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ARTIST IN SOCIETY

CONSTANCE SHORT CONSIDERS KEY ASPECTS OF HER ART CAREER.

This is my story. Well one of them anyway. I was born and reared on the border between the Republic and Ireland and Northern Ireland – a magical place steeped in history and folklore, but none the less a kind of no-mans land which national governments had abandoned. It has left me looking on all my life, not knowing where I belong, except in my head perhaps.

After secondary school in St Louis Convent Dundalk, I joined Mc Connell's Advertising Agency in Dublin as a trainee commercial artist. This involved attending NCAD one day a week for life drawing classes, with Sean Keating RHA. I loved McConnell’s as I had a wonderful ‘Master’ – the Dutch artist Cor Klassan, who first introduced me to the notion of art as being primarily about exploring ideas. Despite this, I left to sing.

My real life in art began when I was involved in the setting up of the first ‘physical’ Project Arts Centre over Tuck and Company in Lower Abbey St in 1967. Colm O’Briain, now Director of NCAD – then a young television producer in an bushy collared Afgan coat to go with his head of bushy long hair, acquired the premises (an upstairs room) on loan from his father Peter, who owned Tuck and Co. Peter and his wife Bridin were great patrons of the arts. They also, by the way, provided the premises for Dublin Art Foundry, an offshoot of Project set up by fellow founder member John Behan – which went on to spawn a number of art foundries.

With the generous help of the O’ Briain family, we supported the running Project in the first couple of years with box office and artwork sales Colm O’ Briain's RTE salary and John Behan’s income also ‘flowed’ through Projects accounts, to give the impression that we were earning lots of money. And I am quite sure they often ended up subsidizing the centre. Eventually Arts Council grants took over.

I learned from Peter ” Briain that the arts had to be marketed as a business to be taken seriously. From that day 'til this I have firmly believed that artwork should always be for sale – in order to buy time for the artist, to show that art is a part of the real world and most of all that it doesn't come free.

Our publicly funded galleries are too full of the work of academics. Good though some of them may be – they don't have to sell (but that is never stated), giving an unreal image of the artist as someone who can live on fresh air. These people have the major international exhibitions sewn-up as well. They have the time to ‘politic’ and their academic salaries provide them with the where-with-all to skite around the world on planes, keeping up with whatever is going on.

I saw Project as a socialist alternative to the capitalist system, a place where artists in all art genres could control there own situation both artistically and financially and avoid the exploitation of the gallery owners, dealers, and theatre managements – who by and large have little interest in how the artist/actor survives as a human being. Most old visual artists, poets, actors, theatre director’s musicians and dancers live in poverty. Performance artists should qualify for Aosdana.

We made art accessible with low prices. We wanted to earn our living at art. It was important that the artist be accepted in society on a par with every other worker but without compromising his or her vision. This is something yet to be achieved.

I last exhibited in the old Project in 1975, in an exhibition of the male nude curated by Rhoda Mc Manus then visual arts officer in Project, in association with the six women artists who exhibited: Ruth Brandt, Mary Farl Powers, (both now sadly deceased) Aine Stack, Margaret Becker, Marianne Heemskerk (also a founder of Project) and myself. We were all working at the Graphic Studio in Mount St and our irreverent idea was to give men a bit of ‘exposure’ during international woman's year

I made prints because you could sell them cheaply and they were a counter to the concept of the exclusive singular piece of artwork beloved of the investment world. I also love the craft of making etchings and linocuts. I like to sew too and cook! My route in life has not taken me too far away from my original views about the place of the artist in society – simply a desire to be an ordinary member of one’s community

Moving from Dublin to Dundalk in 1981, I painted 40 or so murals in schools with children in Louth, Meath, Monaghan and Donegal under the auspices of the Arts Councils ‘Paint on the Wall’ scheme. In Armagh and elsewhere I worked with casts of thousands from as young as 3 months to 90+ years old and including the Crossmaglen football team and Fire Brigade! I became known locally as ‘The Paint Woman’ which I loved.

