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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.