Last night I made a trip to Connemara in the company of Breandán and Colm from my Ciorcal Cómhra (Irish language conversation circle) in our village of Ballinderreen. It was Awards Night, when community groups from all over Co. Galway are nominated and recognised for their work. Our group had been nominated in the Promotion of the Irish Language category. We didn’t win. There were lots of categories and lots of community groups. I didn’t find out anything about other groups who didn’t win, but here are some of the winners: the group from Cois Fharraige (“beside the sea”) between Barna and Spiddal that restored a children’s graveyard; the group from Moycullen who put together a children’s book on the heritage of the area, illustrated by local kids; and the Thoor Ballylee Group, who restored the medieval tower where our national poet W.B. Yeats lived for a decade in the 1920s. They have restored a piece of paradise, and if you can, don’t let this time of year slip by without a visit.
All these groups were very inspiring. They made me want to give my time to promote things that interest me – I am involved with lots of things in the local community, but none of it is voluntary. The only voluntary thing I do is Urban Sketchers Galway, and that’s not local.
I had brought my sketching kit with me, the tiny one I mentioned a few days ago: it has an A6 sketchbook, an Altoids tin with ten half-pans of watercolour, a magnetic bulldog clip to support the Altoids box, a waterbrush and a pen. Colm was a little incredulous.
“You must see something I don’t,” he said.
In truth there wasn’t much to sketch – other than a roomful of people. Sketching people is what I love best, so there was plenty for me to do. Our table was at the back of the room, and I had my back to the wall, so no one would be distracted by my sketching. The whole thing took about ten minutes (ten blissful minutes, in case I haven’t made that clear before!). The only person who noticed was a little girl of about ten with long red ringlets, who prodded her brother to point me out. We smiled across the table at each other, and I showed them the sketch and the kit.
Maybe next year our village will be nominated in the soon-to-be-created “Promotion Of Sketching” category…
Last week I worked with the residents of Blake Manor Nursing Home. The beginning of June will see Nursing Home Week, and the owner of Blake Manor, Aideen, wanted to see if the elderly residents would like to exhibit some art for the occasion. She asked me to facilitate the group. I have never worked with people who are at that stage of life before, and sometimes when I met each new resident it took a second or two to adjust to the difference in the way they live their lives now, but in the end I found it a very positive experience.
We’ve all heard people say “I would hate to end up in a nursing home,” and everyone knows what they mean by that, and why. But after the four sessions I spent with these residents, I can say this with honesty:
I noticed that the residents had something in common with the very young children I teach: they did not have preconceived ideas about how untalented they were. They just got stuck in, once I guided them a little. I would take their beautiful hands, idle now after a lifetime of work, the skin so thin it was translucent. Sometimes they started in shock at my always-cold hands, and some raised blue eyes to me in wonder at what I was trying to do to them. But once the paintbrush was loaded with watercolour and gently guided onto the page, they were away.
(One old man, tall and clearly very strong in his day, didn’t show much enthusiasm. “You’d rather be out on the farm, wouldn’t you,” said another old lady to him. But he painted something very nice in the end.)
A couple of times I got paint on their hands – I can be a bit sloppy – and that wasn’t okay with them, so I tried to be a bit more careful.
I was especially touched by some of the work. One gentleman wrote the titles of old movies from the 1940s, with colourful daubs of paint decorating each letter. They were all Westerns and I imagined him as a boy, carried far away from Co. Galway in his imagination. Another lady was a hundred and two years old, and painted carefully and concisely, with no tremor at all. She was so appreciative. So, even though many were slow to start, once they got going there was no stopping them.
“There’s been great feedback,” said one of the activities assistants on my third session.
“Feedback?” I asked. I was really surprised, because the people painting had been so quiet as they worked.
“Oh, they really enjoyed it,” said the assistant, “and many of them want to come back for more.”
I was so moved. The few mornings I spent in the nursing home were quiet: the active part of these people’s lives is behind them, but there was a serenity there that I didn’t expect to find.
And it struck me that what I saw over the last few weeks is what a healthy society looks like. The vulnerable are looked after. The community looks out for things that need fixing, and for groups that need help, and they just get stuck in and do it. We’re somewhere between the capitalist model, where everyone is expected to help themselves, and the socialist model, where everyone is helped by central government. In theory, the government looks after the weak in this country, but in practice, or certainly in rural Ireland, we don’t let the shortcomings of the government affect our vulnerable ones too much.
I am proud to be a Galwegian these days.
I started planning my little studio in the spring of 2017. The truth is, I have been dreaming about a space dedicated just to painting for decades. I have never had a place where I could paint in oil or other messy paint. I think I’m nearly there though.
This is sort of what one end of it looks like. The yellow is made up: I was inspired by the great Santi Salles, a Barcelona sketcher whom I admire very much. He will often make a sketch in black and white, then fill the space behind in something hot like crocus yellow or a clean, clear orange. I thought I’d try that. But after I drew my dear little dog Reuben curled up on the seat (love that dog) I saw that I would have to colour in the chair a bit, because Reuben wasn’t very distinct. Then I had to paint the fireplace to balance that, then the shadows under the stove and so on.
13B is the number that Marcel, my husband, painted onto that panel. He designed a small dwelling for use as a workshop (for himself) with leftover SIP panels from our house build, numbering each panel like a jigsaw puzzle. Then it was clear I needed somewhere to work so I acquired the workshop and the transformation began. At one stage it housed a family of swallows who visited every year, and I found some mouse poops in a corner, but on the whole it’s pretty perfect for me.
A wood-fired stove, posh windows and doors, warm and dry, at the far end of the garden and all for me…a dream come true. The perfect studio!
More sketches to come and I will try to put Reuben in them all.