never going to be perfect but that was never really the point. The soul of this choir is wellbeing, and the music almost comes second. Singing feels good, especially when we do it together. Just being able to engage with everyone again was wonderful. It might only be something small but being able to help people cope during these difficult times makes a big difference in my opinion.''

To keep up to date with Liz and Justin's work, please visit these websites:


Thursday, 23 July 2020

Looking Forward to a Monday Morning

I have been racked with anxiety for years now. It wasn't that long ago when I had no job, my physical health was declining, and I had no idea where I was going with my life. It got to the point where some days I would be afraid to go to the shop for fear of having an anxiety attack. It was a legitimate fear because some days that would really happen.

These days, I'm not so bad. I now have some weapons to bring to the fight against my own mind: Consistency, friendly social interaction, an evolving perspective, and above all else, a sense of purpose. All of those things, and much more besides, were provided to me through my experience working at West Cork Arts Centre.

It's almost been a year and a half since I walked into the job interview at Uillinn. As you can imagine, I wasn't brimming with confidence. I mostly said what you'd expect, telling them about my work experience, and spouting the usual keywords like ''initiative'' and ''punctuality''. It was near the end of that interview that I felt I obliged to tell them the truth about my anxiety. The hard truth of it was that I was worried that there might be some days that I might freak out and need to leave suddenly so I could go home and get my mind together. Who doesn't want an employee who is likely to leave their job at a moment's notice? Well, the interview team at Uillinn seemingly didn't because I didn't get the job. At least not on the spot. They called me a few days later and offered me the position.

I was thrilled. I can't tell you how much I appreciated that one small bit of faith and understanding.

The most stand out memories of my first few weeks there were of getting to know the people I was working with. They were then, and still are to this day, an extraordinary group of people. I'm not just saying that because they may be reading this, I honestly believe it. Even though I could write an essay about the qualities of the people at the Centre I won't because if you know these people, you know what I'm talking about.

On a more practical level, they've trusted me to do podcasting like I mentioned but also to write this blog, both of which I had a big interest in even outside of work. Every day, I'm privileged to meet artists from all sorts of backgrounds, talents, and perspectives. I get to meet people who are involved in the amazing and inspiring Arts for Health programme. I'm able to see the processes and final execution of so many different forms of incredible artforms. I even answer the phone from time to time! Honestly, though, I couldn't ask for a better environment. Ultimately because of the job, the artists, and the people I work with, my anxiety barely gets a word in these days.

Unfortunately, the lockdown restrictions required the closing of many doors for the last few months but as of this week, the Centre's doors are reopened.  With the necessary health and safety guidelines in place, things will work a little differently for the foreseeable future. I asked some of my coworkers how they felt about going back.

One of them said that they are "looking forward to the sounds of people in the Arts Centre, it makes the art come alive."

Another staff member saw both the up and downsides: ''Initially, I was excited to see everyone I work with and grateful for the extensive guidelines about Covid for staff and the public.  But now if I'm honest I have mixed feelings because it's possible there can't be as much interaction with staff and the public so the sense of isolation is still there.''.

Personally, I have been looking forward to getting back into the working routine again. The health and safety precautions are going to take a small bit of adjusting to but I'm eager to see what the new normal will be. I'm mostly looking forward to seeing all the people involved there because they add so much to my life. If you don't believe my appraisal of the people there or the range of beautiful work on the walls then don't take my word for it and come see for yourself.


Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Inside Out

One of the first faces I was greeted with when I initially began working at West Cork Arts Centre was that of Tomasz Madajczak. On that day and to this day, Tomasz always makes time to greet you by name and ask you how you are doing. A friendly, welcoming, and near-constant presence in the Centre, when Tomasz isn't working on his studio practice, he's heading one of a number of one-off workshops or durational projects with people of all ages in the community. One of the programmes he is long associated with is Art Club. Art Club is a place for both children and young teenagers from all over West Cork to gather together and investigate visual arts, collaborating in creating all kinds of creative projects. 

