Dublin, February 2011
It is the last day of February as I finally sit down to write this piece that Jole asked me to do weeks ago. The sun is shining and the sky is a bright, clear, blue. It reminds me of the colour of Mary’s cloak, but then everything seems to be bringing me back to this image lately. I have been putting this off and wonder about my reluctance to commit my thoughts to paper, just like Jole’s reluctance to surrender to the image of Mary, the Madonna.
My mind returns to the day we arrived in Tivoli, on what I thought was the beginning of a holiday but what ended up being more like a pilgrimage. As we turned corner after corner in the searing, dripping heat to be confronted by yet another altar dedicated to Mary (apart from the one in Naples dedicated to Maradona – the Italians take their football as seriously as their religion!) I found myself looking out for them. As Jole took photographs, I felt my thoughts drawn back to the presence of representations of Mary in an Irish Catholic childhood and the subsequent images and fragments that flitted in and out of my mind.
When I first met Jole almost fourteen years ago, I would never have believed the journey would lead here, to a farm in Dublin, hosting an exhibition of paintings of Mary, created by her. Equally, I would never have said religion played any part at all in our story but, as I think back from the start we were surrounded by it in one way or another.
Jole describes herself as ‘a lapsed catholic and left wing feminist’. I know her as a graphic designer, an artist and a friend. We first met at The Ark in the centre of Dublin where she did the graphic design and I worked as a programmer. This building formerly housed a Presbyterian Meeting House and the story goes, that during the services on the Sabbath, the women and children were confined to the upper level while the men gathered downstairs to pray. This was in direct contrast to the central role they occupied in its new life as a cultural centre for children.
Over the years, our paths have converged and separated many times but never more intensely than when I, as Project Manager with ArkLink, asked Jole to take up the position of Artist in Residence with the project in Fatima Mansions. I always think of this as a golden time for us as we worked with the children in a bubble of creativity. When we sat down to curate the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue six years later, we could see the development of the children’s creative skills in their work. I remember thinking that Jole’s own growth as an artist was also reflected there. Her skills and ambition for herself and the children had grown to a point where the work they created was remarkable. People who came into contact with the children marveled at the ease and confidence with which they approached new concepts and media. This, I believe, was enabled by Jole’s support and approach and her refusal to believe in failure. ‘We are all artists’ and ‘know when to stop’ were her two favourite mantras. Thinking back to Fatima, I remember a community where strong women and children bright with creativity took centre stage, a community facing many challenges and one which frequently challenged us, and, all under the gaze of Our Lady of Fatima. Her grotto, even at the hardest times, seemed to inspire respect, and she was painted, minded and loved. Older residents remembered fondly a time when the girls in their Holy Communion dresses took part in the May processions.
After Fatima, Jole and I went our separate ways, but always keeping in touch and taking up where we left off with conversations and ideas. Jole founded ‘Art to Heart’, her own organisation dedicated to creativity, and I began working at Airfield. This farm was once the home of the Overend sisters, Letitia and Naomi, two independent women, ahead of their time, with a passion for farming, photography and motor cars. Airfield is a place that inspires creativity so it is no surprise that we find ourselves reconnecting here.
We have always found ourselves connected by threads and coincidences and here we are yet again, Jole working on a series of portraits of Mary and I working on an outreach project back where I started from, a school in Dublin 8.
While working on a school garden project in Mater Dei Primary School, Airfield’s Head Gardener, Emer and I noticed the Grotto of Our Lady and Saint Bernadette. In need of a bit of care, we plan to have it replanted and restored to its best in time for the May procession.
Thoughts of the grotto brings my mind back to my own school days in Dublin’s liberties, thoughts that re-surfaced in the narrow streets and alleyways of Tivoli and Naples. I remember how we loved the special rituals bringing flowers for the May altar and walking in the procession in the convent grounds, our young voices fervently singing ‘The Bells of the
Angelus’, amongst the flowers and greenery, rare in the inner city. That all seems like a different place now and we have all traveled in many directions and wherever you may find yourself in relation to symbols of the past, religious or otherwise, there is always room for nature, beauty, creativity and magic in our lives. Jole sees it as her mission to keep reminding us of this, just in case we forget.
Head of Educational and Programmes at Airfield