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thoughts from ireland I'm currently at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland for a month to teach and to paint; I've been coming here every year since 2013-- it always calls me back. The landscape is magnificent, the people welcoming, and the facilities at Ballinglen are top-notch. Today the weather (which is always a big topic here) is alternating between torrential rain, hail, high winds, and sunshine. The drama of the weather is matched by the rugged coastline and surf. Yet there are also gentle days with mild temperatures, mist, and light clouds over the softness of the boglands and green fields.
at Benwee Head, Carrowteige, County Mayo
The contrasts in the land and its weather are compelling, and spending time here each year provides energy and new direction that fuels my ongoing work. I was here in 2013 when large, dark shapes first came into my paintings, beginning with some small monotypes and later expanding to works on panel. Although softer aspects of the landscape then took over for a time, strong shapes re-emerged in my work in the past few years. In much of my current work, a combination of strong, dramatic form and quieter, more gentle surfaces bring contrast into play. As I understand the strength that contrast has brought to my own work, I've been emphasizing it in my workshops, and it also plays a big role in the video workshop that Jerry McLaughlin and I are releasing very soon. In the recent painting below, the excavation of blanket bog that has yielded some fascinating pre-historic archaeological sites in North Mayo (where Ballinglen is located) is a strong influence. Ideas stemming from local archaeology also offer contrast: stone walls built only a few years ago reflect the same patterns as those built thousands of years ago, so there is an ever-present dichotomy of the ancient and the present.
Unearthed, 42"x36" oil/cold wax on panel
During the workshop I taught here last week, we visited the nearby village of Belderrig for a tour conducted by Belderrig Valley Experience. Our guide, Declan Caulfield, is the grandson of Patrick Caulfield; while cutting turf in the 1930s, Patrick uncovered the first of the nearly 6000-year-old stone fences that would lead to the discovery of the vast network of ancient farm fields that once covered this area. These stone wall fences provide evidence of a large, organized and peaceful society spread over many square miles of this coastline. Declan's father Seamus established the renowned archaeological site at Céide Fileds as well as a smaller site near to where the first stone fence was found. Today, Declan leads tours of this latter site, with fascinating details about what is known of the people and their way of life in Neolithic and Bronze age times. Declan's opening words to our group were to ask for our thoughts on the difference between scenery and landscape. Unbeknownst to him, his question went to the heart of what we had been working with in class. Although not necessarily focused on landscape, I had been challenging the students to explore various dichotomies that would bring depth to their abstract work. As well, I had presented the sources of abstract language as coming from what is seen, what is felt, and what is known. Declan believes that enjoying scenery is a somewhat superficial acknowledgment of a place's true nature, while the understanding of landscape is much deeper, involving memory, and knowledge in addition to what is seen. His remarks supported a lot of the ideas I'd introduced in class over the previous two days. A very nice coincidence, and a great opening for our tour!
We spent the rest of the day exploring various places along the coast, including the rugged cliffs of Benwee Head and the quieter sand beach at Portocloy. As many times as I've been to these places, I never tire of them. With every weather condition, season, and time of day, the experience changes.
Portocloy Beach, County Mayo
I am looking ahead to several more weeks of painting in my studio at Ballinglen. I'm so grateful to have this time to explore the wild, unspoiled and ancient landscape of North Mayo, as well as my response to it in the studio. Here is one painting I've done during my stay. As yet untitled, it is 12"x12", oil and cold wax on board: