The Art of Phénoculture: Meeting Tanguy de Toulgoët

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Enjoying the sunshine in Tanguy’s garden

As I mentioned in the introduction to my blog, when I launched it last year, I had many unexpected ‘hurdles’, I suppose you could call them, to manage in our family life, over the past ten years or so – not all of them the easiest to bounce back from.  In the midst of these, in 2012/13, we spent months designing a large public garden project for the village of Killea that, unfortunately, failed to get LEADER funding in the end, as the EU resources had run out. This explains, perhaps, why the garden here at Greenville, and what to do with it, was put on the long finger.  We had planted apple trees and berry bushes, some years ago, which are producing successfully and both Seosamh and I have an interest and awareness of the principles of permaculture and biodiversity – but we just did not have the time until now to implement some of these here at Greenville.

Permaculture & Bio-Diversity

While these terms are now commonly used, they are words that describe systems long in use, in fact since the middle ages. The Wikipedia definition of Permaculture is  a system of agricultural and social design principles, centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems’. The term permaculture was developed and coined by David Holmgren, then a graduate student, and his professor, Bill Mollison, in 1978. Bio-diversity refers to the variety of life on earth – its biological diversity is commonly referred to as ‘biodiversity’. Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity, where each species, no matter how small  all have an important role to play.

Initial Consultation

Enter into the picture Tanguy  de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow. I was aware of Tanguy and his garden for some time so we made contact in April and invited him over to give us an initial consultation. This was probably the most important hour we spent this year, in terms of making changes to the grounds at Greenville.

Last Sunday I went back to his garden to interview Tanguy for my blog and take some photographs. We sat outside in the glorious afternoon sunshine (pictured above), sipping coffee and tasting his own (delicious) honey (below), and chatted about his life and his philosophy of horticulture.

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Delicious honey produced by Tanguy’s bees

Growing up in Paris

Tanguy was born in Paris, and has two sisters, one an artist and teacher still living in France, the other, who is multilingual, also settled in Ireland and lives nearby,  in Rathdowney. Tanguy tells me that when he was a young boy, he felt Paris was not right for him. He adored his time in the countryside, spent with his grandparents, all of whom, while working in Paris, had houses in the country and loved gardening. His paternal grandmother was a member of the French Alpine Society and would go to the Alps collecting plants for her garden. His maternal grandmother grew apples and walnuts, among other things, and had a more ‘old style’ garden in Périgord, in the south-west of France. So from the age of four or five working with his Grandparents started to shape his view of the world and indeed informed his gift and his passion for horticulture.

He also mentions that his Great Uncle was a very famous entomologist  (insect scientist) who traveled extensively and several insects he discovered are named after him – toulgoëti –  the family surname but with an ‘i’ at the end.

Phénoculture

Tanguy’s gardening technique is called Phénoculture – (using straw, hay, grass clippings or similar materials as a mulch to cover the ground where fruit, vegetables, flowers are gown). This layer of mulch protects the soil – which is fundamental to growing crops successfully.

Mainstream farming depletes the soil of so many nutrients – slurry spreading for instance, because it is so acidic, depletes the soil of worms who naturally aerate the soil and keep it moist – not to mention what slurry does to water supplies. Tanguy has a lot to say about water during the interview, which I will get to.

The method Tanguy uses hardly disrupts the earth at all. In many respects, he explains, it mimics the soil of a woodland forest – where the leaves protect the soil in spring and summer and when they fall, the bacteria in the soil, and the small creatures that live there, along with nitrogen, will naturally want to decompose the leaves, rather like a ‘digestive system’ he explains.   This resulting forest soil is rich in nutrients and excellent for growing plants. So the hay, straw, grass clippings, wood (wood can produce a type of ‘humus’ that can last up to 3000 years, he explains), that Tanguy uses, all protect the soil from UV rays, from dryness and allows the earth’s ‘digestive system’ as such, to work very efficiently.

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Beautiful potatoes growing just under the rich mulch

Moving to Ireland

An obvious question to ask Tanguy was why he moved to Ireland. France is such a stunning country, I comment, and their produce is so amazing. Just think of their food markets for instance. He explains that his sister, mentioned above, met a farmer from Rathdowney, who was visiting France, while she was working with the Charol Sheep Society. They married and she moved to Ireland and Tanguy and his wife Isabelle would come over because Isabelle is a keen and talented horse rider and Tanguy loved fly fishing – both of which they could do more easily in Ireland than in France. Eventually they too decided to move here and bought their home in Durrow.

