A new crop of female Irish artists are shaking up the stuffy art world with their unorthodox subjects, dazzling colours and creative brushwork. Their style is constantly evolving, and their attitudes are as fresh as their work. Here we take a look at some of the hottest emerging talent.
Carol Mahon, 30, Illustrator
Taking the plunge to ditch a 9-5 job and focus on pencil drawings after forging a career in fashion may be a scary choice for some, but to Carol, it felt completely natural.
After graduating from NCAD with a degree in Printed Textile Design, and then studying at The Grafton Academy of Dress Design, Carol worked as a design assistant, creating pattern designs for StyleTex, an Irish fashion manufacturing company with clients such as Asos and Topshop. She soon discovered, however, that the fashion world wasn’t for her, deciding that “I think I just want to draw.”
Drawing had always been her favourite medium, and despite her style being discouraged in art college for being “too tight”, Carol threw herself into illustration. Taking inspiration from nature, song lyrics, quirky off-beat faces, and yes – fashion trends (colours and patterns are still ingrained in her work), she soon made a name for herself with her imaginative art prints.
Starting with hand-drawn work, Carol adds colour and texture with Photoshop and Illustrator, perfecting her ‘traditional meets modern’ style. Some pieces have hidden symbols in them, personal messages in the image. Working as a freelance illustrator, it took a year or two to find her own style, although she notes that “the good thing about Dublin, is that if you’re interesting and doing good work people will notice”.
An Enterprise scheme helped at first, but once that was over it was difficult to make money in the beginning. Magazines don’t have huge budgets for illustration, she discovered, and Carol found that “people don’t want to pay much money for a print, even though there’s only say, 25 of them in the world. You have to look beyond Ireland for work.”
She cites Instagram as a huge asset to artists, seeing it as a great way to build your brand and make art more accessible to people across the world.
As is often the case in Ireland, word of mouth helps a lot too, with a career highlight of Carol’s coming about after the owner of jewellery shop Loulerie was gifted one of Carol’s prints by a friend, a drawing of fashion icon Iris Apfel. Carol ended up designing and creating illustrations for their Iris Apfel inspired Christmas shop window – a dream project for any artist.
A proud feminist (her sister recently gifted her a set of pencils engraved with the words ‘ feminist with a to-do list’, which seems to sum up to a tee super organised Carol, whose studio is covered in neat post-its), she does find it a catch-22 labelling herself as a female artist.
“As much as you feel like maybe you shouldn’t say you’re a female artist, it’s kind of important at the same time; you want to promote female art”, she says, that “I’m a woman and I’m doing it… You have to go in guns blazing.”
Karen Ryan, 44, Painter
“I always go back to painting irises”, says Karen, “whenever I take a break from painting, the colours in iris flowers gets me back into it.”
This focus and love of nature has always been part of Karen’s work as an artist; in college in NCAD, where she studied Art Education, she would bring in sods of earth and paint the roots and textures in the clay instead of more traditional still lifes.
Karen was always “drawing, drawing, drawing” as a child and her father always painted, so her following an artistic path was no surprise. Choosing art education helped, she supposes, as it was less risky than painting full time.
But after ten years of teaching both secondary school level and adults art in Bray, Co.Wicklow, Karen knew that she had to do something for herself. She took a career break, got a studio in town and flung herself back into the painting work that she loved.
Her work ranges from ‘Plein-Air’, large-scale black and white ink drawings of dense forest from an experimental phase in 2010, to the colourful ‘Meadowsweet’, a collection of oil paintings she’s been working on for five years that are full of vivid colour and wild textures. Her work now is potentially moving towards more figurative, with a photograph of her mother and niece in the garden inspiration for future patterns in her painting.
Since she’s been in the studio, Karen loves being in an environment with other painters, saying it’s encouraging and you can ask advice, but “I don’t have a set group of people I went to college with” to discuss art with.
Karen ended up returning to teaching, finding it too much of a struggle to survive on art full-time. “You have to work really hard and know people, and art has been hit by the bust – even in the last few months it’s starting to get better, but studios and galleries are still closing down and working as an artist has really suffered.”
Despite there being more female artists in the studio building where she paints, “you go around galleries, and it’s mostly men who are exhibiting their artwork. You just kind of accept it, and that’s not saying it’s right, but the women artists are out there.”
Most of her artistic influences are women, with Karen recalling that “the biggest names I would have been aware of in college are women, like Kathy Prendergast, and Alice Maher – I like when she speaks about her work, there’s an element of fun and questioning and curiosity, she’s quirky.”
Karen’s advice for young artists starting out? “Do what you like and don’t do it for anyone else – you’re going to be happy, and other people will tap into that.”
Paula McGloin, 33, Illustrator and Pattern Designer
It seems that creativity is in Paula’s genes; her grandfather was a thatcher in Sligo, an increasingly lost craft, and her dad always loved art but never pursued it. Her parents were very positive in her career choice, telling her to “just do whatever you want to do.”
