Agri-culture: the artists drawing inspiration from farming

Claire Fox meets the diverse group of artists who have drawn on their farming experiences as the inspiration for a ground-breaking exhibition

Laura Fitzgerald is one of the artists showing work at the Encountering the Land exhibition at the VISUAL Gallery in Carlow. She completed her Green Cert while also studying art in London. Photos: Roger Jones
Laura Fitzgerald is one of the artists showing work at the Encountering the Land exhibition at the VISUAL Gallery in Carlow. She completed her Green Cert while also studying art in London. Photos: Roger Jones
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

'Women have always been working hard in the background of the farming world and the art world but in recent times they have more of a voice."

That's the verdict of Kerry artist Laura Fitzgerald, a farmer's daughter who is one of a number of female artists currently displaying their work in the Encountering the Land exhibition in VISUAL Carlow, which runs until September 2.

The connection between art and farming has always been strong for Laura.

In 2013 while completing a masters at the Royal College of Art in London she would travel home to attend the Green Cert course in Pallaskenry Agricultural College in Co Limerick.

While her father has now retired from suckler farming, the impact of growing up on a farm has had on Laura's work is evident in her paintings on display in Carlow.

"It's a symbol for how there have been so many changes in farming and how these hay sheds are now seen as dinosaurs from the past, but for me as a child the hay barn was always a place to escape and dream," she says.

"I'd be sad if that space was lost; I think we are losing something if we start building super-farms and if spaces like the hay shed become eradicated from the landscape."

A second painting Laura has in the exhibition is of stones, which she jokes that "Kerry is great at growing".

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"The stones for me are a metaphor for loneliness and the isolation of farming. My father farmed most of his life but it's such an isolating occupation and a lot of things aren't talked about," she explains.

While gelatine, beef fat and milk are materials usually associated with a farm yard, emerging artist Katie Watchorn, who comes from a dairy farm in Bilboa, Co Kilkenny, tries to incorporate farm objects in to her work as much as possible.

Katie's piece 'Long Live the Cow, The Cow is Dead' is part of a larger project called 'BalehomeBalehome'.

The piece features a milking platform made of beef fat and wax, and she says the project was inspired by the 1980s milking parlour at home.

"I wanted to look at the milking parlour as a room and examine small farming practice and where it's going at the moment. It seems to be on the way out in a way," she says.

"These milking parlours that were built in the 1980s out of what you would think is permanent material of concrete are now being ripped out and replaced by your rotary or mechanical parlours."

Another interesting element to Katie's piece is notes from her grandmother's log book of the names of cows they kept on the farm, and other invoices and dockets that were stored down through the years.

"My grandmother married my grandfather in the 1950s and kept a record of all the cows on the farm and it's really personal and sensitive. She had really specific names. Every farm has something similar I suppose," says Katie.

"The current herd is descending from a lot of those - we haven't bought in a lot of cows, there's daughters upon daughters upon daughters."

Katie also chose 'Balehome Balehome' for the title of her project as it is the specific cattle call her family uses.

Katie studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and has always had a focus on the rural.

While she is the only member of her family to go on and study art she feels that her family, including her father Cecil and mother Sandra, have a creative side.

"My older brother is a woodwork and tech graphics teacher. My mother would've loved to have done art but it wouldn't have been feasible so she's a nurse," she says.

"My father is someone I'd be fascinated with. He's excellent with his hands, like a lot of farmers are. He's ingenious at coming up with ideas for things without spending money.

"So I guess there is a lot of creativity there."

'It has shone a light  on rural culture'

Ireland's complex relationship with the humble potato is examined in Deirdre O'Mahony's film 'The Persistent Return' which is showing at the Carlow exhibition.

"I wanted to look at the bigger picture of the potato and how it arrived in to Europe from South America and how it fuelled population growth in Ireland before the famine and fuelled the economic expansion of Europe," she says.

Deirdre hopes that the work can help start a conversation around food sustainability.

"We are experiencing a lot of extreme weather conditions, so what drives our practice of food creation will have to change. We need to figure out how we can become more secure," she says.

She has teamed up with Teagasc to host a series of talks with stakeholders to discuss how farming challenges can be met.

"They'll be about sharing knowledge and ideas of what we can do to solve issues. It'll bridge that gap between agriculture and culture - after all agriculture has the word culture in it, so there has been and always will be that connection".

