Learning a new skill in pandemic gave me new lease of life

Lockdown allowed artist Ann Mechelinck to learn a new skill, which in turn helped her deal with mental health struggles, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Learning a new skill in pandemic gave me new lease of life

Ann Mechelinck

FOR a Macroom-based artist, the pandemic has given her practice a whole new lease of life.

Ann Mechelinck, originally from Belgium, came to Ireland “for love” and it is also where she found the courage to fulfil a long held dream to be an artist.

Lockdown has given her the time to appreciate the beauty of her immediate surroundings. She has learned new skills and also found a way of coping with mental health challenges.

Ann has been living in County Cork for 15 years. Her partner, who is from Passage West, had a yearning to return to Ireland when he turned 40. The couple initially lived in Inchigeelagh.

“I always wanted to live in an old farmhouse so when we found one in Macroom, we moved there,” says Ann.

She used to work in social welfare in Belgium but when she came to Ireland, her certificates weren’t recognised. So she worked at a number of jobs including in a petrol station, a hotel and in Dunnes Stores.

When she saw a vacancy for a place on an art, craft and design course in McEgan College in Macroom, Ann decided to go for it. She enjoyed exploring her creativity and went on to St John’s Central College in Cork where she took a painting course. After that year, she was accepted to the Crawford College of Art and Design. She graduated from there in 2015 and started giving art classes, teaching mostly elderly people three days a week.

But Ann had her challenges.

“I was 51 when I graduated and was wondering if I was going to make it in the art world. I had anxiety and depression.”

There were times when Ann couldn’t leave the house. But she managed to continue giving her classes. She credits her students and her partner for “pulling me through”.

When Ann was in her twenties, she had suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and had depression. She was put on medication. When she became unwell some years ago, she reluctantly took anti-depressants and feared becoming addicted to them. What healed her was “talking and making and creating, going for walks and gardening”.

She also discovered Joomchi, a Korean paper-making technique using texture and colour. And with the encouragement of her students, she had a successful exhibition at the Town Hall in Macroom entitled Making and Mending My Way Through. In her artist’s statement, she opened up about her mental health problems. But with a message of hope and resilience.

When the first lockdown happened, Ann’s world changed.

“I’ll never forget March 19, 2020, when everything closed down. My classes and my income stopped. In the first month and a half of lockdown, my partner said I was going back down that road of depression again. I was very down, I was crying, but I couldn’t allow myself to go that way. Strangely enough, because we have a big garden, I started working in it and I discovered mosses and lichen that grow on trees and on stone walls. In some way, it spoke to me, that connection with moss and lichens and greenery. I was constantly looking for new ways to express myself.

“My mum got sick over in Belgium. She’s in her eighties. I couldn’t go to see her. So I went to memory lane and came back from it with ideas. My mother’s father was a weaver. Weaving came back to me and I remembered the first loom I ever got. I started researching weaving and I came up with circular weaving. I decided to try that. It was a challenge. It was like my hands were quicker than my thoughts.”

Ann also taught herself embroidery.

“I believe more than ever that traditional skills such as weaving and embroidery, passed from generation to generation, need to be kept alive in this day and age where everything has become mechanised or computerised. For that reason, I deliberately work solely by hand, nurturing a slower pace of life and a more conscious way of living and working, merging traditional techniques into contemporary abstract artworks.”

What Ann calls ‘The Moss Series’ was born .

“Some of the pieces are hand- stitched, others are a combination of circular weaving and embroidery. I started using a variety of wools. I only use Irish yarns that I buy in Ireland. For me, it’s all about going back to basics to portray the Irish landscape.”

Ann finds the repetition of hand movement comforting.

“I work in silence. The repetition brings me back into my own thoughts. It’s healing me.”

Ann is mainly making wall hangings. Her work has been in a couple of online international exhibitions.

“A gallery in Holland shows my work. An article I wrote is in a Polish floral and art magazine. I’ve been selected to do a window exhibition at Gallery 46 in the Grand Parade in Cork. I’ve been selected for about ten exhibitions altogether.”

While she is enjoying the slower pace of life in this time of a pandemic, Ann says she hopes to resume giving art classes.

“But I realise that when I was teaching, I was passing myself by. I was leaving the house early on Mondays and coming home late. I’m really grateful that I’ve been given this extra time to be at home and to focus on my own work. It gave me the courage and the time to take on a new skill.”

Ann, a mother of two children from a previous relationship, has seven grandchildren and another one on the way. She sounds content.

“I’m grateful to have a garden, looking out the window at the different birds that comes to our feeders.”

For her sanity, Ann limits her consumption of news from mainstream media. She keeps in contact with her students via social media and phone calls. She seems to have found a good balance, despite the grim times we live in.

See www.annmechelinck.wixsite.com

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