ENGAGING in conversation with ceramist Martha Cashman, it is obvious to see that everything that she is, believes and does is entirely influenced by her childhood experiences at her family farm in Ballymacoda beside the Womanagh River.
We are amidst the hustling, bustling crowds at On the Pig’s Back café in Douglas, where Martha has an exhibition of her latest collection of work highlighting her activism and to-the-bones belief that everything starts from our inherent right to eat good food.
Through a series of plates in glazed clay, Martha’s message is one that encourages people to get back to basics of where food comes from: the good earth; growing, cooking and sharing food, and embracing a pastoral simplicity around food that she sees as vitally important to all aspects of life.
There are also serious messages delivered playfully, urging us to look at issues connected with modern farming systems: intensive farming, animal welfare, greenhouse emissions and the vegan food movement.
“My father taught us to be protective of the land, to nurture it and take care of it. We were farming organically before we knew it was ‘a thing’. I remember the day when government inspectors came to our farm and tried to persuade my father to start using chemical fertiisers insisting that he would be able to grow more and better crops using them,” she said.
Close by to Martha’s family land was an estuary. Her father would regularly hand harvest seaweed left behind in the receding tide to fertiise and enrich the land. He wasn’t interested in using chemicals when seaweed did the job perfectly well. It’s interesting now to see the gradual return of seaweed fertiiser and a shift away by some growers from chemicals.
“I am a lover of good food”, says Martha, “and I am aware of the personal conflict I feel about over-consumption of food versus the personal value I hold in supporting food producers. I don’t want to lose the values I grew up with.”
Growing good things to eat takes a toll on the earth. The challenge is finding a balance between the old ways of growing food whilst curating the land and still be able to produce plentiful food to feed us all. Having enough but not too much.
“My father ploughed the drills in the fields using a horse. I’d sit on the horse and watch how the plough compressed the earth and created a shine to it. There is something very calming about working with the earth; maybe it’s the minerals, but I would always sleep better after working with it. If I could have slept in the drills my father ploughed, I would have! I was just mesmerised — it’s no wonder I work with clay!” said Martha.
“My childhood was a very gentle, pastoral existence and time did seem to tick by much slower. It’s not even that long ago, but at the same time I look back and I feel it’s be a long life growing up through the earth.
“Craving earth and seeing things grow through the earth is still such an inspiration for me in my work, and I want to share that with people — the fact that there is nourishment in taking time out and playing with clay.
“The collection of plates on display at On the Pig’s Back are a reflection of textures and shapes. I really wanted to take the idea of an aspect of my work that is purely sculptural and turning it into something that can be used to serve food on and to share food with.
“The plates are designed to be multi-functional. They can be the treasured pieces that are only brought out for special occasions and hung on the wall the rest of the time, or used every day. I love the idea of people who have really thought about, and understand, the nutritional value of the food placed on the plate.”
It does strike me as poetically circular. From the earth comes the clay Martha uses to craft her plates, the same earth used to grow food; each a vehicle for delivering nourishment.
Her plates are vividly painted and inspired by the colours of traditional farmhouse platters so synonymous with family dinners around a scrubbed wooden table: deep china blue and vivid bottle green.
As well, there are pastel hues circa 50’s and 60’s: pale pinks, chartreuse green, teal, lemon and fluorescent orange. Influences from a childhood spent on farms and eating with loved ones on plates passed down from generation to generation. Her work is nostalgic as well as embracing of what’s to come.
In a world of stark white and black plates designed to showcase the art of the chef rather than a celebration of the food upon it, the bursts of colour are gratifyingly full of life; a desire to reflect the value of colour in nature, just as there is a value in taste and flavour.
As well as her plates, collections of Martha’s sculptural work is included in an exhibition with 13 other artists in residence at Over the Line Studio in Ballyvolane. The studio sits over a furniture showroom which is an unusual setting for the presentation of works across a myriad of differing genres.
“The idea is that people can see the art created by the studio members in a home-style setting. I find so many people come to a studio to look at work and never buy because they can’t visualise how it may look outside of the gallery setting in their home. The exhibition itself is dynamic, as pieces are sold new ones take their place, ensuring the variety of works on offer is always changing.”
Martha is one of those rare breed of people who can run multiple projects simultaneously and be utterly engaged and excited about every single one. She works with an unending list of groups, networks and communities that assist people from all walks of life: from ladies over 50 looking for a social outlet, to the travelling community, the deaf, those with special needs, the probation service and so on. Her primary focus when working with these networks is as an educator. The end result may be that someone walks away with their own unique handmade piece of clay, but in the process Martha will have engaged the group in conversations and imparted knowledge all centred on her central passion: Nourishment.
To Martha, the food we eat is just one way to deliver the nourishment we need. But the story of where it comes from, the people who till the land and grow the crops, the wish to hold meal times in special reverence and the community that can be built around an entire food story one plate and one meal at a time is as equally important.
The exhibition at On the Pig’s Back, Douglas, is running until January 21, while the exhibition at the showroom underneath Over the Line Studio’s in Ballyvolane is ongoing throughout the year. See www.corkpotters.com for more.