Reporter David Medcalf ventured to Redcross and to the home of artist Sarah Eva Manson. She introduced him to the relaxing practice of forest bathing, as well as covering the business of selling art
MEET Sarah Eva Manson, the 31-year-old who was born to be an artist, living at Ballyrogan – not so far from Redcross. The daughter of two painters, she was surely fated to follow in their imaginative footsteps in the world of canvas and creativity. It was her parents who established Ballyrogan House as a colony of the arts as well as the family home.
Back in 1981, father Andrew bought the farmhouse which then was little more than a ruin, in the triangle of countryside between Redcross, Arklow and Wicklow. He was joined by mother Attracta, a native of Sligo, who has found the space here to produce her trademark large canvases.
Over the past four decades, the place has been altered and improved, rising from ruin to provide attractive living accommodation and studio space. It is by no means the back of the beyonds but the road which passes the gate is narrow, windy and unquestionably rural.
“Very few people know we are here,” reckons Sarah who is proud to declare that she was born and bred in Ballyrogan, the youngest of four siblings.
Sister Ruth runs a hotel for hillwalkers in Scotland. Brother Robert – based at Leipzig in Germany – is off around the world, making films. Brother Christian is a computer scientist in Dublin. Though she spent a decade living in Dublin, Eva has returned to her roots to raise her own family with partner Ozzie, remaining in Ballyrogan with its driveway of mature beeches. They are not the oldest trees on the property, as it is reckoned that the yew over there has been growing for at least 500 years. And parts of the house are thought to be of similar five century vintage.
Neither of Sarah Eva’s parents was born with a silver paintbrush in their mouth, as Andrew worked as a banker in his younger days, while Attracta’s first calling was as a nurse. He hails from Sussex, but left England and financial services in his twenties to come to Ireland where he enrolled at the art school in Dun Laoghaire. The couple settled in Ballyrogan to raise their family and Eva has fond memories of playing childish games in the nearby forest.
“Ballymoyle Hill was my playground,” she recalls happily. She thoroughly enjoyed her days at the primary school in Brittas Bay before moving on to the Dominican in Wicklow, a fine school where she made lasting friendships. But that was not the whole story: it was not all fine and not all the girls were friendly. Her time there turned miserable as she was beset by bullies who made fun, and worse, of her tousled black locks.
“It was psychological bullying. They didn’t like my hair,” recalls Eva of a painful period of her adolescence: “I tried to iron it.” She fears that anyone caught in the same trap nowadays must have an even worse time, with social media open 24/7 and the poison hidden behind a smokescreen of code names.
When the drastic hair straightening did not work, her parents removed her after two years of torture to the safety of the Institute of Education on Leeson Street in Dublin. After just two weeks there, mild dyslexia was diagnosed, though the condition has not proven to be any major handicap and she defies the dyslexic stereotype: “I love reading,” she declares, ‘and a lot of what I do now involves writing…And I survived the Leaving Cert!”
A year at BIFE (Bray Institute of Further Education) under the tutelage of Annette Ballagh proved rewarding, compiling the portfolio which opened the doors of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). Among her fellow students at NCAD when she arrived there was her own mother who was close to gaining her degree.
“She didn’t need to go to college – she had already had exhibitions in Dublin – but she wanted the piece of paper. It was fine having her there and she brought me to all the fourth year parties; it was pretty cool.” The mother-daughter bond was strengthened by the shared experience, Eva reckons, recalling that they used to lunch together regularly during the year while both were students.
College led on to an internship in The Copper House, with Sarah ending up staying for seven years at the gallery, which is located on Synge Street. Her time on the staff there suggested that as well as being an artist, she also had potential as an arts administrator or curator. Eventually, that is part of what she has become, though not in Dublin.
She finally bailed out of the capital in 2017, with its exorbitant rents, and returned to Ballyrogan: “I was living the Dublin life for 10 years. I loved it and I built up my career there, but it was expensive.” Her parents, the two A’s, have been great in building up her self-confidence while giving her the space to experiment and then tear up the things which do not work. That is how individual style emerges, with the artist as her own keenest critic.
The process continues in Sarah Eva’s studio, upstairs in a converted barn with a magnificent window looking out over the old farmyard. Back in Wicklow, she has had the good fortune to meet one of the few Mongolians resident in Ireland. Ozzie has a business degree and works as a bar restaurant manager (at Blue on the quays in Wicklow Town) and the couple have been blessed with two young daughters who are also enjoying the Ballyrogan magic. Their mother seems to be branching out in many directions: “It’s so creative here and I am a creative soul.”
The work of Sarah Eva Manson will feature at the arts show running at the RDS in Ballsbridge, introducing the public to the joy of palimpsests. Palimpsests? They are images which have been worked and re-worked from old copper plates. The image alters gradually as it is pulled and re-ordered maybe 50-plus times.
Meanwhile, she is also to the fore in promoting the new programme of forest bathing. Forest bathing? Also known as Shinrin Yoku, the concept originated in Japan during the 1980s. Brought up so close to the woods, she has taken to this practice, which encourages mindful meditation in the forest. No need for a swimsuit, she explains, the “bathing” means soaking up the atmosphere among the trees. She is one of 14 guides trained to lead walks which, she earnestly hopes, will ease blood pressure and improve sleep patterns.
“Each individual tree has its own aroma,” she insists, “and they emit certain chemicals.” There is nowhere better to be at peace than sitting under a tree. The love of the wooded outdoors has expanded into production of fairy doors – available for sale through the sarahevamansonart.com website.
After her stint working in a commercial gallery, she is an artist whose head is not stuck in the clouds – creativity and selling must go hand in hand. So she has taken responsibility for promoting the family business under the slogan ‘A Family of Artists’ and a second website – ballyrogan.com. Here, potential customers may find examples of Andrew’s paintings and photographs, of Attracta’s ambitious oils and their daughter’s etchings.
Sarah Eva has become the businesswoman in the clan enterprise, as much at home with the computers and the internet as she is handling artistic materials. She is the one who arranges packaging and dispatch when a sale is made, and she is also expert when it comes to appropriate framing.
A further string has been added to her bow with the launch of a podcast, called simply Irish Art Podcast. She admits being surprised that the title had not already been taken.
Fourteen half-hour episodes have already been recorded and the show has gone into a second series. Along the way, she has lined up conversations with practitioners, including Maria Jordan O’Reilly, Peter Grimshaw and Kilkenny-based Francis Tansey. The podcast with Francis explores the logistical challenge of transporting massive canvases from Ireland to Dubai for a show he shared there with the two A’s.
Sarah’s skill set extends to photography, a talent which she has honed in preparing images for the websites and which she now offers more widely to creative businesses. She still finds time somehow to put in a few shifts each week at Arklow’s Visual Arts Gallery – where she was naturally to the fore in assembling the website. And she is experimenting with the manufacture of inks from natural ingredients: “I feel like a hedge witch,” she laughs.
Working artist, forest bather, saleswoman, website curator, podcast producer/contributor, photographer and ink-maker – is there no end to this woman’s talents?
She mentions one more skill to flesh out her already substantial CV.
She has trained as a remote emergency care first responder, making her the person to have handy whenever a first aider is required in her neighbourhood. How there are enough hours in the day for her is a mystery.