This is not the first rural project the Limerick woman has undertaken. In 2007 she transformed the closed post office in Kilnaboy, Co Clare in her project 'X-PO' to make it once again a meeting point for people.

"It was all based around the idea of reviving that incidental meeting place where people can just meet each other," she says.

The Encountering the Land exhibition has given a voice to an at times invisible rural Ireland, she says.

"It has brought people who don't normally go to exhibitions in to the gallery, which can only be a positive thing, and has shone a light on rural culture, which I feel is often a guilty secret and of course has given a voice to women."

Muscling in on the realities of beef breeding

Artist Maria McKinney. Photo: Clive Wasson

Maria McKinney's work 'Double Muscle' puts the Belgian Blue Bull in to focus in an 11-minute video and was winner of an outstanding achievement award at the Carlow exhibition.

The video installation, which was filmed at Dovea Genetics in Dublin, depicts a Belgian Blue bull wearing a concoction of semen straws on its back.

She says she wanted the piece to start a conversation around breeding and genetics.

"This double muscle of the Belgian blue bull has been created through years and years of breeding," says Maria (above), who is originally from Inishowen in Donegal.

"I wanted to show how genetics are used in livestock and I wanted to be direct and upfront and confronting and wanted the animal to be very much present in the piece.

"I thought of the connection between how the Belgian Blue is sculptured genetically and how much sculpturing has been done to get its genetics over the years."

While Maria explains that the animals are "well cared for" at Dovea Genetics, she wanted to communicate to consumers and non-farmers where their food comes from.

"I wanted to make consumers aware of the life of the animal and to capture the lived experience of the Belgian Blue and shock them a little bit I guess," she says.

Maria says the idea to use semen straws in her work began in 2011 when she made garlands from the straws for the local Carndonagh Show in Donegal.

She later made contact with Dovea at the National Ploughing Championships who were interested in doing a project with her, and she was helped by Teagasc's Dr Donagh Berry and UCD professors David MacHugh and Michael Doherty.

Maria is not from a farming background, but says her rural upbringing has influenced her work.

"My parents weren't farmers but my grandparents were. I would've herded neighbours' sheep and cattle," she says.

"I wasn't a stranger to farming so it would always have been a part of my work and I hope to do another project on cultured meat and the affect that would have on the cattle industry worldwide."

Miriam was able to see the big picture after move

Miriam O'Connor farms with her sister and mother in Co Cork

In 2013 following the death of her brother, Miriam O'Connor found herself upping sticks from her life as a photographer in the arts and culture scene in Dublin to move home to run her family farm in Clondrohid, near Macroom in Co Cork.

With her father also deceased, it was up to Miriam and her sister Sheila to run the beef farm along with their mother.

While Miriam says it was a challenging move at the start, she has managed to find a way to blend farming with her passion for photography.

"It all started when I was out doing some fencing with Sheila in the field and we needed some materials from the co-op but I didn't even know the names of the materials at this stage," she says.

"So I decided I would take a photograph of them and bring them to the co-op and they would tell me the names of these things. So that was the catalyst moment where I thought maybe photography could be put to use and could work as a document of the farm."

The work includes meticulous photographic logs of all the gates in the farm yard, a particular path on the land at different times of the year and a collection of all the buckets on the farm, plus endless images of her mother.

Miriam says the project has had many stages - "not unlike grief" - and has helped her in the transition from urban to rural living.

"It was a response to the relocation to the farm and suddenly being a custodian of the land and what that transition entails. It really was such an unexpected move," says Miriam, who still lectures in Griffith College, Dublin.

"I didn't have an intention to make this body of work but it has helped and is constantly growing and never ending like the work of the farmer there's never the luxury of being finished or having nothing to do."

Miriam says the farming dynamic with her sister and mother can range from "unifying to challenging" but she feels for the most part it has brought them closer together.

"I came back to help keep the show on the road, there's always that element of keeping that show on the road on a farm. It's not easy but there is that trust amongst us and we work well together. I helped out on the farm when I was a child. There's five of us in the family so that's the way it was but it's different when it's in your name.

"There's a responsibility there and with that comes a lot of burden but there are moments when you walk out in the field and realise that there is brilliance there and that keeps you grounded."

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