Food for the Kitchen

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Sweet peas

Tanguy and Isabelle quickly got to work  developing a garden that supplies the family with almost all the fresh food they need. So no – he does not miss the great food markets of France – because his garden could stock one! Tanguy and Isabelle have two teenage daughters.  They don’t produce their food to sell, though they do sometimes take their honey to local markets. They produce food  for their own consumption, primarily. They make their own cider, mead, preserve many fruits they grow, make ketchup and chutneys. I understand their stir fries are on another level – given the freshness of the vegetables used. Several of the herbs and plants Tanguy grows are rare and many of the roses and flowers grown in the garden are also edible. I am hoping I may be able to arrange a class or two with Isabelle in her kitchen soon!.

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Edible roses

Water – A rapidly Depleting Resource

Our conversation goes back to water. Tanguy says that, in the past twenty two years, he has seen many changes to our lakes in Ireland, where he has been  fly fishing for many years. As water becomes polluted and scarce, fish life dies and Lough Derg and the other lakes on the Shannon, and more recently Lough Corrib in Galway are, in effect, now virtually dead as fishing lakes.  Lough Mask in Mayo is one of the last living lakes in Europe. In general there is not enough respect for water in Ireland, and bog depletion is also aggravating this situation.   His gardening method is geared to protect soil and keep it moist, and if you could see his garden, you would have little reason to question his logic and understand his concerns for our natural world and the damage we are doing to it.

 

Bee Keeping

Tanguy invites me back another day to talk more specifically about his bee keeping techniques. This is something he started only eight years ago. He went back to some of the principles of the Middle Ages to research the best bee-husbandry skills . It is called skep bee keeping. He does not spray for Varroa mite, for instance, a serious problem all bee keepers have to manage and one, even so called ‘ organic bee farmers’ spray against. Neither does he feed the bees extra sugar to encourage early egg laying. His honey, which we sample, is just delicious – totally different in taste to any I have eaten before. It cannot be certified organic however, because Tanguy does not have enough hectares of land to qualify – which makes little sense, given how simply and naturally he produces this product.

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Bee Hive at Dunmore Country School

Tanguy and Isabelle also use by-products from the hives such as wax, to make natural candles and Propolis ( a natural by product from bees that is an age-old antibiotic and antioxidant).

‘Just Covering the Soil’

Permaculture and biodiversity – these titles, explained above, are, I suggest to Tanguy,  ‘elaborate’ words, or theories, used to explain very old styles of horticulture. I ask Tanguy to explain, in his own words, what he does in the garden: His response:  ‘ Just covering the soil’ he says ‘ protecting the soil from sun, wind, and drying’.

Me in garden

Back in Greenville where we have started using this technique

I am so excited to see how things emerge at Greenville in the years to come. I fully expect to see a lot of hay and straw in our garden, and look forward to the many great fresh fruits and vegetables, we hope to produce – and of course to converting them into something delicious to eat and share in the kitchen.

Tanguy is, in the broadest sense, a horticultural genius with a sincere and genuine concern for how we manage our earth and protect it’s systems – some of which are frighteningly at risk of collapse, due to the stupidity of our own human practices.

Tanguy and Isabelle de Toulgoët
Swan road
Durrow
County Laois

tanguy@dunmorecountryschool.ie

Tanguy 087 1258002
Isabelle 086 0722183

Of its Place – Cashel Blue Cheese

Cashel blue.2.

Picture the scene: it is early 1980s in rural Tipperary, and Jane Grubb, the young wife of Louis Grubb, who has returned to his late Father’s Farm, in Fethard Co. Tipperary, to run the business and keep it alive, is standing at her kitchen table, experimenting with cheese making. The couple have just bought a herd of 90 dairy cows who are grazing the 200 acre farm at Beechmount. Jane has an interest in food and cheese making and has completed a cheese making course. From here starts the amazing story of how a small cottage business becomes an Internationally respected brand name, grown slowly and organically over several generations of the Grubb family.

1984 - J&L Grubb Ltd

Image from the 1980s :-  Jane Grubb piercing some of her first wheels of Cashel Blue. Sarah is the child in the foreground.

