ART 250 Kerry on Saturday night gave me the perfect excuse to finally check out Noelle Campbell-Sharp’s visionary Cill Rialaig artist’s retreat, way out on the edge of Europe, in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry. I had been planning on doing this for a long time, having gazed so often at the video of the rural idyll in her Urban Retreat Gallery on Dublin’s Grand Canal Quay, and heard of it from the artists who exhibit there. What a dream-project! But the thing about the amazing Noelle Campbell-Sharp is that she has turned the dream into a reality. Seeing the reality of the wonderful project she has created out on spectacular Bolus Head is believing. Like the mighty Atlantic itself though, it’s hard to capture the scope and scale of it in words, or within the frame of a photograph. So these are only tiny corners of it… You’ll have to imagine the rest – or go visit!
2,500 international artists so far have enjoyed residencies in these restored cottages, which were once a functioning village before they were abandoned in famine times. Resurrected since 1991, now these little homesteads are once again hives of concentrated activity. But in this incarnation, the activity is creation, as their inhabitants either drink in the landscape around them, or as Julie Strasheim from Colorado was doing when we called in to see her - work studiously on a planned project. Coincidentally for me, as I am heading off to Darjeeling very soon, Julie was studiously ignoring the stupendous County Kerry landscape to paint Rajasthani musicians. The portraits are earmarked to raise money for schools in Rajasthan. Julie also had Hindi books out on the couch in her cottage – getting ‘in the zone’ of her paintings, she was learning the language with a view to visiting India at the next opportunity.
A lot of the artists – like Italian sculptor Giancarlo Scapin on this particular day - go out wandering around the magnificent Bolus Head for inspiration. Knocking on a few more doors we found Spanish artist Mercedes Paz Esparza (from Seville) at work with her daughter, Clara, in a cottage she had made cosy with the aromas of home-cooking. Mercedes, who is also a champion parachutist, was working on series of Modigliani-style women.
In the meantime a freelance photographer pulled up to take some dramatic shots of Una Kavanagh, www.unakavanagh.ie (who had come down with me from the big smoke, or should I say, the “Fair City” to load up on some Cill Rialaig inspiration). Here she is, with her ART 250 painting at the edge of the vertiginous cliff directly across the road from the cottages with its breathtaking, backdrop out across the bay.
Having discovered the village and its history, involving seanachai Sheain Ui Chonaill, who lived there in the 1920’s, that evening we went to the launch of ART 250 Kerry at the Cill Rialaig Project’s Ballinskelligs Art Café and Art Centre. We dined on Ivor O’Connor’s fine cuisine, and tried to guess who the anonymous paintings were by. We knew there was a Hughie O’Donoghue – he was in the room with his wife Clare and daughter Katy, who works for the project; a Martin FInnin; a Barrie Cooke; a Giancarlo Scapin; a Susan Morley (also there, www.susanmorley.ie) and more among them. Oh and a Donovan. Local singer Clare Horgan (www.clarehorgan.com), regaled us in her bluesy voice – prompting me to get a copy of her CD “The Stolen Child”. The singing continued in Rosie’s Pub, where we took out Clare’s songbook and all had a go. Clare kindly helped me get a party-piece together for my cousin’s forthcoming wedding in Darjeeling, and had us all rehearsing “Will you go Lassie, go” with the song-sheet. So – from Ballinskelligs to the foothills of the Himalaya’s. But not without a visceral jaunt to the mighty Skellig Michael beforehand – which is all part of the Cill Rialaig experience if you ask me. More of that anon…