THE biggest challenge that the students of the Sherkin Island BA in Visual Art will ever face in their art practice is having to engage with the landscape of the island off West Cork as well as its community.
So says course facilitator, Majella O’Neill-Collins, herself an artist, who fell in love with the island and moved there about 30 years ago.
As there isn’t a gallery on Sherkin, artistic work tends to be site specific, comprising installations on the island, often with the co-operation of the locals. This year’s ten graduates had their final exhibition, called Thresholds, on Sherkin Island recently, and it has now moved to Uillinn, West Cork Arts Centre, in Skibbereen, where it can be seen until June 15.
But because of the nature of site-specific art, which can’t be moved around, what’s on show at Uillinn is “totally different to what was on show on the island”, says Majella.
Ann Davoren, director of Uillinn, “curates what she wants to take of the show on Sherkin. It could be photographs or projections or paintings.”
Majella, who is married to a fisherman from the island, talks about the genesis of some of the exhibits on show at Uillinn.
“There was an actual drawing being done on the beach between the tides, to do with Morse code. Kevin Rooney is the artist. He also had videos in North Shore (a hostel with a café) which has images from his research into Morse code.”
Di Curtin, Echo food columnist, is also graduating this year. She has been working collaboratively with the West Cork Women Against Violence charity to create her work. It includes a multi-screen video piece shown in a car, as well as some sculptural work made with donated items from women who have experienced domestic abuse. The work addresses the difficulties of accessing court documentation language in a spoken word sound piece. The car was gifted to Di by one of the islanders.
Maria Archer’s work is based on net-making and the industrial aspect of fishermen working from wooden boats.
“She got an old boat and dressed it in monofilament net, which is illegal for salmon fishing. A fisherman had the net from many years ago and he gave it to her.
"The nets were used to dress the old trawler and Maria did a performance where she was reading from a book, talking to the boat, almost paying homage to it, and all the people who would have worked on boats as well as the women who’d have made the nets.
"It’s interesting as it shows the workmanship and labour that went into fishing which is a dying trade in one sense.”
Artist Fiona Hayes was given the use of Majella’s studio and has made a video piece that reveals how technology “is taking over,” says Majella.
“She worked with a stone wall, about 80 years old, on Sherkin. The wife of islander Tom Collins (who built the wall) used to sell eggs on the mainland. He would take her out in a boat. When she wanted to come back from the mainland, because there were no mobile phones, she would light a bushel on the pier at Turk Head. It was the signal for her husband to row out and collect her.
“The wall was where he would stand to see if his wife was ready to come back.
“Now, technology allows you to almost track somebody. All your information is being stored.
"Fiona’s video and sound piece shows how quickly time has changed and how different the world is now. It asks whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” (The late Tom Collins was Majella’s father-in-law.)
People living on Sherkin “are very generous with their spaces. They give their spaces to artists so they can work in them. The artists fit their artwork around the space itself. Dianna, for example, worked from a small hut belonging to fisherman, Richard Collins.”
Many of the artists studying - and working - on the island “work on subjects that are issue-based. They might have a particular reason why the subject interests them. It’s very much socially-engaged art.”
The Sherkin Island BA in Visual Art is run by Technical University Dublin. Majella says “there is a big ownership between the community on the island and the students doing the course. They collaborate with the locals.
"Both sides learn from one another, with the community learning a lot from the artists. It has to work that way. People come to study (at weekends) for four years. “
Some remain on the island, after their studies are complete. Lured by the beauty and wildness of Sherkin, there are over 35 artists living on the island. These include writers and musicians, as well as visual artists.
“About five artists living here would have done the degree course on the island. One lady fell in love with the place and sold her house in Dublin to live on Sherkin.
“With the internet, you can work from home and show your work anywhere in the world, sending out images. It’s a real haven for artists, an acquired taste. If you can survive a winter here, then you’re made up for living here.
“I actually prefer the winter on Sherkin than the summer. There’s an isolation to an island. You’re self-contained because you work from your home. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages. People here are very aware of the environment, very respectful of it.”
The Sherkin Island VA (Visual Arts) exhibition is at Uillinn in Skibbereen until June 15. Students Fiona Hayes, Di Curtin, and Niamh Ni Chearbhaill have been long-listed for an RDS Visual Arts award 2022 for graduate students.