Suffering for our art — and loving it, too!

Following your dream and becoming an artist can be a difficult path, and JEN HORGAN marvels at those who pursue it. Here she meets three Cork artists — an actress, a painter and a poet — to ask them about their individual journeys
Suffering for our art — and loving it, too!
Cork actress Jessica Regan

DO you know that scene in Home Alone, where a young Kevin McCallister screams at his basement furnace: ‘I’m not afraid anymore?” It’s a pretty pivotal one.

Well, aged 38, that’s finally how I feel about the arts.

Twenty years ago, I confess I was terrified of ‘arty farties’. My then boyfriend was big into acting and I dreaded the pre-show hobnobbing; I found theatre folk pretentious and a little self-involved.

But, like Kevin, I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I feel nothing but respect for artists. They’re not ‘up themselves’, they’ve just had to build a wall, to bolster against the criticism, financial struggles and the discomfort of people like me.

Being an artist is tough. Ireland has the lowest funding of the arts in Europe, currently at about a sixth of the European average.

But what kind of a country would we be without Fiona Shaw and Seamus Heaney, Brendan Gleeson and Anne Enright? What would our cities be without the theatres, the galleries and craft shops?

The good news is that our Government’s Project 2040 provides room for increased funding to the arts, with a stated desire to bring out ‘the best of who we are’.

Despite the obstacles in their path, Irish artists are still plentiful, and they continue to do well both here and abroad.

Jessica Regan is one such artist. A former arts student at UCC, she is perhaps best known for her TV performances in Ill Behaviour, Nowhere Fast and Doctors.

She has just received rave reviews for her role in The Sweet Science Of Bruising, written by Joy Wilkinson (current writer for Doctor Who) which recently ran in London.

Regan, who was born in Kilkenny and raised in Tipperary, caught my attention back in the early noughties in her one-woman performance of The Yellow Wallpaper in The Granary Theatre here in Cork.

She is refreshingly candid and has some very practical advice for young practitioners.

“It’s really important to find your side hustle, something that doesn’t make you want to give up.

“You see, even actors who are working all the time are still struggling.”

Regan tells me she has written a workshop to empower women.

“It is something I really believe in doing and I am using my body and my voice, my RADA training.

“I am also keeping myself fresh and topped up and it keeps the wolf from the door.”

According to the statistics, up to two thirds of artists have to supplement their art with other work.

“People think it’s compromising but it is the very, very opposite,” says Regan.

“Because you won’t be living on your nerves and adrenaline every time the rent comes around.

“It is also keeping you in contact with people who aren’t in the arts.”

Regan is quick to point out that an actor’s life is precarious.

“It has all the trappings of a life we, as a species, normally avoid.

“We normally avoid uncertainty and performing in front of a lot of people. So, look after yourself and don’t try to win everyone over.”

Winds of Progress by Cork artist Paul McKenna
Winds of Progress by Cork artist Paul McKenna

Paul McKenna is another homegrown talent, well known for his ‘plein air’ paintings, and he shares this view of the artist.

For McKenna, who grew up in Rochestown, “you never get into the arts to make money — it’s in order to express yourself”.

Like Regan, he advises the young artist to “take criticism and be constructive with it; don’t get disheartened”.

Yet McKenna sees the attitude towards the arts as improving in Ireland.

“My generation had a poor introduction to the arts. It wasn’t seen as being a practical subject. People were very dismissive.”

At this point, I shift a little uncomfortably in my seat, almost about to apologise.

He saves me the embarrassment. “That’s changing. Schools are tapping into kids’ creativity more and, whether they become artists or not, they will use their creativity in whatever they do.

“People still need to improve their attitude towards the arts though. It’s there for everybody, to test our ideas and perceptions and to educate us on our history.”

Paul Casey is a widely published poet and director of Ó Bhéal, a poetry group that meets every Monday night in The Long Valley on Winthrop Street in Cork city.

Casey believes “in both the personal and social power of art” and “its power to transform opinion and spark debate and change”

In this sense, he sees it as an “issue of general public health”.

Paul Casey, a widely published poet and director of Ó Bhéal poetry group
Paul Casey, a widely published poet and director of Ó Bhéal poetry group

Casey believes the arts allow him to “contribute to a fairer society, through what I do best, even if at the cost of living below the breadline”

The poet is keen to point out that, despite less than agreeable state funding, “we have some of the finest arts administrators out there and despite the budgetary constraints, we maintain one of the most vibrant arts scenes in the world.”

After speaking to these three artists, I am overwhelmed by how grateful I feel towards them and their ilk.

A recent study in the UK found that the arts can help “keep us well, aid recovery and support longer lives”.

I for one will clap a little louder at my next trip to the theatre. Then, after the show, I will look the actor in the eye and say ‘thank you’ — thanks for making me think and feel and for giving up a life of possible financial ease to do so.

Paul Casey asserts that “the value of the arts for the wellbeing of our population is incalculable”.

I get a feeling that these three artists are doing what they do for us, as much as for themselves.

So, here’s hoping that young people continue to travel their path, difficult as it may be.

For me, it’s been a long and sometimes complicated path back to the arts, but like Kevin McAllister’s mum, I got there eventually.

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