On a sunny May morning this week, we all travel down to the dairy in South Tipperary to meet Sarah Furno, Louis and Jane’s only daughter, who returned, in 2004, with her Italian husband Sergio, to run the family business. Both Sarah and her husband have extensive experience in wine tasting, which has added tremendous value to the maturing and tasting side of the Cashel Blue enterprise in recent years.

Sarah meets us with her 5 year old daughter Layla  (her other daughter Anna joins us later in the morning). Layla is the same age as Étienne and this will be her first time to go into where the cheese is being made, Sarah tells us. This is something I am sure Étienne will really appreciate, when he is a little older and we recall our special visit, as a family, to where Cashel Blue cheese is made.

The Family  Farm

When we meet Sarah she immediately wants to impart to us the importance of the ground we are standing on. This cheese making dairy , we are so privileged to be given a personal tour of, is situated on their family farm. It is of its place. It is a family run business, employing people  who are all from the local area ( a staff of 20 in total, their first  employee was Pat who was employed to help milk the cows in 1986, and still works with the family to this day).

It is clear to me that this fact, that we are standing on the family farm, the family ‘terroir’ (discussed again below) and the fact that their business, unlike so many others, has been saved from the ravages of industrialization, and is  steeped in community and reflective of their local place, is fundamental to  their enterprise, fundamental to their philosophy. This family and their  staff do not make a ‘commodity’ for the market, but rather a unique food product, with tested quality, strong tradition and a commitment to it’s local place of origin.

The Uniqueness of Sheeps’ Milk

We enter the reception area of the dairy where we are introduced to the 4 cheeses made at the dairy . Many of us are familiar with ‘Cashel Blue’, a soft blue cheese made from cow’s milk; ‘Cashel Blue Organic’, is the organic variety of this cheese; a sheep’s cheese called ‘Crozier Blue’ which is a semi soft cheese, another one of their prized products, and ‘Shepherd’s Store’, a semi hard cheese, also made from sheep’s milk.

sheep milking (photo R Grubb)

Milking the sheep

Sarah engages the boys by asking them if they can guess how many liters of milk it might take to make a kilo and a half of cheese? The boys are given  a cheese of this weight to hold and guess and Sarah goes on to tell them  that a sheep produces about 2 liters of milk a day; a goat about 4 liters;  a Buffalo about 7 and a cow on average about 27. So if we hold this chunk  of cheese in our hands (this particular one is made from sheep’s milk), we  have to think about the work that has gone into producing this.  It took a massive 14 liters of milk to make that kilo and a half of sheeps’ cheese!.

The moral of this story? Not many farm businesses make sheeps’ cheese in Europe to-day. It is a lot of work, it is expensive to produce and buy and as a result, has earned the justified title ‘liquid gold’ .

Our Special Visit

Life in the diary is busy, intense, especially in the morning as most of the cheese making for the day is completed by 1.30pm, so we are aware we are very lucky to be given this opportunity to actually see the process  happening. Not many do.

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Dressed for our visit!

Getting dressed to enter the factory is the first step, and we are given plastic covers for our clothes; hats for our hair  and plastic covers for our shoes. Étienne is a little overwhelmed and the  tears fall for a few moments before he is transported to another world of  cheese making.  I comment, in the mind of a child, it is like entering ‘Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory’. What we are about to see is  sooo…special.

In adult land there is a process to washing and disinfecting hands also, which we all do carefully.

 

The Cheese Making Process

We enter the production area then and Sarah shows us the huge vats where the milk is fermenting, at a specific temperature. The milk was delivered  earlier in the morning from their own farm and from other local farms. To this milk has been added a starter and then a plant based Rennet and  finally, essential for blue cheese making, a ‘mold’ called ‘Penicillium  roqueforti’. This, with the introduction of something all around us – air – will eventually produce the blue colour, texture and flavor we associate with this famous Cashel Blue cheese.

Bread, Beer and Cheese – Micro Organisms and their amazing Power

My readers will remember earlier blogs discussing the use of yeast in bread making and in beer making, and the role these agents play in creating the originality of the product. The air, as mentioned, is also  very important, as it too has natural agents that give the cheese, in this  instance, it’s distinctive characteristic.