Recently I have been back in the centre after the lockdown to prepare for reopening. Naturally, Tomasz was in the building with a new batch of young people working experimentally on something new. This initiative I was to learn, was a recently made art collective exploring a project titled 'Inside Out'. When I asked Tomasz about it he said that his daughter had been mentioning a lack of activities for teenagers to do in Skibbereen, made worse by recent restrictions. Tomasz then asked her if she and her friends would be interested in meeting up to do a once-off art workshop of sorts. They all agreed, and indeed it soon developed to include more and so 'Inside Out' was formed. Tomasz said it was great that the young people were already close friends because it makes for a more productive, exciting, and open environment for creating. 
I asked Tomasz about what they typically get up to. He explained that last week they began by sitting in silence. The aim of this was to take a moment to gather their thoughts and understand what feelings they are bringing into the day. This allowed Tomasz to get a feel for the group and see what might be appropriate to do on that day. They then had a discussion with everyone sitting in a circle. They discussed a variety of topics ranging from emotions, dreams, politics, self-awareness, or anything else that organically came to mind. Tomasz hopes this will create an environment in which the young people can have a ''deep, psychological look inside themselves and from there see how they truly perceive themselves and the world around them''. It was brilliant to see Tomasz strive to communicate with them with such equal respect. I remember when I was in school, I had a huge appreciation for teachers who would listen, respect and take the time to understand you as a person. 

Tomasz has a careful and considered approach to facilitating groups, he avoids telling them what they should do or how they should do it. This he says ''allows more freedom to create how they want. Sometimes too much structure can take away from the excitement of creating''. I could also appreciate this approach and it reminded me of when I got my first guitar. When I first had it, you couldn't get it out of my hands. I was always playing it and experimenting with it. I soon got proper lessons but that ended up killing my enjoyment because to me it became a chore where I had to practice this specific song and have it ready at a certain time of the week. Killing the excitement of creating is something Tomasz seems acutely aware of. 
So the group gather their thoughts, discuss those thoughts, and then express them using whatever materials they wish. As you can imagine, what gets created is rich in expression and comes from a deeply personal place. You can see some of the pictures attached to this blog for examples.

Afterwards, the group discuss what they have made and get into detail about the process of how they made it. Tomasz then lends his experienced opinion to their work, encouraging even further development. They then return to their home lives after what one teenager described as an ''insightful, creative, and fun experience''. 
Tomasz has described the group as ''open, responsive, and respectful'' and you can tell he finds the experience rewarding and inspiring to his own studio practice. 
My take on it (and I'm not just saying this as an employee) is that it’s great to see that the Art Centre and artists like Tomasz providing opportunities like this for the community. I've been living in Skibbereen for many years now and anything that can brighten peoples days like this is well appreciated, especially during present circumstances. 
To learn more about Tomasz Madajzcak, Uillinn West Cork Art Centre, and the activities they both provide, please visit: https://www.westcorkartscentre.com

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Emerging From the Cocoon.

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with West Cork-based contemporary dance artist Tara Brandel. Tara is a founding member of Croí Glan. Croí Glan is a professional dance company based in Cork that creates performances with diverse bodies producing cutting edge work that tours nationally and internationally. Their current project 'Tilt' features composer Niall O' Carroll, street dancer Nicholas Nwosu, Irish dancer Oran Leong, and Tanya Turner in her first outing with the company. This project aims to delve into the struggle we all face in our present lives. Tara kindly took the time to speak with me about the ups and downs of preparing for such a performance during the lockdown. 

Although overall, Tara took a positive outlook to recent restrictions, she did mention some difficulties. For example, recent projects she had been working on had to be cancelled for obvious health and safety reasons. This uncertainty still looms over her present work as it remains unclear whether the lockdown restrictions will continue to loosen or if they will revert to prior limitations. Incorporating social distancing into a dance performance also seemed far too daunting at first. Tara then spoke about the potential effect on her mental health of not being able to dance and create, but here is where she drew positives. 