She studied Visual Communication in NCAD, and went into graphic design after college, but a few years into it there was less work for new people in the industry like herself, so she did a Masters in Digital Media. That’s when Paula began illustrating.
Her work is whimsical and retro, full of colour, thanks to a trip to Brazil that’s been “imprinted on my mind ever since”, says Paula. Inspiration also comes from everyday life and folk patterns.
It took her a while to build up illustration work, “like a while, that’s all I’ll say”, but she now illustrates for a wide range of projects, from packaging designs to homewares such as a mug for Bewley’s, to book illustrations and pattern design.
A favourite project Paula recently worked on was the illustrations for poetry book All Through The Night, a collection of night poems and lullabies edited by Marie Heaney. A lover of poetry, Paula says how fantastic the amount of freedom she had in the project was, getting to choose herself which poems to illustrate.
Work as an illustrator in Dublin at the moment is “pretty good, there’s a lot of commissions to get”, Paula says. “In terms of the internet and online portfolios, it helps as anyone from anywhere in the world can find you and hire you.”
Fighting the ‘myth of the starving artist’, Paula is of the opinion that “I have to consider myself a business person, and when you approach it that way it’s better. I love the work I do, but at the same time you need a business head on your shoulders, you need to do marketing and promotion.”
Artists need to be practical and put in the hard work, “because the last thing you should think is that someone’s going to just knock on your door and say ‘hey I want you to do this amazing project’. We need to make our own opportunities now as it’s the only way it will work.”
With lots of different aspects to illustration, she feels that the scene is quite equally split gender-wise, although a lot of the household names outside of America would be male, so “we’ve a lot of work to do to catch up.”
As rents rise however, and Dublin has more and more trouble with accommodation, Paula is worried that “it will push us out – if an area suddenly becomes trendy there’s a fear that studios will be the first to go. It would be nice if we got more support, if artists got more help.”
Kathryn Maguire, 45, Installation Artist and Sculptor
“Do what you’re going to do, because you’re going to do it anyway”, is something that Kathryn’s mother always said to her, and a motto that sticks with her to this day. Starting her art career with a study of sculpture in Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork, she was “quite a rebel”, working with non-traditional materials such as blood, and casting metal and glass.
Her use of unorthodox materials continued with a Masters in Art in the Contemporary world in NCAD, where her work ‘Desire Is’ was shown at the Tate Modern in London as part of a group exhibition, No Soul For Sale. The piece is a convex mirror with ‘desire is the very essence of man’ laser cut into it, and the viewer can either look “very stretched and ugly, or thin and attractive”, revealing people’s narcissism.
Kathryn worked in a jewellery store before pursuing a career in art, and mirrors are often present in her art work. “When I make jewellery it’s quite sculptural, and when I make sculptures it’s quite jewel-like”, she says, ““I guess you could say I’m a bit of a magpie; I like shiny, pretty things.”
She uses text, installation, sculpture, video and many other mediums to portray her work, with inspiration coming from history, geology (such as the melting of basalt stone to re-create lava) and travel.
Having worked in communities and after-school projects with children and teens, and seeing how “art can be so powerful”, Kathryn honed in on more socially engaged work.
Her most recent installation, ‘We Claim’, is a two-phase collaboration with young female migrants who are writers and activists, consisting of a hanging banner in Dublin city and a booklet of poems and writings. It was printed on a 100-year old printing press inspired by the Bean na hEireann publications, 1908 to 1911, and will be distributed for free to galleries and migrant rights centers across Ireland.
With such a varied collection of work, choosing a favourite is hard, but Kathryn does say she loves ‘The Possibility of an Impossibility’, the small silver-cast seeds sprayed in tear gas from an area of trees in Istanbul that witnessed a peaceful protest escalate by oppressive riot police.
In the last year, Kathryn switched to working full-time in the Office of Public Works. When asked if profiting from her art work can be difficult, Kathryn says that although grants and funding help, “my getting a full-time job says it all, the struggle is hard and the not knowing. Even showing in galleries you’d only be doing an exhibition for a few months.”
The art scene in Dublin has changed too since she started out. During her masters, “the community in Dublin, was fantastic, really thriving, full of little galleries and studios”, she says, but now that many of these have closed down, “I’d be quite scared for younger artists trying to survive in this city.”
Kathryn feels that a lot of artists will move to Cork because of its sense of community, adding that “I hate the saying that Dublin’s a rat race, but because of the way things work here it’s harder to just be, and do things as an artist.”
Success is possible, however, with her advising young artists to “have faith, and believe. Be like a magnet and try and attract those like-minds to you, because they are out there. Go to everything and question everything. Question everything, and then question it again.”
Eleanor McCaughey, 36, Painter
Her studio filled with large blank canvases spilling out into the hallway, Eleanor is preparing for an upcoming exhibition at the AAF in New York, with Dublin-based Eight gallery. Luckily, she’s a self-described fast painter.
