‘The colour changes all the time in the landscape’, Mary Finn tells me. We sit around her kitchen table, in the beautiful light filled home, designed for her and her husband Jim Finn, by Jim’s cousin and their mutual friend Jim Coady, in 1971 when they got married.
We ‘gaze’ at a recent painting of hers which Mary has propped on the shelf to discuss with me. It depicts a scene from Littleton bog, near Thurles, where Mary often goes to take photographs and observe the colours in this unique Irish landscape. ‘Landscapes can be bleak’ she cautions. The flowers in this piece add life to what is, in reality, a now disused railway track that runs through the bog. They capture the attention of the observer -the gazer. Mary frequently uses photography as a reference point when starting a work of art. She and Jim have both a keen interest in photography.
Our interview touches on the theme of observation frequently. The word used in art theory is ‘the gaze’. It is an interesting verb, the verb ‘to gaze’. In an article about this published in ‘The Chicago School of Media Theory’ journal, Jennifer Reinhardt refers back to The Oxford English Dictionary which defines the verb as: ‘to look fixedly, intently, or deliberately at something’. The Dictionary also mentions that in early use, ‘gaze’ merely meant ‘to look vacantly or curiously about’. The origins of the word, Reinhardt speculates, come from Old Norse and a word meaning to ‘gaw’ – meaning to gape or stare.
Of course ‘gazing’ has become more controversial in recent decades, in art theory and other disciplines, as clearly it can suggest a power dynamic between the observer and the observed. I mention the word is also used in Anthropology, my area of training. Both disciplines put much emphasis on seeing; how we interpret the world around us; how we give meaning to ‘objects’ or to cultural practices, our relationships, either through writing ethnography as Anthropologists do – or by painting or drawing.
Recently discussions have revolved around how the objects observed in art can also draw us in and change our perspective, change our way of seeing. Subject and object interact, as such, in this relationship. It is a more equal dynamic. The art viewer becomes also the observed, rather than just the observer.
Mary mentions a painting that has intrigued her, Manet’s painting of ‘The Bar of the Folles Bergere’ where the lady behind the bar observes us from her work place. The female gaze here is powerful, reminding us of the limitations, perhaps, of our own judgements and opinions – the limitations of the critic’s gaze.
‘One of the things that intrigues me is listening to how the observer interprets a work of art’ Mary tells me. ‘People bring their own experience to the image and different people see different things… it’s amazing. This is what ‘the gaze’ is essentially about for me’ she explains.
This may all sound very ‘theoretical’ – but Mary Finn’s life and her body of work is the product of her keen eye and her ability to see that bit deeper than others. Her work is steeped in local community. This is where her unique artistic ‘gaze’ was initially focused and formed – in Thurles and the surrounding areas. At 71 years of age she has had an eclectic career but one thing has been consistent throughout – the importance of art and what that creative eye can bring to any endeavour.
GROWING UP IN THURLES
Mary grew up in Thurles, one of two children. Her Father (Michael) and Mother (Annie) owned and managed a shop called Mixie O Connell’s in Liberty Square and Mary remembers how, as a child, she was always decorating and arranging things in the shop.
She had an interest in design and in fashion but when I asked her if this was noted by her parents or her teachers at the Presentation Convent Thurles or Loreto Convent Kilkenny, where she went to Boarding school, she says, without hesitation, ‘no’. I comment that only a few decades ago, the language of creativity did not exist either in education or in day to day life in Ireland. Indeed it is still not fully incorporated into our educational system, the Victorian model still predominating. Mary says it was expected she would either become a teacher, work in the bank or become a nurse. And of course the hope was she would marry well!. This was the norm for her generation and for her gender. A career in any area of design or in art would have been unheard of.
TINA (BRIGET) SHELLY
However, there was one very powerful female personality who did influence her creatively, although they never met! Her Paternal Grandmother Tina (Briget) Shelly . She died young after the birth of her only child, Mary’s father and is buried in Killinan Cemetery Thurles. She loved to draw and paint and many of her pieces were in Mary’s home growing up. She tells me she posted one of her Grandmother’s paintings on Facebook 100 years after she died. Clearly her Grandmother’s work had a deep and lasting influence, and showed Mary that there was value in drawing and painting, even if it was presumed it would not lead to anything that might make money or inform a career.
Mary’s Father also died young, at 46, when Mary was only 16, a tragedy that had a huge impact on her, the year she was doing her Leaving Certificate. In a beautiful tribute about this sad experience Mary writes: ‘When my father left me, I was distraught, but I now realise after all these years that I have kept him close by nurturing the legacy that has sustained me and that I have passed on to my children, his love of the arts, particularly music and art. He never knew his mother who was a very good and an enthusiastic hobby artist’.
MEETING JIM FINN
When Mary finished in secondary school she did a Commercial Course at the Loreto Crumlin and started to work immediately in the Bank of Ireland.
She met her future husband Jim Finn at a joint 21st party she held with her friend Eileen O Donoghue, and Mary and Jim got married a few years later when Mary was 24 years old.
Jim’s family lived just outside Thurles on a farm where the impressive Ballynahow Castle (A 16th century round Castle) is situated.
As mentioned above Jim’s relative and their mutual friend designed their first home, at the entrance to Jim’s family farm, and this light filled house, in le Corbusier style architecture, is where they started their married life together and the rearing of their four children.
