It is the Tuesday after the June Bank Holiday weekend 2019. I am sitting at my desk at Greenville with an old scrapbook beside me, full of paper cuttings. I am looking at one particular feature, from the Irish Examiner, dated Tuesday September 12th, 2000. It is a photograph of myself, Maura Collins and Kate Dwyer. We are sitting in a huge willow sculpture, one of the art pieces exhibited as part of the weekend celebrations Céiliúradh Thiobriad Árann, at the then named ‘Tipperary Rural & Business Development Institute’. I was one of the main organisers and the art exhibition that was part of the event was of much importance to me. The piece we are sitting in was made by Greenmantle. This was when I first met Lynn Kirkham.
Push the clock forward and nineteen years later, myself, my husband and our three sons, make the short journey up to Bohernaruda, Killea, on the June bank holiday Sunday, to meet Lynn at her home, to interview her for my blog. It is a cliché to say ‘where does time go’ but I am lost for alternative words here.
‘So where do we begin Lynn?’ I ask. ‘I don’t know much about your early years so maybe we start there’.
Lynn was born in Manchester England in 1965 and moved, at an early age, with her family, to a suburb in Lancashire. Her Mother was a school teacher and her Father worked in the UK police force. She tells me she was always ‘totally artistic’ and that her Mother still has a basket she made when she was 12 years old in Primary School. Her parents were keen their children pursue an education, but Lynn tells me she did not like school. In fact, she was suspended at the age of 16 for having dyed her hair purple!
She did manage to get an A level in Art though and she was able to do two extra subjects at O levels which she really loved and was good at – needle work and Classical Studies. These subjects were an option for those who did not want to study pure language – Latin, German and French. Incredible really, how difficult it was, and still remains, to access ‘creative’ subjects at Secondary school level.
After Secondary school Lynn went to a local Art College to do a Foundation course. She wanted to be a painter. ‘I thought I would be the next Picasso’ she says. ‘I was determined I was going to be this great painter’.
Her teachers told Lynn her 3-d work was stronger than her 2-d work – but she remained determined to study painting. So instead of applying for a Multimedia degree, as she was advised, she applied instead to study painting in two of the best art colleges in England at the time – Canterbury in Kent and Falmouth in Cornwall. ‘But I didn’t get a place’ she explains. ‘My folio was rubbish – I just wasn’t a painter’. I comment I like her drawings and sketches like the one below:
Her application was then put into a pool for offers and she got allocated a place for Solihull Art College, outside of Birmingham. She vividly recalls the day she arrived there, ‘lugging my portfolio up a rundown industrial back street. The college was in a derelict building, typical of art colleges in those days. I looked around and lugged my portfolio back to the train. I knew I did not want to live there for the next three years’.
Working with Horses
When she did not get into Art college, she applied for a job doing pony trekking for that summer and spent the next seven years working with horses, moving from job to job. ‘I loved horses, loved animals’ Lynn tells me. But she never stopped being creative. ‘I was always still making stuff, painting, making presents and doing art here and there. Even with the horses, I was best at platting their hair, or making special brow bands in special colours and matching this and that…it was all an art form in its own way’.
Moving to London
Lynn had an accident that cataclysmically ended her career with horses when she fell from a lorry and badly broke her shoulder. Around this time she met Paul Finch, a Londoner, who was working in the city for a pre-cast stone company, casting stone for restoration. Paul had a degree in furniture making. Lynn moved to London and Paul encouraged her to find courses to take. ‘I was eligible for Adult Education classes that only cost £6 a term if you were unemployed’ she tells me,’ which I was at the time’.
She was fortunate she took this route because she found really good teachers. ‘I started doing basket making classes. I did four basket making classes a week and a full day and a half of sculpture classes’. It was her basket-making teacher who encouraged her to apply to the London School of Furniture to study basketry.
Her sculpture teacher, equally supportive and recognising her skills, organised an outdoor exhibition and invited Lynn to make a piece for it. Lynn made a full-size stag out of willow, growing in a grow bag.