While she firstly tried her hand at animation, “I was so, so bad”, and then graphic design, “being at a computer all day is too stressful”, Eleanor moved to Canada where she lived in a building filled with creatives; it was this exciting environment that inspired her to teach herself painting skills before returning to college as a mature student in 2009 to study Fine Art in DIT.
Having grown up in an artistic family with early memories of her mother painting and bringing her and her sister to galleries, it seems that painting came naturally to Eleanor – she won an esteemed prize from the Royal Ulster Academy in 2014 for best figurative work.
Her early work had a vintage feel, with Eleanor trawling the internet for old photos to paint from, saying that “I used to enjoy painting social scenes, it’s interesting seeing how people interact with each other, I used to be painfully shy. I would get quite anxious in social scenes, so my paintings were all about that, and creating an atmosphere.”
Her most recent work, to put it lightly, is different. What started as an exploration of painting as a medium and a way to challenge her skills progressed into a collection of vivid, 3D-like work. Her process involves sculpting small figures and heads using modelling clay, tinfoil, polystyrene beads, fur and even glitter, “I’m getting very tacky in my work lately”, she says, then photographing the sculpture and trying to paint all the different textures and colours.
“I’m not a sculptor, so they turned out really crude and really crappy, but I really love that about them. When I’m making those little figures I’m really impulsive because the worse they come out the better- I get to paint that.”
Although she still does figurative work for commissions and says that she will always paint figures and “love painting skin tone”, she’s happy with the new direction – “it’s nice to be able to have fun with the work.”
She works part-time as an art tutor, a steady job she stresses, is necessary if you’re an artist. “Month to month you don’t know what’s going to happen; financially, creatively…”, she says, “I’ve gone through some serious creative blocks where I just can’t paint. And when you can’t paint you’re like what can I do?”
Pricing work is also difficult, as you’re so intimate with your art. Early on in her career, she made an alphabetical list of art galleries in Dublin to contact to sell her work: the first one was Adams, the auctioneers. They said yes, and started to auction her pieces, the most expensive selling at the time for €2,000.
What Eleanor didn’t realise, was that this was a risky move, “because if your paintings don’t sell people can see that and it looks bad.”Although finding the art scene in Dublin somewhat cliquey, her husband, a graffiti artist, and his tight-knit ‘crew’ are a lovely support system for conversations about art.
Her “ever-changing” work is something Eleanor stands by. Constantly challenging yourself is a must for any artist she says: “Even when you reach rock bottom and feel like you can’t do it anymore, sometimes the best work comes from that.”
Louise Brady, 27, Visual Artist
Graduating from IADT in 2012 with a Visual Arts Practise degree, Louise initially felt disillusioned at the art world upon leaving college, at how difficult it is to work as an artist in Ireland.
“The shock you get when you leave”, she says “you never realise just how hard it can be because you’re surrounded by people who are making a living, lecturers and visiting artists.”
Louise’s work initially focused on the gender dynamics of women’s role in films, and the language surrounding relationships. Taking inspiration from 1950’s movies and novels, Louise would project dialogue and words, once onto large latex balloons in her piece ‘My Vision Blurs’, with some of her work using mirrors to flip text and explore light.
She never wanted to get too heavy with concept however, admitting it can isolate people and stop them from interacting with art.
It took her almost two years after graduating to get back into creating, saying she began drawing, “just to get back to the basics of art and the joy of doing it just for the sake of it – it didn’t have to be laden with all this heavy conceptual stuff – it’s the pure joy of mark making.”
From her drawings, beautiful details of solitude, came embroidery, a new focus of her work. Despite never having embroidered before, she took a course and started to re-work her drawings with needle and thread.
“I’ve always found it interesting when female artists use a really traditional female medium to do stuff”, she says, “but might be subverting it in a way, because you’re tackling issues around that whole idea.” In her first exhibition of her new work she sold almost every single piece.
Her words of wisdom to young artists is to “not compare yourself to what anyone else is doing – it might be fine for them but doesn’t mean it will work for you.”
Louise muses about statistics released by Guerrilla Girls, a group of female artists who fight discrimination. In 2008, 86% of solo museum exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art were of male artists, even though 71% of Irish Art Students were women.
“That’s a huge gap, and there’s something wrong there. I never felt at a loss in college because I had really strong female tutors, and would look at feminist issues in their work” , says Louise, “but once you get out you start to see that even in social circles guys would have an easier time penetrating the gallery world.”
When asked to describe her work in one sentence, Louise repeats feedback from a lecturer, who “always said my work was ‘insightful and emotional; I’d be happy enough with that description.”
Alongside her art practise Louise is working as an Art Director on the set of Red Rock. She shares an art studio, one of MART’s locations, with people she went to college with and says it’s important to surround yourself with people who will always be honest with you about your work. With a view over Rathmines library, and a resident studio dog, it’s the perfect creative space.
Photography: Adrian Heffernan