The Process

What we are seeing, when we enter the main floor, are the large vats, and the process where the curd is being separated from the whey, and the ‘mold’  (which acts a bit like yeast in other food producing activities) has been added. The substance is stirred by hand using a  type of paddle and ‘cut’ using a “Cheese Harp” to facilitate the fermenting process, until it eventually forms a gel like substance on the top, the process taking  approximately 3 hours .

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Cheese-maker Pawel Noga, stirring the curds. We met this dedicated guy and saw him doing his work.

J&L Grubb Cashel Cheese Cashel Co Tipperary. Pic Sena curtin press 22.

Cheese ‘Harp’ cutting the curds

We see this work being done while Sarah allows us all to taste the curd and we note how sweet and gentle the flavor is. She points out the colour is slightly yellow, like Irish butter,  because the cows have been predominantly grass fed, on the lush grasses of  this part of rural Tipperary.

The meaning of the Word ‘Terroir’

All of the milk used in their cheeses come  from a defined locality. A specific place. This corresponds to the  classic winemaking concept of the ‘terroir’ as mentioned above. For Sarah a classic cheese  should, like a classic wine, be a reflection of the soil and climate and all the other environmental factors of the locality from which it comes.

Respect for Our Environment

At Cashel Blue care has been taken to use solar  and wind energy; care in purifying the waste-water they have used, and in the overall environmentally aware  approach they take to producing their beautiful products.

Several more key stages follow – the whey is drained from the curd and  the curd is put into moulds where it is ‘pressed’ (the  length of time will reflect whether it is a hard or a soft cheese. Hard  cheeses take longer to mould). When this process is complete the cheeses  are then washed in a salty brine that both preserves and gives flavor to the cheese. We see these brine containers also on our tour.

Piercing and Turning the Maturing Cheese

The next stage is ‘piercing’ the cheese (adding in holes in simple language!), and as we saw in the photograph from the 80s earlier, it is particular, and very essential to blue cheese making, using a specifically designed stainless steel instrument. This is to allow the air to do its critical work. Later Sarah explains to us that key to Cashel  Blue’s unique taste and flavor is the balance – it is not too strong, nor too spicy, in flavor. A stronger taste and a spicier flavor, would involve  more air being introduced and a harder curd (the curd being moulded for  longer) being used.

Storage rooms  called “caves” are named after family members, which I found so endearing and we are led into each to see all the racks of cheese which are maturing and then sorted for dispatch. Temperature is very cool to cold in these units, but Sarah hardly seems to notice.

The cheeses are ‘turned’ several times a day  in these ripening caves to ensure the right balance is emerging so that liquid in the cheese moves through the maturing product evenly. Sarah is central to this process and she oversees and inspects the cheese regularly during the 2-3 weeks they are in the caves, before being wrapped in special cheese foil for further maturing, for up to 4 months on the farm.

 

Walter turning cheese on roller racksPORTRAIT

Turning the cheeses on roller racks in the Ripening caves

Wrapping in Foil to Complete Maturation

As mentioned, next in the process the cheeses are wrapped in special cheese foils for storage in various storage units called maturing rooms. Each vat of cheese in storage is tasted several times along its path of maturation to follow the development of flavor and texture to just the right point. In all there are 65 thousand kilos of  cheese at the dairy on an average day. Much much more in the lead up to  Christmas.

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Cheese on racks in the final maturing stages which can take 4 months

Released to the market when they have been fully approved by Sarah and Sergio, Sarah explains the ‘aging’ is not to create ‘strength of  flavor’ but rather to create ‘balance’ of flavor. Cashel Blue for instance  is not a ‘sharp’ taste. It is a gentle, ’round’ taste, but with no  compromise on flavor. Hence its uniqueness. Balance is so important, she  reiterates – that is the point of difference, for Cashel Blue cheese.

They also hand cut the cheese and have all their own packaging equipment, so what you see and buy in the shops have been cut by the staff at the dairy.

A lot of their cheeses go directly to restaurants, Tesco and food suppliers, though they also have a growing International market shipping  to various parts of the world, including Britain, United States, Europe and  even Japan. The cheese, when ready for the market, has a 7 month shelf life.

Tipperary

What does Tipperary mean to Sarah, I ask?