It is where I sit, on a sunny Autumn day in 2018, to interview Mary. The light flows in the windows as I admire the views from the kitchen table of the surrounding locality. After our chat we go out to her art studio, situated beside the house, to get a quick snap to remember the day.
Mary tells me she started to note the number of people who drove past their home and into the farm to see the Castle and Mary decided to start a B& B at the farmhouse adjacent to the castle where Jim’s parents then lived. So Jim’s parents moved out to their house and Mary and Jim and their children moved into the farmhouse. Mary said it was a big adjustment because it was so much darker than the house they had designed as their home.
‘Activity holidays’ were beginning to become popular in Ireland and Mary came up with an idea to add value to the farmhouse B&B by doing painting holidays for children. She had been on a residential course, of this nature, in the Lake District in England and she spotted the opportunity to do the same at their home. I comment that this was very innovative for it’s time. They even got major coverage in The Farmer’s Journal for their initiative, in an article published in 1987.
A local art teacher from the Ursuline in Thurles, Bertha Holmes, would come out to the house and eight or nine children would come and stay on holidays and participate in these painting classes. Mary and Jim restored a thatched building on the farm as an art studio and the classes gained in popularity and recognition. During this time Mary was also acting as the Tipperary representative for Irish Farm Holidays and so the next twenty years went by, managing the guest house and bringing visitors to Thurles and to their farm to learn more about Irish country life and the history of Tipperary.
RETURN TO EDUCATION
When her last child Michael started in university, Mary decided it was time to go back to education. Remarkably she did several diplomas and degrees in the years that followed while also holding down for almost a decade, a full time job with the VEC. She started by attending what was then called Tipperary Institute where she commenced a business Diploma and she completed this at the Institute of Public Administration where she graduated with a degree in Business Marketing. Work experience, while doing the Business Diploma in TI, was mandatory so Mary got went to work for the VEC, and soon became a valuable and hardworking employee. She did a Higher Diploma in Education Literacy Development (Management) between 2003-6 and started to work as a Community Education Manager , coordinating literacy courses for several local VEC schools and colleges.
Her second last son James was at this point getting married so once again houses were swapped and Mary and Jim moved back to their original home at the entrance to the farm and their son took over the farm business. Mary headed out to work every day and once again her creative side empowered and informed her work as she introduced art into the programmes for teaching literacy. I comment, yet again, this was highly innovative. Mary agrees but recalled how, as a child, she would remember things and learn things by association with an image or a drawing she had done, so she could see and understand how this would help people develop educationally and of course socially. It all seemed to add up like a perfect jigsaw puzzle.
BAVA (Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts) DIT Sherkin Island
About nine years into her job with the VEC, someone mentioned to Mary at a drawing class at the National Gallery of Ireland , that she would really enjoy doing the Visual Arts degree offered at Sherkin Island. Mary was allowed flexibility by the VEC to study part time for this second degree and so she made the decision to go ahead with it. So for the first two years, of the four year degree for a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts, Mary studied and worked part time before she retired from the VEC to concentrate fully on finishing her degree and focusing completely on her artistic career.
Mary never really stops leaning and enhancing her practice. She regularly attends the Slade Summer School, part of the University of London, where practicing artists go to meet like minded artists and upgrade their skills through practice. She also goes to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig where she enjoys the company or other writers and artists. Mary regrets there is not a more active art scene in the midlands for people to get together for this type of art practice. She contrasts this with places like Sligo where there is a dynamic art community. I mention it may be because the midlands and Tipperary in particular are farming communities and this would perhaps lessen the awareness and interest there might otherwise be in artistic pursuits?. That said, Mary tells me how grateful she was for Thurles Art Circle, which she and Jim joined in the early 70s and she specifically mentions the role of Tom Holmes and Enda McCann and the importance of having these people around then to stimulate and encourage their creative interests at that time. Jim was one of the founder members of Thurles Camera Club.
SKETCH BOOKS & INFLUENCES
As my son Don has come to the interview with me, as he often does, we complete our chat by involving him more directly and Mary explains to him that she makes her own charcoal and even some of her own paints.
She shows Don some of her beautiful sketchbooks and we can’t help being awed by their detail and the obvious talent behind each sketch or painting or note she has kept. I suggest she should keep them very safe for posterity as they are works of art in themselves.
I ask about other artists who have influenced her work and she mentions Jack B Yeats as her consistent favorite but also Alberto Giacometti and William Kentridge. She holds a special place for Brian Friel (whom I was privileged to meet personally when doing my PhD) and in particular his famous play ‘Philadelphia here I Come’. A story about emigration – something the Irish have experienced for decades since the famine in the 1840s , this play is also a narrative about how we see and interpret other people’s behaviors and emotions – in particular those who are close to us. It is the critical relationship between Father and son Friel explores in this work and the play suggests their communication may not ‘reflect’ the love shared between them. (Another interesting verb, ‘to reflect’, the origin of which is derived from light hitting the earth with the resulting throw back of colours).
I am so delighted we have one of Mary Finn’s work at Greenville Cottage, a piece inspired by the local bog and windmills – the ancient (the bog) and the modern (the windmills), majestically complimenting each other in one of her wonderful art pieces. A little like how the artistic gaze can incorporate both the interpretation of the observer and the perceived interpretation, by the observed. My guests always comment on it, I tell Mary.
Because of artists like Mary Finn we will look again at the colours that radiate from our local landscape, gaze just a little longer – so we can see things, even our own relationships perhaps, more clearly.