Highlighting her appreciation for having a space to create at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre, Tara felt that she needed "to keep dancing and to stay creative". She continued: "I could do some work from home to keep fit and active but leaving home and going to a new space helps me keep focused and it's generally more stimulating”. 

Prior to lockdown, Croí Glan had been awarded a ‘Dance Production Studio Award’ to develop ‘Tilt’. The residency was planned for April, but due to restrictions, the studio was closed during this period. The residency was then rescheduled for 28 June with extra days added to support artists living nearby during restricted movement. (for more details on applying for this award go to https://www.westcorkartscentre.com/2021-dance-artists-production-and-research-open-call )

Tara spoke about her appreciation of having a studio where she could prepare: ‘I felt fortunate to have access to the dance studio at West Cork Arts Centre. When I first arrived there, it was a quiet and isolated experience. I was working alone and the town itself was subdued. But as time passed and restrictions eased, I was able to have the other members of the project come to visit and the town became livelier. In a way, the process felt like coming out of a cocoon". On what few benefits the lockdown can bring to her creativity, Tara said that she appreciated having more time to get comfortable with all the workings of the project and felt less pressure overall. Her confidence and readiness improved as a result. 

The performance will feature a pole in the centre of a space with which the dancers will perform in and around. Circling, separating, and coming together in beautiful and ponderous synchronicity. 

When asked what she hopes people will take from the performance, Tara aims "to show that humans from a range of diversities can rise from a fragile place and come together triumphantly yet tenderly. I hope to create a metaphorical performance concerning the instability of the world and its changing times". 

After our conversation, I couldn't help but look forward to the performance. Tara’s enthusiastic approach to the project was wonderful to see. It seems to be building into an engaging and meaningful display. The performance itself, hosted by Uillinn and supported by Cork County Council, will take place at an outdoor location on September 18th in Skibbereen, all going well. Please keep an eye on the West Cork Art Centre website or Social Media for future updates on the performance. 




Monday, 29 June 2020

Giving Back to Art

Everyone has been hit to some degree by the financial impact that Covid-19 has wrought. It is a worrying time where people have become concerned about job security and/or what limitations the future will bring. Newly appointed taoiseach Micheál Martin has his work cut out for him stabilizing a teetering economy. But that's a story that is yet to unfold. More recently and more positively, a €25 million package has been announced to support the Arts and Culture sector recover from the Covid-19 emergency. The funding will include bursaries and commissions to artists and arts organisations, and resources for museums and culture workers as they prepare for the reopening of society. A total of €20 million will be allocated to the Arts Council bringing its allocation this year to €100 million. Announcing the additional funding the Minister for Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan said that she was "very aware of the challenges that artists have faced and also of the hugely important role that they have played in sustaining all of us in recent months. Many challenges lie ahead but the Government is determined to ensure that we have a vibrant arts and culture sector into the future".

                              Josepha Madigan and Leo Varadkar making the announcement 

The National Campaign for the Arts, who had spearheaded a campaign for a €20 million increase in funding to the Arts Council for 2020, described the announcement as "a solid and authentic response to the Covid-19 crisis which has ravaged the nation's artists, arts workers and arts organisations."

The Director of the Arts Council Maureen Kennelly has said the approval of the package in additional supports for the arts is a 'landmark day' and a recognition by the government of the vital part that Irish culture plays in Irish life.

I reached out to some local artists for their thoughts. Visual artist Pascal Ungerer had this to say: "The recent 25 million euro funding that the Government has announced is a testament to how important lobbying Government institutions is and what a great job The National Campaign For The Arts and the Arts Council have done in that regard, and it is vital that artists support organisations like that. The Covid 19 lockdown has taught as all how important the arts are for everyone in Ireland in so many different ways, and I hope that the newly formed Government will continue to fund and support the arts to the extent that this sector needs and deserves in the challenging times ahead."

