Interview with Fiona Kelly by Sarah Long

Fiona Kelly is drawn to the metamorphosis of territory, both urban and rural, in an age of environmental crisis. She examines questions surrounding the human ‘exploration’ of landscape, understood as both a relationship with nature and an extractivist approach to natural resources. Specifically, her research into wasteland and abandoned spaces addresses themes of ecology and society. For more information on the artist’s work visit http://www.fionakelly.co or @freerangedfiona

Your work is concerned with the landscape and the environment but it is far from bucolic. The relationship between the man-made and the natural combine in your work in a way that feels very relevant to the situation Ireland finds itself in today. Are the sites that inform your work real or imaginary?

I have always been informed by the situation and spaces that surround me, so the majority of sites and imagery I reference are real spaces. Although, more recently I do tend to meander away from reality, which is where most have been privy to his past while I suppose.

Walking is a key element to my research, and happenstance encounters through urban derives and meanderings are often how an idea occurs. In my earlier relief printmaking work I was documenting actual spaces, drawing on the legacy of the populist medium to narrate contemporary fables- stories with a moral code. These spaces were abandoned “boom time” structures and I loved how nature had taken hold, trying to disguise our humanistic discrepancies or failures within the landscape.

Your work makes me think of critic and architect Sam Jacob’s remark ‘for every Empire State there is an Empire Void’. Is the use of dust and debris materials in your work a contemplation on what is lost or a commentary on the metamorphic abilities of our environment?

Yes! I became fascinated with Dust during my MA at the Crawford College and actually wrote my thesis on the substance. I came across an archaic English word, Dustscewung, initially from a Robert MacFarland tweet, and then it reoccurred through ongoing reading, reappearing again and again. Dustscewung directly translates to “a Contemplation of what has been lost & the transience of things” albeit, not in a biblical sense but as a direct reference to humanistic structures. Building and unbuilding. Time and ruination.

It is funny how we think ourselves as higher than anything that has come before us, with our unwavering technological advances “we know all and see all” but in reality, the generations that came before us were much more succinct with reality and our lived environment. We can learn so much from the past, but it appears we keep making the same humanistic mistakes, over and over.

Take Horgan’s Quay for example, really what is it? An empty space that no one needs and no one asked for, when so many are crying out for affordable housing what do we get but another white elephant. Someone please explain this to me?

Can you talk us through your process? I am interested in how you develop your ideas in the studio and how they begin to take shape. Your work can take a variety of different forms, from sculpture, to print and text and I was wondering at what stage in your process you begin to make these decisions?

To be honest, the idea, or the story, always dictates the medium that is formed. If I want to talk to debris, what better medium to create than from debris itself? If one needs a succinct image that tells a story quickly- what better than the medium of printmaking- a populist medium of the people, for the people? If you want a statement of economic hubris- what better than a billboard, advertising all the pseudo crap you think you need, or don’t feel valid as a human in contemporary , shiny, society without. I could go on, but I think we all know by now. I don’t really know, and isn’t that the beauty of artistic expression?!

Time is an important concern in your work and you often stress that you are a ‘slow maker’. I am interested in how you experienced time during the pandemic and what effect it had on your practice.

The pandemic was hard, wasn’t it? And it is still an ongoing living reality.

Making work with a mask on and glasses is hard, but not making work in the studio is harder. Even as a self-proclaimed “slow maker” not being able to make work was heart-breaking. I like to mull over an idea, but then I execute it quite quickly. My partner – the extraordinarily talented Peter Nash and I share a one-bed flat, and he draws, every, single, day. He worked during lockdown on our one desk and I wanted to support that, he could work and it was beautiful. But I felt frozen, in limbo, so many things were happening for me pre-lockdown, but those projects needed massive saws and specialist equipment. I was in the middle of something I felt important and couldn’t move forward.

But it was ok. We got through it. Our families were safe and strong and I’m finally getting to finish what I started. So many other amazing things happened. I got Arts Council funding, so I can finish my project with support, employ super talented, sound people, that will make everything exponentially better than I ever imagined. I got a job- my dream job, lecturing at The Crawford College of Art & Design- where I am inspired and (hopefully) inspiring fledgling artists, passing on my skills & knowledge alongside an amazing team whom I learn from every day. Out of all this, there has been so much to be thankful for.

