What lies beneath: Flight by Bernie Masterson

Flight by Bernie Masterson Still from film courtesy of the artist and Highlanes Gallery

Flight by Bernie Masterson

Niall MacMonagle

In the Marist Convent, Carrick-on-Shannon, decades ago, when a Professor Engels, from America, spoke about The Importance of the Artist in Society, 13-year-old Bernie Masterson, sitting in the sixth row, decided there and then how her life would unfold. She would be an artist.

Born in Ballymoney in Co Antrim, her father's job in the bank meant they moved every few years; her mother "always had busy hands, kept bees, was very active in the ICA" and both parents encouraged Masterson. As a teenager she turned a small back bedroom into a studio. "My siblings would come there for secret smokes, and between the cigarette smoke and the paint and turps fumes, it's a wonder I survived."

Limerick Art College and Design - she still acknowledges teachers Jack Donovan and Charles Harper - and a first-class honours MFA from NCAD, Art in the Digital World, 2016, empowered the multi-talented, multi-tasking Masterson: painting, drawing, ceramics, research, film, editing and sound design.

In her hallway there's a strikingly fine portrait of her mother, painted for her 80th birthday. "There are a lot of wrinkles," her mother thought at the time but "when my mother was 90, she said 'that's a lovely painting'".

In her garden studio there are landscapes of volcanic Tenerife and flooded fields in Co Clare and, for the year and times that are in it, several small 20x20cm works featuring pears, a few flowers, satsumas, a little branch in blossom, a disintegrating pumpkin "kept over from Hallowe'en - I wanted to see how it would change over time". These small detailed paintings focus the eye and for Masterson are in tune with Georgia O'Keeffe's idea that "nobody sees a flower, really - it is so small - we haven't time, and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time".

For Masterson, art and life are one. When her mother became frail, Masterson and her siblings took care of her. Bathing her one day, "Jenny - we called her Jenny when we were older - held up her flabby arm, shook it and said, 'Isn't that desperate?'". But her daughter, with her mother's approval, made a series of life drawings of her mother's ageing body. Jenny, delighted with the project, "saw her back shoulder drawing as a ski slope, that flabby arm looked like a branch" and it allowed mother and daughter to "speak so openly about death".

Masterson's energy, talent and commitment are evident in her 20 solo exhibitions and 70 group shows, and her 30 years' teaching at Wheatfield Prison. Awards include the Douglas Hyde Gold Medal Award and, most recently, the Janet Mullarney Award, which as an open submission exhibition, supporting and highlighting new work by artists living in Ireland, at the Highlanes Gallery attracted 517 entries. From a shortlist of 40, judges Seán Kissane, Joy Gerrard and Jerome ó Drisceoil were unanimous in awarding the first prize to Masterson for Flight, a 3 minute, 33 second film: "I see film as a form of painting."

Using Máighréad Medbh's prose poem Microcosm Reflections of a Reluctant Loner, Eoin Flood's music with its rippling strings and percussion-like rumbling sounds and young actor Ronan Faughnan, Masterson created what the judges called "an original, graceful and enigmatic, beautiful" work that explores "themes of isolation and vulnerability in relation to 'the body'".

A lockdown project, Masterson filmed in the lane at the back of her house at 10pm on a May evening. Sixteen-year-old Faughnan, who conveniently lives next door, gives a confident, highly intelligent, disciplined and sensitive performance. We watch his bare back, his shoulder-blades where wings might be, his arms, his hands, his open, serious bright-eyed expression. Free movements become disturbed ones but the fading final image, one of calm, leaves the viewer with a very intimate sense of the self.

Medbh's voiceover quotes Marcus Aurelius's Meditations: "Retire into your own little territory. That's not only allowed, it is necessary". The Icarus story, our longing to be as free as the birds, also inform the piece. Though for Masterson, the work "questions the nature of our existence, behaviour, morality and mortality in a global climate of uncertainty and fear of the unknown", watching Flight we have lift-off.

And as an artist in society, she proved that professor right.

Flight at https://vimeo.com/426762168/251a71d7db www.berniemasterson.com