‘Tipperary is home’ she says. ‘Tipperary for me is about the richness of the land – the pasture, hedgerows, trees, a strong connection to  agriculture, agriculture being the dominant income for a lot of people. Very few people you meet in Tipperary don’t have some connection to the land.  You can’t say that of every county in Ireland. Tourism does not come first. Agriculture comes first. Living from the land. What I particularly love  about this area where we live, we are close to Coolmore actually, and I  think they have added value to the land, in the same way with what we have  done here at Cashel – we have added value to the land – we have brought  something from here which has gained respect outside of its own region.

So  good land, stable community, where people do commute to maybe Dublin or Cork but comparative to other areas, people do try to stay in the area which gives that stability’.

How better to complete our tour of this Tipperary institution than with some cheese tasting before we head home.

Back in My Kitchen 

I have used Cashel Blue in a delicious winter pear dish that I first came across from Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa) . More recently I have  been using it in summer salads when barbecuing chicken or scallops. Even the rind, Sarah tells me, can be used, if mixed with butter and herbs and  plopped onto burgers or steak or into a soup, to add special flavor.

Cashel Blue is a story of how a business grown slowly and organically over time can have a huge reach. This is an institution, in the form of a family farm, we can be very proud to say is 100% Tipperary.

Sincere thanks to Sarah for making our visit so special and for several of the images used.


Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers
Beechmount, Fethard, County Tipperary,
Ireland
tel: +353 52 6131151
fax: +353 52 6131066
web: http://www.cashelblue.com
http://www.cashelblue.com
twitter: @cashelblue
facebook: /cashelblue

Alice Maher – Another Way of Seeing

Mermaid of KilcooleyAbbey

Photograph by John Finn, A.R.P.S Mermaid Carving at Kilcooley Abbey Thurles

On a sunny if cold Wednesday afternoon in late March 2018, Don and I sit in the Source Arts Centre cafe in Thurles, waiting to meet Alice Maher.

Don is going to record the interview.

It is such a beautiful building, a space so full of light, and yet on this particular day, I carry a heavy heart.

After the interview, we go to my sister and brother-in law’s home Mae and Michael Quinn,  outside Thurles, where my mother died, to meet family, as the following day, March 29th, will mark the six-month anniversary of her death.

I have an image in my mind as I sit there, ‘The Hunter’, one of the pieces from Alice’s 2016 exhibition, ‘The Glorious Maids of the Charnel House’. This piece intrigued me, indeed spoke to me in a very profound way: the image of the girl with her heart on her back, weighted down perhaps by so many hurts, losses, and challenges experienced in life, yet strong enough to carry those burdens, strong enough to keep going.

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The Hunter

Alice arrives and, in her warm and gregarious way, invites Don and I into the gallery space where her exhibition ‘Vox Materia’ opens the following evening.

I look at the sculptures in the centre of the room, displayed in a unit which Alice explains was specifically designed to showcase them and reflect the opening in the roof of the gallery above. I glance at the works hanging on the wall to the right as you enter the gallery – I want to save the full viewing for the following evening.

One side of the room remains empty – expressing Alice’s appreciation of space and absence, which this curation by Pluck Projects captures so well.

Vox Materia

I explain to Alice that I am not going to take the more conventional interview approach that starts with: ‘you grew up in Tipperary’ and ends with her life and work today.  I explain I want to start the other way around, with ‘Vox Materia’.

I have always been interested in the relationship between the individual and their creative work: be that a piece of academic writing; a novel; a poem; a culinary creation, or piece of art or sculpture. So an obvious place for me to start and an obvious question for me to ask Alice, is about the meaning of the title of the exhibition as it translates ‘ Material Voice’. Is Alice speaking through the material or are the materials speaking?.

She explains: “I am looking for the voice of the material which you can see in the wood cuts for instance, because I am allowing the wood and all the whirls and the swirls, and the mistakes to be part of the wood.

“I am not trying to cover them up. It is the same with the sculptures. I am just squeezing… it is very, not primal, but simple, to squeeze something between your hands and make art from it. So I am allowing the material to come through.”

For those who are going to see the works exhibited in Thurles, they were created using two ancient methods of art making.

The bronze pieces of sculpture began as lumps of wax shaped in the artist’s hands, transformed into bronze using the “lost-wax process” – a method of metal casting in which a molten metal is poured into a mould that has been created using the wax models, in this case, made by Alice’s hands Once the moulds are made, the wax model is melted and drained away (lost) to allow the metal to be poured in. The lost-wax method dates from the 3rd millennium BC and has sustained few changes since then.

