How Gerry transforms the landscape into art

Cork ‘land artist’ Gerry Barry tells SHAMIM MALEKMIAN why he thinks his artform is so important in the modern age
How Gerry transforms the landscape into art

A TIME FOR REFLECTION: A piece entitled ‘Land Flues’ by Cork-based land artist Gerry Barry

SUFFERING and art are often inextricably linked — and one of Gerry Barry’s best works is proof of that.

The 63-year-old former Cork art teacher had been studying in the U.S as a young man and returned to Ireland to see his family, only to be told his father had just died the day before.

The shock of the loss sent the artist straight to “an isolated place”, where he created a memorable piece of land art, entitled Triple Circle And Rainbow.

Land art involves moulding a landscape and using natural materials to create a wonderful image.

Triple Circle And Rainbow represents three circles of grass carefully cut out and filled with water. The rounded greens symbolise both the never-ending cycle of life and the vitality of sorrow; the water is exceptionally blue, like the artist’s mood at the time.

However, Gerry, who had been told by a tutor at art college that his land art was “rubbish”, was still unsure if the world was ready to see his works.

After he had made his triple circles, he said: “I didn’t tell anybody in the village I made it. I made it at six or seven in the morning, I think I was a bit crazy!”

When the work was finished came the crowning glory — a rainbow emerged, almost in tribute to his late father, so Gerry ran for his camera to immortalise the heartbreakingly beautiful scene.

When he later showed the image to one of his art tutors, he was left speechless

“He got up and walked out, he said nothing, I think he was blown away,” Gerry adds.

For this artist, moulding the earth into life-size pieces of art summons up a sense of unearthly liberation.

He describes his land art as a way of paying homage to nature’s otherworldly calm, while allaying the lingering pain of worldly losses.

Gerry’s love affair with nature began to form during his fervent adolescent years, in a small village in Co Kerry.

“I used to walk on the beach growing up,” Gerry recalls.

“I had a few friends who were into writing songs and poetry, I would get a tap on my window from my friends at 12 o’clock at night, and we would go to the beach, and they would be reciting their poetry.”

Later, when some of those friends succumbed to despair and took their lives, Gerry went back to the beach to mourn but also to heal.

“We didn’t cry or anything, we just accepted it, that’s the way it was back then. We didn’t even talk about it in our group of friends,” he recalls.

Gerry began expressing his sorrow by painting on the sand with his feet.

“And that kind of built up from there, and then making miniature waddles and such, I suppose, a bit like Gulliver’s Travels, you know,” he says, chuckling.

Gerry may be the sole full-time land artist in Ireland, although artists such as Kari Cahill and Hazel McCague have produced land art instalments, most notably on Brow Head, on the Mizen Peninsula, in West Cork.

The land art movement, began in the 1960s in the U.S when a group of minimalist sculptors including Robert Smithson left the overly urbanised New York for the enchanting vistas of the American West.

There, they transported tonnes of soil, sometimes blasted through rocks and spent relentlessly long hours to shape natural material into art, a type of arduously achieved aesthetics that crosses over performance art.

Cork-based land artist Gerry Barry. Picture: Shamim Malekmian
Cork-based land artist Gerry Barry. Picture: Shamim Malekmian

Land art, also known as Earth art, environmental art, and Earthworks, is a movement that is surely of this age, given its admiration and respect for the natural landscape and nature.

Land artists transform natural material into a thought-provoking manifestation of grief, joy and appreciation. The idea is to show off the creative endurance of the natural world, influencing a sense of undying gratitude toward our earth.

Cork-based Gerry studied at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin, the only Kerry man in his class.

Air pollution was slowly emerging in Dublin at the time, and for Gerry, it was represented in a circle of dust that had spoiled his brother’s shining white shirt when he came home at night from his bus conducting job.

While in NCAD, one lecturer suggested that he should travel to the U.S with the school’s support, where his unconventional approach to art was deemed more mainstream.

After a stint at the University of Minnesota, Gerry arrived in Dublin, homesick and anxious to meet his family; his father, in particular, with whom, he had a close relationship.

The artist’s parents didn’t have a telephone line so he phoned their neighbour to tell his father and mother that he had arrived safely.

“She told me, ‘Your father died yesterday’. And it really broke my heart, because he was very inspiring,” says Gerry.

“He was a bus conductor; he was a musician who had his own Irish band. He grew his own food. He used to take me fishing, I wasn’t into it, but I enjoyed going with him.”

His work, Triple Circle And Rainbow, is a fitting tribute to the man.

Gerry who taught art at a secondary school in Cork for 35 years, says that young students are not encouraged to stray from the limiting world of conventions.

“I love young people, most of them are absolutely inspiring,” he says, smiling.

“For me, it wasn’t about teaching, it was about reassuring them that they were okay, that it was okay to feel sad, and how art could facilitate a way out.”

In the midst of ongoing climate chaos and environmental destruction, Gerry thinks publicising land art may prompt respect for the environment in both policy-makers and ordinary citizens.

He plans on going to Cork City Council with the idea of a billboard erected in a busy part of the city dedicated entirely to land art.

“[Land art] should be publicised in all forms and all kind of media, it all comes back to education,” he says.

“We have the consumer mind now, we’ve lost that sense of wonder, let’s give people back that sense of wonder.”

To browse more land art by the artist, see www.gerrybarryartworks.com.

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