Continuing on from this idea of being a ‘slow maker’; as an emerging artist, I’m interested in how you manage your process in relation to deadlines and exhibitions?

There is constant pressure to produce, and as an artist, it’s a constant, constant. I am forever battling between the pace I make work, and external deadline orientated structures of projects and exhibitions.

The best advice I have gotten in years is from the ever-amazing Dawn Williams, she told me, with fervour, it’s ok- it is good- it is valid- to show work multiple times in multiple venues. It is not a failure- far from it, it is necessary.

If we think of how long it takes to make a work- from research and initial sketches- to production, construction, deconstruction and re-imagining- for a work to be shown once is silly. Some artists can work at speed and prolifically- and that’s perfectly valid. But for me, I work slow and try to be frugal with materials. I am learning to feel valid as a maker and as an artist by creating less, or at a pace I am comfortable with.

In saying that, sometimes, not having time to question everything is the best possible scenario. Like, for example, Homing, a work I made for an exhibition in Scotland curated by Miguel Amado, needed to be produced in a ridiculously short time frame- something silly like a month. I had no money, was working as an art technician and had access to decommissioned shipping crates and went on pure instinct to the call out. It was really good for me, an important project to comment on human migration and now it has a forever home in Crawford Art Gallery. Amazing! I feel like that work would never have happened at my usual self-saboteur pace, so sometimes it’s a boon meeting deadline. Art production and its vagaries….

I love the idea of each of your exhibitions or projects providing the grounding for the next and becoming ‘strata’ for new work. I wonder, given this cumulative process, how you distinguish between one project and the next and at what point do you feel you have reached a finishing point/exhibiting point for the work?

I don’t. Nothing’s ever finished, nothing is stand alone, and it can always be better.
It’s all chapters, or strata as you said.

In your lecture for the Loquim lecture series at the National Sculpture factory last year you described your resistance to language that categorizes art-making. I find this very interesting and was wondering if you could explain this idea further?

I read a really interesting novella, or essay by John Fowles last year, or sometime in the not so distant past, called The Tree. It really had an affect on me, on how art, or ideas are categorised or “languaged”. How do we, as visual artists, or how are we expected, to distil complex ideas into words? I understand as humans, we want to name things, and by naming things we can claim ownership. But how can you own or categorise something as nuanced, for example, as hope? Or how do we navigate in images something named hope?

Sometimes this categorisation feels forced. When art production, or knowledge production, should be anything but forced. Anything, objects, images, texts, that should supposedly be named or categorised, or neatly filed into a box, seems unnatural to me; for if it already belongs, what is the point of its making?

You often use text within your work and have stated the importance of the titles of your pieces. My practice is very interested in the relationship between language and the landscape; nature’s epic indifference is met with the human need for narrative and a landscape is created. Your text is often created with what first appears to be a decal but on closer observation reveals itself to be dust particles. I wondered if this was a commentary on the human failure to control the landscape, particularly through language?

Nature’s epic indifference, how beautiful. You are exactly right, our humanistic failure to control the environment has been a prevalent question for me, or why indeed we seek this humanistic control? The Romantic ideals of nature, the fear of the wilderness, our need to box things in, the Hortus Conclusus.

I think of myself as a storyteller, and although illustration has been a dirty word in the realm of fine art, I would call myself an illustrator. Illustrations are historically titled and the title frames the reading… I feel I am contradicting myself now, in relation to categorisation, but nothings irks me more than a title, titled “Untitled 47”.

Allow the viewer in and give every person a level playing ground for your intention. Tell the tale.

The landscape often becomes this receptacle of human desire. In 2019 you collaborated with the artist Kevin Leong and Elizabeth Woods as part of the exhibition See You Tomorrow at the Sirius Arts Centre. You created the ‘Vacant Building Society’ where images of vacant properties were accompanied by community submissions of ideas of future purposes for such buildings, which included everything from nightclubs to artists collectives. What was your experience of this more socially-engaged less ‘maker’ orientated project?

I absolutely adore this project. It is something I would never have done without the support of, and being somewhat blindsided by Liz & Kevin! They incrementally planted the seed of this work, feeding me my own research back in a way that a performative walking tour became necessary- yes, they are that good!