‘It went into the exhibition and sold and from there I started to get commissions’ she explains. ‘So even while I was at college doing basketry at London CF, I was getting the odd commission and had started some work demonstrating and teaching’. ‘I loved basket-making and willows from the start. Willow is a fully sustainable material that can be grown easily or harvested from the hedgerows. When I combined my newfound basketry skills with my sculptural ability, it opened a whole new world for me and enabled me to connect with nature and plants even when living in the city’.
‘I think I was a changeling, swapped in the cot’
A key decision had to be made when Lynn was offered an artist residency at Ness Gardens on the Wirral in Lancashire. She turned it down because she and Paul had decided they wanted to move to Ireland. ‘I think I was a changeling swapped in the cot’ she tells me, ‘because I always had this massive romantic love of Ireland’.
Many of Lynn’s friends in England would have been first generation, born in England of Irish parents, and while this generation were shunning Irish culture and were more ‘into’ electronic music and pop, they would still listen to rebel songs and go to Irish pubs, and then back to sessions at houses and Lynn just loved this world, this culture and felt part of it and it’s music from a very early age. She always had a dream to come to Ireland and had read old Irish mythology that influences her work.
So in the summer of 1994 Lynn and Paul came to Ireland and spent four months travelling around in a camper van – volunteering on farms etc. ‘I had brought some willows with me so I could make a few things on the road’ Lynn says. ‘I was teaching Paul how to weave baskets that summer, but he had to practice using brambles, as my willow was too scarce and precious’ she laughs. They had a wonderful summer working, making baskets, hay saving, sea fishing and flying kites and they made important connections in the art and craft worlds.
They went back to England to save so they could return to Ireland and buy a place here to live. ‘I helped to save up to buy this place by repairing imported baskets in a warehouse that was a massive importer of baskets in London’ Lynn tells me. The owner paid a good hourly rate, so this helped contribute to their fund so they could relocate to Ireland.
11th May 1996
“We moved to Ireland with just a few thousand pounds to our names and spent nearly all of it buying the house” Lynn continues. Originally they thought they might settle in Longford, Roscommon or Leitrim. ‘We had friends in Drum who told us about a house in Killea that was for sale and they introduced us to Mary Nolan (neé Shelly) who was selling it . Lynn recalls that she loved the house the minute she saw it: ‘It was totally derelict, cows in it…but we bought it and moved to Killea on the 11th May 1996’.
Interior Design Projects
Lynn and Paul collaborated as Greenmantle for several years, mixing their materials, willow, wood, metal work, glass, mosaics. During the time they made some pieces for me, when I was designing the interior of The Business, my shop in Nenagh and completing the restoration at Greenville Killough. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted. The counter below is our kitchen coffee counter made of tile and mirror.
And this next image below, taken by Tom Doherty, was from a promotion feature in ‘Image Magazine’ in 2005 about my shop. This counter was made using glass and local wood and was exceptionally beautiful. My customers always commented on it. After my shop closed I kept it in storage for years and we only reinstalled it into the reception room here at Greenville in 2018.
Lynn explains about her collaborative work with Paul that ‘we were always diversifying and using fresh ideas and materials. We were always up-skilling, all the time’. ‘We could be arrogant about our strategy back then’ Lynn explains. ‘We used to joke that we only made nice things, for nice people’ she laughs.
Showcase, RDS Dublin
Lynn tells me Greenmantle were congratulated in 1998, when they took a stand at the prominent Arts & Crafts trade fair at the RDS in Dublin ‘Showcase’, for having the only unique product at the event that year. ‘I was making dragons and castles and horses and we had funky furniture with willow, and the Press came on board and the Crafts Council. We got some TV coverage – it was great’.
The Gallery World has never attracted Lynn because, she feels, the huge mark-up some Galleries take puts the work out of the range of the client. Lynn says she always tries to sell direct to the client or make work to order or take commissions, to avoid this.
Lynn’s own work has never been static. There were so few artists doing original work with willow when she moved to Ireland and only a few doing experimental work with basketry. There were phases in her career when she was doing big willow sculptures ; other times doing interior works and working for designers and architects – furniture and lighting projects – and other periods working on larger public sculptures. Her work has evolved to include bronze casting, working with scrap metal, welding and bogwood sculpture.
