Wednesday 18 October 2017

Holding it Together

Following the death of my mother after a short but intense illness in August 2016, my life irrevocably changed. I became the counsellor’s phrase: “an adult orphan”.

In order to channel my grief creatively, I threw myself into making work; this was my coping response. In answer to an open call from Temple Bar Gallery & Studios for a curated section of artist books in the Dublin Art Book Fair, I had the idea that I could combine my relatively new re-interest in printmaking with my skills in bookbinding. Through a course I had been taking, I found myself giving woodblock demonstrations at the Irish Museum of Modern Art the previous February. I hadn’t done much printmaking work for years, and I had so enjoyed the woodblock printing that I knew that I was going to love a further re-exploration of print media.

Complete immersion in my art was the context needed to help me to deal with the new order of things: I no longer had a mother; an integral part of my family life was now gone. I needed to create something to counteract this immense loss, which I was reminded of in every daily act. I felt the need to have some purpose, a specific project, to prevent me from otherwise being overwhelmed by despair. I needed to create in order to feel buoyant. I had a husband and child who were also grieving and I refused to let myself sink.

Until this illness, my vibrant mother had been in exceptional good health for the entirety of her ninety-something years. She celebrated joy. My mother was active in local social clubs, she loved singing and dancing, and had close friends of all ages. The fatal diagnosis in June 2016 was a shock alternating between disbelief and despair by her ten children, yet my Mum received the news with outrageous good humour. In her last months she repeatedly sang “I’m heading for the last roundup”, the refrain to a song by her hero Gene Autry. Her great age had no bearing on the unfairness of my mother’s diagnosis; she was not ready to depart this earth and the many who loved her were not yet ready to let her go.

After a number of sketches and design plans, my work began with a series of lino prints. I would bind these prints into several book editions, a different language for each edition. I chose three languages – English, Irish and Spanish – as a starting point, with the possibility that I might create future editions in other languages. This was the first time I used my bookbinding skills in an art book context. I have been hand-binding books for over twenty five years to use as sketchbooks, notebooks, photo albums and scrapbooks, but to bind books as part of an art work is a new development for me. Literally, it was a way for me to hold things together.

Each book contains five small lino prints. My prints are straightforward: a mundane greeting to start the day (good morning / maidín mhaigh / buenos dias) and its follow up query (how are you? / conas atá tú? / ¿cómo estás?) enclosing three simple images (an egg in egg cup, two mugs, a teapot). The images are printed in black ink. Clarity. Simplicity. These are images of sustenance, companionship and comfort. This is what I need. What I hope for. These are existential books that allow me to negotiate the circumstances of overwhelming loss: coming to terms with the banality of living while facing the abyss. Since August 25th 2016 my mother is only fully alive in my memory of her.

In November 2016, five copies of each of my books were included on the curated table of the Dublin Art Book Fair. To me, this opportunity provided a quiet memorial to my mother.

I am not religious yet I am not atheist. I believe in humanity as an entity of good, despite so much evidence to the contrary. There is much suffering both on a global and a personal level. But I have encountered kindness in strangers, selflessness in friends, willingness to share and care in unexpected places. These experiences allow me to fly. I keep faith with the unknown. Although I mourn, the best way for me to honour my mother’s spirit is to celebrate it through my artmaking. This helps me to remain unwaveringly hopeful.

I am still coping with the loss of my mother. I am still creating artwork. I am currently working on another group of books and whether they will be accepted for inclusion in the Dublin Art Book Fair 2017 remains to be seen. Whether they are accepted or not doesn’t matter. Fundamentally they are serving a greater purpose: they are holding me together.

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