SITTING inside a cocoon-like round structure made out of plywood and painted dark blue with spikes on the outside, and with books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby beside us, I’m chatting with artist Catarina Araujo who built this space.
It’s one of four cocoons, designed and expedited by the artist in collaboration with four mental health practitioners. Two of them are on show at the Lord Mayor’s Pavilion in Fitzgerald’s Park, where I met Catarina. The other two are in the nearby Cork Public Museum.
Catarina, 29, who is from Portugal, came to Cork over five years ago where her sister lives. She was on the look-out for opportunities and wanted to live independently of her parents.
It has worked out well for Catarina, who describes herself as a visual socially engaged artist, based at Sample Studios in Churchfield.
She recently completed 15 months of an artist residency with Sample Studios as part of The Radical Institute Studios of Sanctuary programme for socially engaged artists from a refugee, asylum or migrant background. She was the recipient of the Artist-in-Residency programme from Waterford Healing Arts Trust.
Catarina has won other awards including the Agility Award from the Arts Council. Having studied sculpture in Portugal, she has a Masters from the MTU Crawford College of Art & Design. She also works with the Beag programme for babies and toddlers in Graffiti Theatre Company.
Interested in mental health, having spoken in the past about her own mental health challenges, Catarina was aware that mental health professionals played very much a supportive role, helping people through the pandemic.
“I thought it would be nice to do something to give back to them,” she says. “We started working together in 2021 at workshops.”
The word ‘cocoon’ kept coming up at these meetings. It came to be associated with a state of being imposed on people by the State during Covid lockdowns. The four participants were invited to think about what expressions would illustrate their experience during the pandemic and to imagine and create their own cocoon (small-scale sculpture models) that would provide them with what they felt was lacking in their immediate environment.
Catarina then built the cocoons to scale, based on the models.
The cocoon we meet in is based on Johnny Goodwin’s model. A lecturer in mental health nursing in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at UCC (and Catarina’s mentor), Johnny, who has studied visual art, spread the word among his colleagues about Catarina’s project.
As Catarina says, she didn’t have “an end goal in mind”.
“I wanted to talk to the mental health professionals to understand what Covid did to change their lives. Through conversations, there was a lot of talk about space and the lack of space, being sent home to work and trying to find a space to work in. In hospitals, all the rest spaces were gone.
“In the workshops, we talked a lot about reclaiming words. For me, it was the word ‘cocooning.’ I was intrigued why the word kind of changed in the context of the pandemic. I invited the mental health professionals to start building spaces, imagining whatever they wanted.”
Johnny’s design was inspired by his need for a space, just for himself.
“It would be where he could leave the world behind and be left alone.”
The spikes sticking out on the exterior of the sculpture are hedgehog-like.
“They scare people away. Then there’s the secret door idea, leading to a space to read.”
It’s an impressive structure that occupies a fair bit of space in one of the two rooms in the Lord Mayor’s Pavilion.
The other exhibit in the building is by Caroline Newman, a nurse with CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
“She wanted something womb-like, a place she could lie down in, something round and comfortable. It has a weighted blanket and sheepskin. She has her music playlist there.”
Kate Murphy, who has a masters in psychology and works as a psychology assistant with the HSE, wanted to reclaim the word ‘asylum.’
“It was funny. The model she made broke when I tried to move it. But Kate was delighted because she really wanted to rebuild something. So she rebuilt it with the bits and pieces left. Her second experience of making a model felt like going back to when she was a child.
“There’s a lot of playful things going on there with Christmas lights and a tent and chocolate bars. The tent part is for lying down in.”
The other mental health professional involved is Alice Taylor, an art therapist and a nurse with CAMHS, who, like Kate, inspired Catarina’s sculpture on show in the museum. The piece is called ‘The Womb Space’.
“The floor and walls are made of fake sheepskin so it’s very fluffy and comfortable with a teddy bear there and star lights.”
In building the exhibits, Catarina had to use the skills of a sculptor, a builder and an architect.
“With my background in sculpture, it was nice to get back to the physicality of that work, working with different materials. I worked with metal in Portugal. So it was nice to work with wood (mostly flexible plywood).
“I did the work at the National Sculpture Factory. It was great to have conversations there with other artists and it was brilliant to have the support from Sample Studios.”
Cocoon: Catch A Breath is at the Lord Mayor’s Pavilion and the Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald’s Park until April 22.