Among some of her most famous pieces are ‘Ghost Horses’ – the opening image I use in this blog. And pictured below are
Fionn McCumhaille & his Hounds
And for Kildare Co Co ‘Bo Bainne’ created for Fermoy Teagasc.
Over the years Lynn has been involved in several community art projects . ‘I was really, at one time, a grassroots community artist. I would go in anywhere and do art projects with any community group, under any circumstances really – some of which were quite challenging’.
‘Art in the Park’ was funded by North Tipperary Arts Office and took place in Templemore Town Park between 1999 and 2005. It was a children’s project, where Greenmantle collaborated, each year, with an artist from a different discipline. The programme included puppetry, drama, music, storytelling and dance. There were, on average, 40 participants each year and on the final day a performance would take place in the Park that attracted huge numbers. Lynn elaborates – ‘if you work with one child you reach the extended family’.
Teaching to Make Ends Meet
It hasn’t all been easy of course. The Celtic Tiger and the crash that followed brought its own challenges, as it did for so many of us and for an artist like Lynn, her hands are her livelihood.
Fortunately she is also great teacher of her art. Lynn feels it is important to emphasise that: ‘teaching is and always was and will be the mainstay of many living artists. You can get a day rate for teaching, but you can’t always get that for your own art. Sometimes the day rate for your art is really poor’. So to make ends meet financially, Lynn has developed her skill as a teacher over the years -teaching arts and crafts classes, and continuing to work in the arena of community arts. She loves working with children, encouraging them to use their imagination and creativity.
I ask her to explain to me the essence of community arts: ‘It is about nurturing a group through the whole process from idea to fruition and all the stages with the people and that is just totally different from giving them a recipe and telling them how to do it’. Community arts take huge commitment and energy. ‘What I make with the community is not necessarily what I would make myself’ she explains.
At this stage in her career she has worked with schools for over 25 years now – working in a wide range of media. One of her most recent community projects, which she facilitated, had over 100 people involved in the painting of a giant mural in Thurles town park, working through Refresh Thurles.
Ultimately she loves making the art pieces that express her own unique vision. Sometimes, like community arts, some of the bigger sculptures she has designed have had to involve others, sometimes even a team to bring to life, given the size and scale of the project brief. ‘The second you involve another person in the creation of your art work, even if it is a welder or an engineer or someone, it can feel like community art because you have to let go of your total attachment, your total control and vision – because someone else has got their hands on it. That is really hard’ .
The GreenMantle – A lifestyle, not a way of making a living
Lynn is multi skilled – her ability to invent and experiment and create something new by way of basketry or sculpture; her teaching and working with community; her love of animals and music.
She is also a talented gardener and has established, at her home in Killea, now called ‘The GreenMantle’ a facility with food gardening, animals and the workshops that she wants to continue to develop and share with people. ‘You can’t separate any of it’ Lynn tells me. I fully agree.
Our chat at her kitchen table comes to a close and we walk outside the house to get a quick photo together. You can see, in the image below, how beautiful the garden is and how the house has evolved since the earlier photograph above that was taken in 1996.
Lynn asks me how I am doing since my brother Tim’s death last summer. She tells me she thinks of him every time she sees a black jeep with a trailer behind it on the Killea roads. With the anniversary of his death looming, I have to admit to her it is still very raw and very painful as we think back on this time last year, his last weeks on earth. But we smile as we recall a few good nights (when I was younger and wilder!) when we would all meet up at O Sullivan’s pub in Killea village, and the craic, as they say, was mighty.
Lynn’s garden captures much of who she is as a person. Her interest in basketmaking is present because she is growing things connected to her work and creating natural fences and structures with her willow. She grows her own food which she says is so important to her. ‘Fresh food from the garden is fundamental to my entire lifestyle’ she explains.
Her home, her art, her vision – are all inspired by the people, the animals, the garden, the world around her …’1000 feet up on a North facing slope’. In Bohernaruda, Killea.
‘It is a lifestyle, not a way of making a living…….’. We should all take a leaf out of that particular holistic book.