My art gives me peace of mind

She was employed in Hilton hotels across the world, was an au pair for David Bowie and worked with children at risk of dropping out of school — all before returning to college to study art. Now Catherine Callanan is showcasing her work this month, she tells COLETTE SHERIDAN.
My art gives me peace of mind
Artist Catherine Callanan.

ART for art’s sake is what motivates Catherine Callanan, who is currently exhibiting at 46, Grand Parade until December 13, as part of the CIT Crawford College of Art & Design’s masters in art and process.

Catherine, a mother-of-two grown up children, who is originally from Skibbereen, was offered a place at Limerick College of Art and Design when she was 18. But she didn’t take it up.

“There was no money in the family,” says 53-year old Catherine. “My brother was in veterinary college. There were three more boys coming up. It was a case of ‘what are you doing going to college? You’re just a girl’.”

Catherine went travelling in Europe and America, working in Hilton Hotels initially as well as doing some au pair work.

“You can move around to Hilton Hotels, around the world. I started in a Hilton Hotel in London. While there, I met an American family who wanted an au pair. So I went with them to Dallas. After that job, I worked in Hilton Hotels in Las Vegas, Florida, Miami, New York, Boston and I also went to Switzerland, France and Germany.”

While in a Hilton Hotel in Switzerland, Catherine was hired by David Bowie to be an au pair for his son, Duncan, then aged about 11, for two weeks.

“The nanny needed a holiday. I wasn’t a fan of David Bowie at the time. I became a fan later. He was very nice. It wasn’t that the child needed nannying. I just needed to drive him to all his different appointments. David said to me — ‘just don’t lose him’.”

Catherine was also an au pair for the children of a son of Charlie Chaplin’s. But most of the time, she worked in Hilton hotels, as a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas and also as a restaurant supervisor and front-of-house person.

When Catherine had her son, Lester, she came home to Ireland and decided to go to college “to create some sort of a career to support him”.

She went to teaching college in Dublin, which included studying Montessori methods.

“It was one of the happiest times of my life, just me, Lester and college. I was living in Bray, going to college in Dublin. I used to get the DART and a bus, followed by a walk. Lester was in a creche in Bray. The woman there was fantastic. She took him for free and, during the summer, I worked for her in thanks for looking after Lester.”

When Catherine was qualified to teach at primary level, she returned to America with her son, teaching in Oregon. She was there for six years.

“I loved it and only came home because my mum was sick,” she says.

While in the U.S, Catherine had married and had a daughter, Fiona. But the marriage broke up. A while after Catherine came back, she moved to Waterford to be near her parents, who had moved to the county. It was then that Catherine started working with children who were at risk of dropping out of school.

“That bridged the gap between primary and secondary level. You had to identify who was at risk and work with a multi-disciplinary team. There were many reasons for kids dropping out of school. It could be cyclical and down to family circumstances. We’d put in place the supports that were necessary.”

While Catherine loved her job, she said it was ultimately soul-destroying. She commuted to Cork one night a week to do a class in psychotherapy at CIT.

“I felt I needed that in order to deal with the teenagers. But there was just one young suicide too many. There was a lot of drugs. People wanted a quick fix method, a band aid. But they never really looked at the root of the problem. That didn’t sit well with me.”

Catherine toyed with the idea of studying art therapy. But then, not long before her 50th birthday, she decided to do art, “purely for me”. She added: “I applied to the Crawford, did the BA and am now completing the masters in fine art. It has been fantastic. There’s no comparison with the teaching. I loved teaching and I liked the kids. But it didn’t feed my soul. I needed to get back to art, for me.

“Now, supporting yourself as an artist is a whole other story. But there’s no comparison with the life I have now, the peace of mind and the positive mental health. Ideally, I’d like to work with people who have an acquired brain injury or work with the elderly, as an artist-in-residence. Now that my children have gone off to college and are gone, I’m free to do residencies.”

Catherine and her partner, Andy Battell, who trains organisations in restorative practice such as conflict mediation, ultimately plan to move to Galicia in Spain.

“I like the weather there and the people. As I get older, what matters to me is relationships, surrounding myself with what makes me happy.”

Over the years, Catherine kept her hand in at art, doing workshops. She is exhibiting alongside six other masters students.

“The installation I’m showing represents that shared sense of vulnerability that we all find ourselves in. I want to say that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing with the rest of your life. It’s OK to not know everything. It’s like everyone wants to fix you.”

Catherine has include Braille in the installation. “People who are missing the sense of sight spend their entire lives in a vulnerable state,” she says.

She feels it’s important to reach out for help.

“If we could be more gentle with one another and with ourselves, I think the world would be a different place.”

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