Sharon Whooley, visual artist and Filmmaker also contributed her consideration: "Support from government agencies such as the Arts Council of Ireland is crucial for artists to be able to work and live in this country.  The successful campaign by the National Campaign for the Arts and the Arts Council and the government's extra allocation of €20 million to the sector, acknowledges that Ireland is a society that values art, its artists, its tradition, heritage and culture and the primary role that artists have in the crafting of our society."

We've all turned to various forms of art during the lockdown. Be it by creating it or through experiencing it. To pass the time and help us cope we have turned to films, music, games, painting, writing and a whole host of other creative endeavours. We have always used this content in our spare time but now more than ever has it come to the forefront. The struggles of our present circumstances have become a central theme within this art. Musicians have been live streaming performances from their homes. Documentaries about other pandemics are trending. Even here at the West Cork Arts Centre, we have provided an online exhibition for artists to exhibit and viewers to experience their work safely.

Art has provided so much for us recently so to see the government give back to Art with this package is, in my opinion, encouraging news. The future of Art, the government, and the everyday lives of people seem intertwined as we continue the process of reopening the country. I hope we can all push through the struggles to come and come out better for it. Soon enough I'll be back in the Art Centre with a renewed appreciation for the world of art and even more so for the people that contribute to it.

For more information on the National Campaign for the Arts go to http://ncfa.ie/ and follow #savethearts #paytheartist #nationalcampaignforthearts 

Monday, 22 June 2020

Creativity Locked Down

The motivation for creating art can be tricky to source. One minute the creative juices are flowing and your imagination is producing faster than you can keep up with. The next minute, you're staring at a blank canvas for an hour with nothing to show for the effort. Even at the best of times, keeping consistently creative is difficult. This made me curious as to how artists were approaching their work during the lockdown. Does being isolated stifle one's creativity or does it add focus? I reached out to several artists for their thoughts. 

William Bock, an artist who had the terrible misfortune of having his latest work go on exhibition at West Cork Arts Centre just as the lockdown began, had this to say about his change in plans: "I’ve found the opportunity to slow down and spend more time walking and engaging with the outdoor environment alone most rewarding. I recently set myself a daily photographic challenge using only my body and the landscape or plants I encountered on my walks, which I posted on social media afterwards. The daily challenge combined with having a public platform for the images was a new and improvisational process in my practice which I found inspiring during the restrictions of lockdown."

So William took to the outdoors and found a new way to challenge himself creatively. But what about artists who chose to create from home? Artist Catherine Weld contributed her thoughts: "My studio is at home so I wasn't affected there. My experience of the lockdown has probably been quite untypical in that my work hours immediately doubled so I've been out to part-time work as an 'essential' worker throughout. On the other hand, both the shows I had lined up for this year have been postponed which was disappointing. But actually, I feel this has been really beneficial to my actual work as it's created a sense of space and time without the pressure of exhibiting. Online opportunities have also increased, and have had some good knock-on effects. But then I've had to cancel my studio courses and lost quite a bit of money there... so it's a good old mixture of pros and cons."

The balance of creating while juggling the changes we've all faced to our circumstances has its ups and downs it seems. Uillinn's own Claire Lambert reflected as much: "Usually I would have to work to support myself so the lockdown actually gave me a unique experience of having more time to go into my studio."

Many of the artists I spoke to acknowledge the negatives of creating during the lockdown but chose to not let that overshadow the positives. More focus, more time, less pressure, new challenges. It's encouraging to hear of this positive perspective during these adverse times. I think we've all turned to some form of art to help us through the lockdown and I was glad to learn that the people working in the professional arts sector are doing whatever they can to hone in on their focus and motivation to enable them to keep doing what they do best.

