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Essay from In Residence


This essay was originally printed in my book In Residence, which was made to accompany my exhibition of the same name in The Dean Art Studios, Dublin. Editing assistance by Cara Spelman.


To be awarded anything is a thrill, but a studio

for a year is a real prize. A studio lets you affirm,

“I have a real job! I have a place of work!”

A studio makes you feel validated as an artist

who deserves four solid walls, central heating and

running water.

“We are excited to see where this residency takes

you”, said the email I received in May 2022 from

Kate Farnon, the studio director of the Dean

Art Studios. And it has indeed been exciting to

see where all of the resident artists have gone

with this great prize of space and time; support

and community.

I had been aware of the old, redbrick building

on Chatham Row that used to house the DIT

Conservatory ever since I was old enough to

wander around town. You would hear music

emanating from the place long before you

could see it - a few bars of an aria might waft

towards South King Street, or the call of a

trumpet could reach halfway up South William’s

Street, depending on which way the wind was

blowing. Classical music in the air gave the

surroundings a touch of glamour - it felt like there

was culture at the heart of the city, just as there

should be.

I was able to visit the building a few years ago

when I took my daughter to a violin lesson.

It was a busy place. You could hear the sounds

of different instruments drowning each other

out as you passed along the corridors. Students

rushed to classes, instruments swinging from

their shoulders, while parents sat around waiting,

scrolling on their phones.

It was strange to come back in 2022 and see the

place painted bright white, temporarily emptied

of music as a new group of artists moved into the

rooms they had been allocated.

Each resident artist or collective was given a

studio with four walls, a window and a lockable

door. My room was small and bright and looked

out onto Clarendon Row, where I could see people

rushing past two storeys below.

I filled my studio with my stuff. I piled in painter’s

tools and books, old work and new canvases, a

mirror and a radio, a computer, an easel, a bag

of rags and files full of bills and receipts. As the

summer of 2022 progressed, all the rooms became

personalised by artists of different disciplines.


Some studios were monastically spartan with

only a desk and a chair, some had plants and

wall hangings; there were comfortable ones with

sofas and shag rugs, and a few of them were

already chaotic with the detritus of hard work

everywhere. It was clear that this was a collective

that contained many different ideas at once.

Kate arranged a party for us all to introduce

ourselves. It was a little awkward at first -

describing what we did and who we were. It is

always hard to shake the feeling of having to

explain your belonging to a new group; of having

to think of accomplishments that might allow

you to plausibly sit alongside the other thinkers

and makers.

I was hugely impressed with how vivacious and

beautiful everyone was. I realised that I already

knew some of the work of these artists (the plays,

the songs, the images), but I hadn’t really thought

about how any of it was made. It is so easy to

consume art without thinking about where and

how it came about.

***


Portraiture has always been one of the starting

points of my work, but I had done very little

painting from life since before the pandemic.

When a person sits before you and allows you

to paint them, there’s a kind of adrenaline that

rises; you know they won’t sit forever, so you try

to pin them to your canvas, eyeballing them and

directing your painting hand around the contours

of what you see. I always loved the work of Alice

Neel, Paula Rego, Maggi Hambling and David

Hockney, who would each leave tangible traces

of vitality on the work they made from life.

I had been thinking about making quick paintings

from life, and at the same time I had been

considering the idea of ensemble portraiture;

I was interested in the idea that groups or

collectives are fleeting by nature and that, as

with painting from life, it is hard to capture

what that group dynamic feels like at a certain

moment in time. Groups usually represent

something, but what the group represents also

changes and dissipates over time - new people

join, others move on. In the Dean Art Studios

there is a common purpose of creativity, and

some of the artists occasionally collaborate, but

ultimately everyone is on a different trajectory

and the group cannot stay the same.


I asked if anyone would like to sit for me as part of

a project that would build a group portrait from

individual paintings. A few people were keen, and

seemed to be interested in what it might feel like

to have their likeness made; others were a little

wary, and I think they may have only agreed to

sit because they didn’t like to refuse my request.

There was also a small number of people who

didn’t want to sit or couldn’t make the time. They

might have baulked at the idea of sitting still

for three hours, or being scrutinised, or being

immortalised in a manner totally outside of their

own control. These are all valid misgivings.

I had to overcome my own shyness at having

people come through my door to sit on my chair

and look around the personal mess of my studio.

I always felt a quick flush of self-consciousness as

they entered, but I tried to affect an air of breezy

self-assurance, instructing each sitter to relax

and pick a point on the windowpane to look at

while they sat. I would usually chat a bit at the

beginning to distract the sitter from the fact that

I am looking at them - but we all know that’s a

ruse. I am aware that they are watching me too.

It is strange to work with someone else in the

room. An element of involuntary performance

creeps into the act of painting. I probably perform

decisiveness; I don’t want anyone to see me

struggle. This is not a normal social situation - we

sit for three hours, sometimes talking, sometimes

silent together. The moment of this unusual

encounter becomes painted onto the surface

of the board - each brushstroke is simultaneous

with an occasion of shared experience between

the two of us.


I work quickly, mixing colours and swivelling my

head between the growing painting and the

person before me. They usually move a lot too,

but that’s OK. I am seeing all their angles as

they shift in their seat and look around the room.

One of the group even crocheted a blanket

while she sat. It is not really possible to “pose”

for three hours. Instead of capturing a face for

a split second in time, as a photographer does,

the painter is trying to record thousands of

distinct points in time. For me, this attempt to

capture likeness and life, inevitably becomes an

empathic act.

Empathy can be tricky because, without realising

it, I may be considering how the sitter is feeling

and wondering what they are expecting to see at

the end of the process. Maybe, without meaning

to, these speculations inform how I paint. This

could be a real weakness in the work. I imagine

that a true artist should be single-minded in

their vision and their process, and yet here am I

chatting and laughing and slightly dreading the

final reveal of the painting.

As the year went on, I realised that there were

more people within these walls than I had initially

imagined. Portraits piled up in the corner of my

studio like a colourful deck of cards. I had to stop

somewhere (already people were moving on and

being replaced by new artists), so I decided to

make a final painting as a tribute to the group

members who couldn’t sit for me. I painted the

view from the chair - what they might have seen

if they had sat there. It is an interior of the studio,

showing the window, marked with Xs for them to

focus on. There’s a self-portrait in it too, because

they probably would have seen me.

Together, the paintings show a group of people,

united under one roof for a year. These artists

caused a thrum of creativity and industry to

emanate in all directions from the redbrick

building on Chatham Row again. I look forward

to seeing where each of them goes next.












Photo credit: Vera Ryklova

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