The Woodcuts on the wall were printed using a variation of the earliest form of printing dating back to the 2nd Century A.D.  The process involves using woodblocks, which Alice has carved, with the image of the mermaid as the main motif, and she allows the grains and knots in the wood, that others consider imperfections, to remain on the blocks and therefore appear in the beautiful prints we see hanging in Thurles. (see image below)

Vox hybridae

Vox Hybrida 1

 

The Theme of the Lost Voice

This use of material is, of course, an integral part of Alice’s work as it has emerged over several decades – her desire not to distance herself from the things she works with, many sourced directly from nature, but instead to use the materials as essential to the art piece itself.

Another theme that emerges frequently in her work, and is at the core of the inspiration for the exhibition ‘Vox Materia’, is the theme of the lost voice.

Alice explains that she was in Thurles at the Source Arts Centre giving a lecture, some time back, when the Director, Brendan Maher, approached her about possibly holding an exhibition of her work at the Gallery.  She talks about her fascination with the amazing space the gallery in Thurles presents to the artist.

On this particular visit to Thurles, she also went out for an afternoon with her friend, Austin McQuinn, and he brought her to Kilcooley Abbey. Here, amid the various carvings on the stone walls, Alice discovers a mermaid: ‘I mean what is a mermaid doing in the middle of Tipperary? We are not even near the sea!’ she says.

In the beautifully produced programme that accompanies the exhibition, Dr. Austin McQuinn writes: “The medieval carving of a mermaid on the sacristy wall of Kilcooley Abbey near Thurles in Co. Tipperary shows the woman-fish with her technologies of becoming herself – her comb and her mirror. She faces us and faces her mirror towards us. A woman with her mirror has traditionally been interpreted as a sign of vanity and, therefore in a church context, sinful. Indeed, unless the woman on the wall/altar/niche of a church is a virgin then she is there most likely to illustrate how deceitful and threatening the female sex can be. A mirror wielded by a woman is a weapon for male destruction. However there is another way of looking at the mermaid.

“As a hybrid creature with a hybrid name, the mermaid’s tools of mirror and comb become her technologies. She becomes extended by her objects which empower her to control how she will be perceived and how to perceive her world. As a creature of fiction she becomes a cyborg, a hybrid of body and technology, flesh and machines for looking and being.” (pp 24)

Of course the mermaid, as a hybrid or a cyborg… as a mythical female figure, intrigues Alice and from here starts to emerge the idea for her latest body of works.

Alice tells me : “I quote the image of the mermaid….I don’t know if you know the original Grimm’s fairy tale story – it has been sanitised into a Disney beauty thing – but the original story was about the little mermaid who gave up her voice, her tongue was taken from her and to become human, to get a soul and become more human, she had to give up her voice. So I am speaking really to that loss of voice that I have found perhaps, in society, when it comes to, for instance, the female voice, which isn’t heard.”

I recall and mention an earlier work by Alice, ‘Cassandra’s Necklace’, which illustrates powerfully this idea of having one’s tongue taken from you, and wearing it as a necklace by way of protest perhaps, or symbolically, as testament to that violation of feeling you are unable to speak. I comment that this theme has been there for many years in her works.

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Cassandra’s Necklace: Film Still

“I would say, Denise, that was an emerging theme through my life, rather than me projecting that theme on to my work,” Alice responds.

“It is important to say that to people – that as an artist, you don’t come up with a theme, the theme comes through you … It is what you’re interested in! The theme comes through you and you distill it and work with it. If you want to make art out of it, the art has to speak to some type of universal theme. It can’t just be about yourself – that is therapy. If you want it to be art, to be something more than that, it has to have a universal voice, universal appeal.”

So ‘Vox Materia’ is a revisiting of several key elements in the work of Alice Maher to date: her fascinating use of materials; Anthropomorphism and hybridity, as it emerged in several works such as the ‘Glorious Maid of the Charnel House’ and again in this exhibition; her interest in voice, or loss of voice.

These elements, among others, force us to think of how change occurs, or not, as the case may be, of metamorphoses, of hybridity in society. I mention that her works are startling in many respects, they jar us into seeing something differently and thinking in an alternative way.

Subverting or Accentuating Oppositions

This leads me to a question that Alice tells me no one had ever asked her before.