I was stretched as an artist in doing this work. My role, as I saw it, was to create a layout to accommodate the work of the children and adults, who mostly had never thought in terms of artwork before. If the layout was strong, the artwork was strong. I don't subscribe to this woolly liberal notion that everyone is having an equal, profound and lasting experience. It takes many years to arrive at an understanding of art.

People enjoy ‘having a go’, but the pretentious claims that a couple of weeks on an arts project can turn someone into an intellectual or/and can cure the ills in society are misleading to say the least. Hence my linocut: Who decided that Art is the panacea for all the ills in society? Having people explore their creativity through arts practices is great I am sure, but it requires the facilitating skills of the art therapist rather than the artist

What artists working in the broad community achieves is an understanding of the role and particular skill of the artist by society. As a result a greater acceptance arises of artists’ rights as an equal member of society.

When I moved to Dundalk, I made linocuts at home, as I no longer had access to an etching press. I had moved away from the art world and suddenly the linocut became an ideal medium to reflect this ‘marginalisation’.

I have exhibited and talked in American Universities, (including Wellesley, Massachusetts and Fairfield, Connecticut) and in woman's galleries in New York and Germany (Soho 20, New York and the Fraun Museum, Wiesbadan) also The Poetry Society in London and galleries, theatres and community centres in Ireland, Australia and The Czech Republic. This was possible as a result of the Arts Council’s Arts Flights scheme, the sponsorship of private companies and the CRC of the Dept. of Foreign Affairs.

I have also worked with many poets. In particular Eavan Boland, Paul Durcan, and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Gaelic poet Sean Hutton. I’ve been a winner of the graphic sections of the Claremorris Open and an International mini-print exhibition held in Dublin. My work is in the collection of The Arts Council, Athlone IT, Dundalk IT, Dundalk Museum, and other places. I’ve twice ‘made’ the critics recommended listings in the New York Times and once in the The London Independent. 

People I met in the art world were taken by my use of the humble ‘Lino’ to make contemporary statements. The linocut is ‘ordinary’ and familiar to many people who’ve made linocuts at school. They can appreciate the level of skill I have brought the medium. It brings them right into the piece of artwork. This is accessibility. I exhibited 9 yards of lino in Project in November 2004, selling it by the square foot. My biggest piece of lino artwork before this one is a 2 Meter Square, text piece DELETION OF THE BAN ON FOREIGN GAMES, which hangs in the new Museum in Croke Park Dublin.

For me art is a philosophical activity, a means of making sense of things real and unreal, reasonable and unreasonable, emotional and unemotional, to care and never ever not to care. The artist must be free to express him or herself in any medium they see fit – in order to make their statement. What we need to do is to bring society to an understanding and acceptance of that. The artist will remain poor until society values what they do without question.

For the past ten years of my life, with Mary Kavanagh, Mark Dearey and Ollan Herr I have been suing Ireland, The Attorney General and British Nuclear Fuels to have the Thorp Plant at Sellafield closed down. Apart from having my beautiful babies, Deirdre, Finn and Nessa, not to mention my adored grandchild Ava, suing BNFL is the most significant thing I have done in my life as an artist.

In Germany I was threatened with prosecution for blasphemy (by a rightwing political group) for a piece of artwork (7ft by 5ft, of a woman dancing off a cross) bought by the mayor of Wiesbaden and hung outside the council chamber. There was a picket and two public meeting, which I attended. In New York the same piece, which was originally a site-specific piece for SOHO 20 Gallery's window caused upset to my patron and certain members of the Irish Community in New York who objected to it in a local Irish newspaper.

I set up the Arts Office for Dundalk UDC, and developed the cultural and the cultural diversity programmes for Co-operation North, now called Co-Operation Ireland, was a shareholder in the Abbey and did freelance work for the Film Board and others.

I don't see my work as an arts organiser as separate from making artwork. Sometimes one is more necessary than the other. You don't make things easy for yourself in the art-world, which is essentially controlled by politically conservative forces, when you deliberately set out to make artwork that will stimulate thought and provoke ideas. I have been described as a political artist. I suppose that is sort of true, but I find the label confining and limited. All art is political.