If you can't meet me half way, don't bother....An essay by Catherine Marshall Curator and Art Critic (2019)
If you can’t meet me half way, don’t bother…. Don’t be my friend. (Andrew Pike, in Living Colour, film about the KCAT studios, dir, Eamon Little, formulated for vimeo, Andrew Pike KCAT, downloaded 26/2/2020.
These assertive words come from Andrew Pike, an artist working from the KCAT assisted studios in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. I discovered them, the day after a New York jury found Harvey Weinstein guilty on a number of counts of sexual abuse of women over whom he had considerable power in terms of making or breaking their careers. The two situations are very telling for their insights into what we mean by ‘community’. Andrew Pike, confidently demands equal terms before he will confer his friendship on another person. Harvey Weinstein, on the other hand, denies charges of wrong-doing, because he clearly believes that his position of power over the careers of the people he wronged, gives him the right to treat them as his playthings. For one, friendship is all about equality, for the other equality didn’t enter into it.
For centuries the canons of art history were built around hierarchies of power and authority. Only a handful of people in every generation and almost every culture had the power to make art (the great artists), buy it (the wealthy patrons) and, ultimately to decide what art is (patrons, critics and artists). Thanks largely to the community art movement since the 1970s and to rebel artists over many years the definitions and rights to ownership of art have been seriously challenged. This is particularly true of Word Tree and Our Place, developed by Cathal McCarthy and the pupils of Sancta Maria Secondary School, Louisburgh, Co. Mayo in 2019/2020. This is a collaborative work in all the best senses of that word, requiring full consultation and agreement from all the parties involved; the young people from two transition year groups (2018/19 – 2019/20) who wrote poetry, did drawings of sites chosen by them, generated some 400 aerial photographs out of which they selected six for exhibition, the school council, who worded the captions for the images, the teaching staff who courageously agreed to the project in the first place, the poet Jean Tuomey and Cathal McCarthy, the artist who proposed it and who facilitated it, in all its manifestations.
The project falls into two parts; an outdoor, permanent sculpture, the Word Tree and an internal exhibition of aerial landscape images, Our Place, taken by the transition year students using drone technology, of sites agreed and later captioned by the School Council. TY pupils talked about their place, did drawings of it and wrote individual poems about what it meant to them. They were facilitated in this by Jean Tuomey, a poet herself, who then identified key words and images from their work and with the students collaboration, created a composite poem, that contained emotional and aspirational thoughts about school, including the old name for Louisburgh – ‘Valley of the buttercups’, and finishing with an emphatic line, dear to everyone coming up to leaving certificate; ‘Our grades do not define us.’
Cathal McCarthy then took that composite poem and turned it into a tree of words, a roughly cylindrical, three-metre-high, perforated form made up of the words of the poem, and wrapped around a void with subtle blue lighting at the base, that points heaven ward but recalls the nearby Atlantic ocean. By choosing highly polished, stainless steel for the trunk of his tree, the artist, allowed for endless effects of shimmering light and reflection. The viewer is reflected in this ‘tree of knowledge’, becoming inseparable from the school and also the natural world around it. The tree is both of this place and about this place. Made up of the words of the pupils in the school, and therefore of a young generation, full of anticipation of the future, and through them of generations of young people to come, the tree reminded this writer of Anne Enright’s words in her 2020 novel, Actress; ‘if you think about it the youngest part of the tree is in the very middle. It is the little dot that will widen into a ring next year. The youngest part of any tree is the heart.’ The heart in Word Tree was forged out of friendship, equality, and a sense of belonging. ( Anne Enright, Actress, Jonathan Cape, 2020, p .247) By combining the verbal and the visual and using a variety of practical approaches, from drawing to photography and laser cutting technology, the project made participation accessible to people across a wide range of abilities and disabilities, levelling the playing field, offering the potential for participation on equal levels.
Community and public arts projects, (this one falls under both headings) carry certain challenges, and the better they are the greater the challenges. The good ones are deeply connected to the place where they are sited and to the community among whom they are placed. For Sancta Maria Secondary School, Cathal McCarthy had one simple ambition. A Mayo man himself, he wanted to do whatever he could to foster a deep sense of connection between the school and its surrounding area, the coastline, the town, the ever-present outline of Croagh Patrick and the Doolough Valley, laden with centuries of migration, emigration, famine, myth and spirituality, and above all the immensely varied natural environment. Public Art projects are often, like this one, linked to and limited to percent for art schemes, where the maximum spend requires the artist to do a quick job that can both pay for materials, installation costs and allow a fee for his/her work. Community arts, however, require time, time to stop, listen, allow ideas, and more especially relationships, to grow. They need flexibility so that trajectories can change along the way as newer and better ideas emerge, and all require the agreement (very time-consuming) of as many of the participants as possible, if they are to truly own the outcomes. Per cent for art schemes can never hope to encompass that time factor, but good community artists give it unstintingly anyway. And then, there is the question of quality. We are familiar with the model of the named artist creating the work in isolation in his studio, following his singular vision and then rightfully claiming credit for it, e.g. John Behan’s Famine Ship which is located nearby and is now an important location on tourist maps of the area. Community arts projects rarely carry the allure of a famous name, and may not make it on to the tourist map. Instead, and far more importantly, the aim is that they are truly owned by the local people who take part in the making, in this case the school, pupils and staff, the poet and the artist, and although the artist is dedicated to pursuing excellence in the final outcome, it was never about personal fame or a place on the map.
How then are we to judge the outcome? Community arts aim to be game-changers. They aim to change lives, beliefs and our sense of who we are. They do not seek to impose an object which has been given a critical seal of approval somewhere else on us. Instead they are for us and about us. We see ourselves in them in a host of subtle ways. Word Tree and Our Place have created a bond between the staff, the pupils, the poet, the artist and graphic artist that is invaluable. Along the way they have imparted new skills, like drone management for TY students, an awareness of words and poetry, materials and visual form, all of which are life enhancing, but more fundamentally these projects have raised awareness about the immediate area, about nature, friendship, unity, belonging, about school, education and community. The students who took part may leave Louisburgh in the years to come, but they will carry this project with them wherever they go.
Co-Editor, Janet Mullarney, Irish Academic Press, 2019
Co-Editor, Art and Architecture of Ireland, Twentieth Century, Yale, Royal Irish Academy, 2014