I know from following her career and hearing her interviewed that she sees her work as subverting oppositions, or challenging them, and yet I wonder might it also accentuate them?

With a background in anthropology, I would perhaps think of culture as being the product of social practice, of people engaging in different social spheres, their lives and actions expressions of multiple factors: social class, location, gender, age, position.

So when Alice produced her stunning body of drawings (The Thicket 1990) and made the girl the protagonist ‘the creator of culture’, might this have accentuated an opposition rather than subvert it, I wondered?

seed girl

From The Thicket : ‘Seed Girl’

Alice is very clear to explain to me that this is not her intention and not what she sees her work as being about or accentuating: “Most people accept that the female voice and female way of looking has actually been sidelined in general culture,” she explains.

“If you look at art, for instance, the female image in art is usually used to symbolise something else, rather that herself or her ideas or what she wants to do with her body. Usually her body is used as a naked thing, to be gazed upon and projected upon – that is how it has been used in culture for centuries.”

I take this on board and Alice eloquently elaborates on the point, so I am in no doubt as to what she is trying to achieve with her work:

“I am looking for another way of seeing other than exploitative, other than projecting onto somebody else your own desires, is there another way of seeing where you can accept the whole world as an entangled web – the vegetation, the animals, machines, the people, the architecture, everything. I am not separating. Western culture has separated us from nature and said we are dominant over nature, and we read this in all our Creation myths like the bible for instance. That says we are supposedly dominant over nature – they are there to serve us. I would be completely in opposition to that and say we all exist as part of the universe.”

This reminds me of other key moments in her career.

Her amazing use of brambles in the piece of sculpture she made for the exhibition ‘In a State’, ‘Cell’, in Kilmainham in 1991 is exemplary in this regard. She felt strongly that the only way she could express the experience of incarceration, which was explored in this exhibition, was to make something in the cell.

So she worked on a small ball of brambles she had at home and brought it to the cell, enlarging it to capture this sometimes unexpressed, maybe even unspeakable, experience.

Cell-High

Cell

Tipperary, the Well and the Landscape

I have asked some of the artists I have interviewed for my blog what Tipperary means to them. It is an obvious question for me and an obvious one to ask Alice.

I know she grew up in Kilmoyler, Cahir, on a small farm, not dissimilar to my own upbringing, where day to day life was not always rosy.

“The bad weather, cattle, mud, thinning turnips – there was no room for sentiment,” Alice explains.

I talk a little about an essay I had read that morning in a book from 2000, ‘A Sense of Place’ edited by Roslyn Dee and Gerry Sandford, where she reflects on her early life and of the well (St. Pecaun’s) close to her home that she frequently visited as a child and teenager.

She talks in the essay about how, when her own mother was dying, having suffered from a long illness, she and other family members were often asked by their mother, to go to the well to get water, and bring it back to her.

This is poignant for me as I recall the last week of my mother’s life and how often she asked us for water to moisten her lips. Then when they put my mother on the morphine drip we were told she could not have water. This was a painful experience, a painful memory, and I suggest to Alice it was an unnatural state for anyone to be put in.

We continue to explore the theme of Tipperary. Alice says:

“Tipperary is inside me all the time. Your childhood landscape, the landscape that you opened your eyes upon is the shape that stays with you all your life, like the mountain that was in front of me, the tree and the bush, the things I saw around me – they are the eternal shapes, no matter what I see – you internalize that landscape… No matter where you go that is your beginning landscape”.

Tipperary therefore, I suggest, has informed her artistic vision and she agrees but adds: “Not in a sentimental way…”

If someone asks, ‘Oh you lived in a lovely landscape, why don’t you do landscape painting?’, Alice would respond that she has no interest in making a picture of a landscape, because it distances the artist from their source of inspiration. She makes art from the landscape, like another key piece of hers from 1994, ‘The Nettle Jacket’, which, as is obvious from the title, is a jacket made with nettles.

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Nettle Jacket

The Arts and the Curriculum

My final question to Alice is also one I have explored in this blog with other people I have interviewed, though I may have come to the question with Alice in a meandering way, reflective of the way I was feeling this particular afternoon and because of a debate I was recently involved with, as part of the ‘Finding a Voice’ programme in Clonmel earlier in the month, ‘Arts and the Woman’.

