It is entirely appropriate that we are here this evening to mark the opening of an exhibition and the launch of a book, and that these two things are at once distinct and yet inextricably bound together.
Entirely appropriate, because the story of Iria – the book which I hope you will make a gift of, to yourself and to those you care for, – that story of Iria begins:
It was between waters that she liked to be, two distinct but equally enjoyable feelings…this sense of being suspended in-between allowed her to get the best of the two worlds.
To read this book, to turn the pages and be drawn into the images, to surrender to the pull of its narrative, is to experience what Louis MacNeice captures in a poem as:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Iria is not so much a book to read, as a voyage of discovery undertaken between pairs of elements:
word and image; dream and actuality; science and art;
East and West; male and female; fire and water;
Ireland and Italy; myth and history.
The journey is presided over by one with the skill and understanding of the diviner whose rod is both a Y of willow and a magic wand; a precise instrument as well as an extension of the hands with which she paints and writes.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m no longer talking about Iria but about Jole Bortoli herself. And yet, perhaps not, for in the shape-shifting world of this rare thing – an illustrated book for adults – how can we be sure?
Iria – we are told in the story – was called by different names, depending on where she happened to be. At a point in the story, Iria (we are told) listens half with her ears, half with her heart. And it seems to me that this is very close to what Jole Bortoli has been doing, certainly for the more than 20 years that I have known her: looking half with her eyes, and half with her heart.
There are of course many Jole Bortolis. Like all of us, she is incorrigibly plural. But most of us, at least most of the time, are well schooled at correcting ourselves and reverting to being singular, convergent, dirigible. Not Jole.
Viewed simply – simplistically perhaps – Jole’s journey has been from graphic designer to artist. Again, simply put, it might be said that as graphic designer the world came to Jole with its various experiences, asking her to give them expression in images, while, as artist, Jole has gone out into the world and made experiences with others and for others in The Ark, in Larkin College, in Fatima Mansions, in Rockforest, and in her many Art to Heart projects.
In working with others to make rich experiences Jole has invited and facilitated people to make themselves, to renew and re-fashion themselves. In recent years she has enacted those impulses and commitments herself: she has journeyed into herself, her own heart and memories and allegiances and she has sought out personal learning experiences of the formal and informal variety. All of this has led, over several years, to a re-invention of herself via a gradual abandonment of securities and comfort zones, of certain self-images, and of established professional profiles. And this takes courage and conviction, which with Jole come in typically under-stated forms.
One of the joys of this book is how its maker, divining rod in hand, becomes a conductor for several traditions and cultures. Venice is at the heart of the book, but how apt that this great and ancient trading city state should also be a point of confluence for visual and narrative traditions from gypsy Ireland to Leonardo da Vinci; from Gustav Klimt to mandalas; from Celtic selkies to monastic marginalia. Jole’s gift as a colourist is well-known; what may surprise some are the strong graphic features of this book that is at once beautiful and handsome.
We live at present under a cloud – a literal cloud of volcanic ash and a figurative cloud of anxiety about the future. How good it is then to gather in this cultural centre, surrounded by these images, and holding a copy of this book. If you have not already purchased a picture or are not holding a copy of the book, then you should have or should be or hopefully will do so shortly, and remember the framed pictures come with one complimentary copy of the book – this part of my speech was written by John Sutton.
But this part was not:
C’è una forte senso dell’amicizia in una serata come questa. Per questo motivo, Jole, noi tutti, conoscenti, amici, colleghi, compagni di viaggio e semplici ammiratori, ti ringraziamo. Ti ringraziamo perché ogni giorno arricchisci le nostre vite.
There is a kind of fellowship on an evening like this and, as source and cause of this, Jole, we – your friends, associates, acquaintances, fellow-travellers, and admirers – express our thanks to you for enriching our lives.
In your exhibition and in your book; in your life and in your work; in Iria and all your work to date, and in all your work to come, thank you Jole for being incorrigibly plural.