I would never have had the confidence to put my theory into practice in this way, leading a speculative tour around the town I reside in. But it made so much sense, and I feel it was so successful. That is the true beauty of giving yourself over to collaboration seeing my work through a different lens, a performative lens that was fun and important. I would love to do it again, in a different place- this project gave me so much joy.

With titles like Future Forests and the motif of bell jars containing singular plant stems, is it fair to say that ‘hope’ is a recurring theme in your work?

Definitely, if there is no hope, what is the point?

If art is a form of narrative, what in its making is its main function? And, if I personally hope to form fables- or narrative with a moral code, isn’t hope for the future its foremost endeavour?

I literally, just ½ hour ago, received a video link for the culmination of a project from Tadhg Crowley, curator of Education at the Glucksman, titled Freedom of the City, that I was lucky to have a tiny part in. This initiative was created to help support young minds to creatively build their future city. It is awe inspiring. You should really check it out, here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuNyCHnCt_Q

After watching the video, please, do a standing ovation for the participants, the fledgling artists but also for the teachers that incorporated this project into their curriculum, the city council planners for having the gumption to listen and to Tadhg- a real champion for the arts and education who continuously creates and facilitates amazing projects for the voices and minds of the future. Hurrah!

The hope was palpable. It is a tremendous thing.

I think it’s always interesting the varied paths that artists take in their professional careers. You completed your BA in Fine Art Printmaking in 2008 and after some time undertook your MA in Art & Process at CIT Crawford College of Art & Design in 2015. How would you describe your experience of art education and can you talk us through the path you took to establish yourself as a professional artist today?

It all started at birth….

Ach no, look it’s not been easy. I went to art college at 17 from a school that viewed art as an “extracurricular activity” where we had to take art as an extra subject after school hours. I studied sculpture initially, at a time when art college taught you very little in the way of practical skills and lecturers’ roles seemed to be to systematically destroy you. I dropped out, I tried to do something else. I waited tables, pulled pints, washed many dishes, and then transferred to The Crawford to finish 4th year with printmaking as my major.

Crawford was different, the tutors challenged but didn’t defeat you, I was that bit older, I loved having equipment & facilities and I met peers without who, I know for a fact, that I would not be making art. I still pulled pints and washed dishes, but my attitude toward art making changed. The Cork art scene provided opportunities and a community of makers both out of slack and established spaces.

Since the MA I worked the “gig economy” mostly funded residencies, being an ad hoc art educator and art technician, lots of things, unstable and in flux. The art path is a long arduous one for most.

I’m so unbelievably grateful for where I am now. It is hard work, and needs an extremely stubborn personality to take all the knockbacks and persevere. I just love making stuff. I don’t know what else I could ever do.

I love how your work often combines strong structures with natural materials and I wondered if your course in furniture making in 2019 was undertaken with these types of structures in mind?

Again, you hit the nail on the head. I love upskilling and learning to master myriad techniques. If I ever had the chance to meet Rancière, author of The Ignorant Schoolmaster, I’d have strong words for him.

Making skills are paramount in progressing your ideas and having the freedom to traverse multiple disciplines. In that Furniture course I was taught by the brilliant Victoria Breathnach
and her teaching and dissemination of skills have progressed my work immensely.

What do you think are the positive and negative aspects of the Cork Art Scene?

This city is an amazing place to produce work with so many affordable, world class facilities like the Cork Printmakers, the Backwater & the National Sculpture Factory -Love!

It’s frustrating that we don’t get seen on an international level though, in the way Dublin appears to be. There are so many emerging and established artists here making work to an international level which always seems to slip below the radar.

You have an upcoming solo exhibition at the Sirius Arts Centre 2022. Can you tell us about the central concerns of this new work?

I’m so excited and equally nervous about this exhibition. It’s going to be a whole new venture, exploring new media and technologies to construct an immersive installation. The wonderful thing about financial backing from the Arts Council is you can employ so many talented people- wood workers, videographers, projection mappers and push your existing work into a new terrain, technically. The concerns are still very much rooted within the landscape, and built above previous research but now that landscape can move.

May 2022- chalk it down!

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