I explain I am interested in the educational process and in the curriculum and why, in Ireland, the curriculum is so slow to change and adapt and why, even more specifically, the Arts still seem to be so undervalued in school.

This leads me into another related question, in that I sometimes think it is women in the Arts, who have a platform to talk about these issues, who perhaps do not engage as much with this subject as they could, because their focus is more specifically on feminist issues.

Alice does not understand why advocacy for ‘equality’ would lessen or deflect from advocacy for the Arts in school.

“Are you trying to say that because some women artists are advocating for equality that they are neglecting education – is that you point?,” she asks.

I respond that it appears to me that women in the Arts are more vocal about equality than women in other sectors. At the heart of my question is my concern that there is not enough scrutiny of the curriculum, encouragement of change, and more choice available to children to follow artistic careers and learn more about life through a broad appreciation of the Arts and how creativity can enhance all areas of life.

This is something Alice tells me she has advocated for and she subsequently forwards me a wonderful paper she gave in 2017, entitled ‘Workshop of the Mind’, that addresses these very issues. I quote from that paper a key paragraph that expresses Alice’s views on this subject:

“We have got to seriously re-think how we promote and value Art as a subject within the school curriculum, a living subject that has immediate and lasting and HISTORIC relevance. You have to fight for this within your schools…by NOT taking second class status, by NOT becoming the safe-space or the therapy room, or the room you go to for a break from life. Art touches and overlaps with ALL subjects, English, History, Science, Spanish, French… Art is a uniting language in all these subjects and teachers should be seeking ways to collaborate with other subjects in an effort to weave their subject into the essential fabric of a rounded education. Come out of your cocoon of otherness and into the tough world of life skills and communication.”

A Need for Philosophy

When Alice talked about the importance of philosophy and how this could be such an invaluable subject to introduce into the secondary school curriculum, I fully agree.

She elaborates: “People within the arts have a platform to work on opinion and philosophy. I am hoping that people in other sectors are interested in equality and are working for equality. I would hope so. And in education. Yes, it is slow. But I don’t think to work for equality in one sector is neglecting some other sector – I don’t think art is being neglected for children, if, for instance, I am advocating equality… Are you asking me if I am neglecting education in favor of equality?”

I reiterate my concern that I do feel some issues are not debated enough and that I am not directing my question solely to Alice but asking her views on this in a more general way.

Alice mentions that, in secondary level schooling, choices are even more restrictive in contrast to the ‘freedom’ of primary school.

Again, I might question this, as frequently, at Primary level, the main focus, other than the ‘core’ subjects of Irish, English, Maths, History and Geography, is usually sport, which is very important, obviously, or traditional music as an extra curricular activity, and both have their place – but may still exclude children not interested or talented in these areas. All children would benefit from a broader incorporation of artistic pursuits into the overall educational experience.

Becoming – IMMA 2012

When I went with my family to see ‘Becoming’, the mid-career retrospective of Alice Maher in 2012 at IMMA ( which was held in Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin), it took me some time to comprehend the work.

But I could not help being overwhelmed by the uniqueness of it, by how it all seemed to make sense, and express a vision only Alice Maher could express. It captured her experiences and life in Ireland, while still being on that broader universal stage she and I talked about at the start of the interview, where art represents something bigger than one’s individual experiences.

“It is an expression of the way I experienced society in this country. I don’t know how to verbalise on that. When I looked back and saw it in the Retrospective at IMMA… that it was a language. I could see a language true to something.”

Opening Night, Source Arts Centre, March 29th 2018

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I was proud to bring my family to the opening of Alice’s exhibition last Thursday night, March 29th, at Thurles Source Arts Centre. My three boys will remember it, and my eldest son, Don, having sat with me through the interview with Alice, should have no doubts in his mind, that for him to follow his creative interests is a matter of equality, part of a holistic education.

There is more need for debate and discussion of the role of the Arts and philosophy in an Ireland where these subjects are still undervalued in education, and presented in a very narrow way right through the primary and secondary levels.

The important thing is that, because of people like Alice Maher, these issues can be discussed more openly, with a view to bringing about positive change, change that will benefit all involved.

I found both the preparation for this blog and the work I have done since our meeting last week have altered my own way of thinking and seeing the world. I thank Alice for that.

‘Vox Materia’ will run at Thurles Source Arts Centre until May 5th and will travel to the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, from September 7th – November 15th 2018.