All of the artists mentioned in this blog currently have work on display in our Online Members and Friends 2020 exhibition so feel free to check them out: https://www.uillinngalleries.com/

Images: William Bock, Walking Series, I am european 2019

Catherine Weld, Fragile Island 2

Claire Lambert, Priests Leap

Monday, 15 June 2020

Sounds of Hope and Happiness

During the most stringent part of the lockdown, the world outside went quiet. I live in Skibbereen town and the normal noise of the hustle and bustle of everyday life became muted and reserved. The only sound I heard consistently each passing day was the singing of birds. Each morning, their voices rose with the sun. It was an encouraging sound that reminded me that the world hasn't stopped spinning just yet. In their music, there was hope. Far from Skibbereen and over to Italy, the citizens of the city of Florence were waking up to yet another day in lockdown. Italy has been hit hard by Covid-19 so you can imagine many days are grim and mournful. Yet on this one day last March, Florence arose to the sound of music outside. Rolling and reverberating through the empty streets came the beautiful lyrics of 'Nessun Dorma'. The sound was coming from Tenor Maurizio Marchini, who on that morning had decided to use his talent to sing from his home balcony and break through the silence with a song of hopeful beauty. Articles about this soon spread across the internet, fostering inspiration and generating smiles for thousands of people across the globe. Just some of those people were Arts for Health artists Tess Leak and Sharon Whooley. 

Tess and Sharon are no strangers to inspiring hope and happiness in others. They were already hard at work setting up their ‘Museum of Song’ postal project. Planned to take place over six weeks, Tess and Sharon sent packages full of poetry and song to participants in Dunmanway, Schull and Skibbereen Community Hospitals.  With each package, the artists presented a theme for consideration and an invitation for participants to respond. These themes included songs about Spring, mountains, rivers and many other inspiring themes. Tess and Sharon would then research relevant songs and poetry within these themes and then present them back to the participants. For example, on the third week of their project, the residents of Skibbereen Community Hospital expressed their fondness for the song 'The Rose of Mooncoin' which steered Tess and Sharon into making the theme of week three all about flowers. They set upon assembling a package for the participants that included a postcard called ‘The Language of Flowers’ which showed the different meanings behind them such as Daisy for ‘Attachment’, Yellow Rose for ‘Contentment’ and Nettle for ‘Defiance.’ They also included the words to the song ‘Red is the Rose’ for participants to learn if they wished. You can imagine the delight of the people receiving these packages and the creativity and conversation it would invoke in the hospital.

Further into the project is where Tess and Sharon used their inspiration from the Italian balcony opera singer. They decided to incorporate an aspect of outdoor live music. Tess and Sharon enlisted the talents of West Cork based opera singer Camilla Griehsel to deliver a series of performances for the residents and the staff too, outside the Community Hospitals in West Cork. Camilla is an incredible singer, who had teamed up with the Arts for Health team many times before to perform for residents all over West Cork. Beginning in her home village of Schull and continuing across West Cork to Bantry, Skibbereen, Dunmanway and Castletownbere, Camilla performed specially chosen songs gathered by Tess.

'We had a beautiful session with Camilla and Tess on Friday.' described the Director of Nursing at Schull Community Hospital, Roisín Walsh. 'The residents were thrilled with the occasion. They emerged into the sunlight uncertain and very quiet you could hear a pin drop. When the music started and Camilla sang that first beautiful haunting song I looked at their faces and they were so focused on her there was a sense of a new beginning almost. When she began singing all the voices began to join in and so it went. They did not want the afternoon to end. A very emotional experience for those of us who were fortunate to have been in attendance.'

The work of the Arts for Health team has brought the importance of music closer to home for me. It is comforting to see people come together to create something that gives hope and inspiration to others. The Arts for Health team has been doing this type of work long before the lockdown began and will hopefully continue to do so into a future made brighter by their contribution to it. 

To read more about the ‘Museum of Song’ project, please visit: https://artsforhealthwestcork.com/museum-of-song-postal-project/