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Drawing inspiration! Street art rising on the walls of Cork

At a time when venue closures and restrictions have altered our relationship with visual art, the Ardú street art project has helped bring new pieces from some of Ireland’s mural artists directly to the people.

The gable end of South Terrace is alive with shapes, layers and the image of a Cork hurler. The newly-plastered outer walls of Harley Street pop to life with colour, while the Kino venue on Washington Street, no stranger to large-scale art in itself, once more bears the signs of a work in progress along its long, street-facing front wall.

 Artists, Peter Martin, Shane O’Driscoll, Paul Gleeson and Deirdre Breen, kicking off Ardú Street Art Initiative, supported by Cork City Council Arts Office and Creative Ireland. Picture: Clare Keogh

Artists, Peter Martin, Shane O’Driscoll, Paul Gleeson and Deirdre Breen, kicking off Ardú Street Art Initiative, supported by Cork City Council Arts Office and Creative Ireland. Picture: Clare Keogh

Ardú, a street-art initiative organised by Cork mural specialists and featuring new work from a variety of Irish artists in the genre, aims to embrace the changes that have had to happen since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis regarding the public relationship with visual art, and how the medium can be appreciated at a time when filing past exhibits in a museum or exhibition space comes with limitations, even when it can happen. Running from now until late December, Ardú sees Maser, Shane O’Driscoll, Deirdre Breen, Peter Martin, James Earley, Aches, and Garreth Joyce converge on the city and bring their visions to different parts of the city, providing new perspectives on locations on Harley’s Street, Wandesford Quay, Washington Street, Anglesea Street, Liberty Street, Kyle Street, and Henry Street.

 People walk by an Art work by artist Shane O’Driscoll, at Harley Street in Cork.  Picture: Clare Keogh

People walk by an Art work by artist Shane O’Driscoll, at Harley Street in Cork.  Picture: Clare Keogh

For co-organiser Paul Gleeson, the idea had been bandied about among a circle of frequent collaborators even before the lockdown, but as circumstances dictated, their work would become essential to a co-ordinated artistic response to ongoing restrictions, that included City Council co-operation and funding from Creative Ireland’s stimulus fund.

 Deirdre Breen with  her street art at Wandesford Quay in Cork city.

Deirdre Breen with  her street art at Wandesford Quay in Cork city.

“We have all been involved in public art and the mural scene in Cork for years, but all from different backgrounds and approaches.

“We felt that even though Cork has seen a brilliant boost in street art and graffiti murals over the past few years, there was still an opportunity to really step this up and make a big statement.

We all separately had an idea about what we’d like to see painted in Cork and once we sat down we realised we all shared the same goal: to introduce a limited number of very big and very ambitious murals to the city, and to have these painted by prominent artists who were all active in the scene now, but also were either from Cork or had a long-standing history of painting in Cork.

“We didn’t really know what to expect of how our proposal would be received by the council as none of us had done this before, but the immediate support we received was amazing. The Planning and Arts office loved the idea and helped us understand how we could turn it into a functioning art initiative, assisting us each step along the way. After a few meetings it became a formal proposal, and we began to add bones to it and developed our core team. It’s been amazing to see the idea grow from a conversation between a few enthusiasts about what we’d love to contribute to our city into this really positive program you now see appearing on the walls.”

 Wandesford Quay street art.

Wandesford Quay street art.

Approaching work for an initiative like this was a task that surely warranted the care that’s gone into it, from looking at locations in the city and the benefit to be had from public art in their areas, to generating ideas and helping artists realise their vision. Muralist and co-organiser Shane O’Driscoll talks us through the steps taken to co-ordinate and bring life to the project.“We had to put together a list of walls we felt would work best with location, accessibility and also have them spread throughout the city.

“Artists were also involved in the selection, as they needed to be happy with the wall they were painting.

“Building owners were contacted to get their approval and would have been shown the proposed artwork for their wall. Some artists would research the local area and take elements from that to integrate into their artworks. It’s always nice when the artwork has a connection with the place it is in as that helps it resonate further with the locals.

 Shane O’Driscoll working on his street art at Harley Street.

Shane O’Driscoll working on his street art at Harley Street.

“It’s really important when picking locations that the piece will actually fit into the area and compliment it,” says Gleeson. “A lot of thought went into making sure that anything we added to an area wouldn’t take from its cultural heritage or overwhelm the street. I think the most important thing about public art is how the public actually experiences it and for us, this was what we considered when picking locations. How would the piece look when you happen upon it? What kind of views of the piece are there? Are there nice pedestrian pathways that lead to the piece? Does it sit naturally along an area of footfall?”

While the practicalities of installing public art in cities often necessitate such involved project co-ordination and civic collaboration, the artistic/process-end of things allows for all of this consideration to manifest itself in the iterative stages and execution of the works at the centre of the project. Tied together by the idea of ‘rising’, muralists like Peter Martin have been interpreting the theme differently.

“My process was actually quite simple. I was just looking at the culture of people fishing from the Lee, something that has been happening in the city for hundreds of years. In thought of the idea of the fish rising to the bait.

“During lockdown, fishing made a massive resurgence and that was particularly noticeable down on the Lee Fields. It’s an age-old tradition that has stayed alive. A lot of my work references Cork architecture, and I felt that the backdrop of St Anne’s worked as it’s a reminder of the darker side of Cork’s history.

 Artist, Shane O’Driscoll , kicking off Ardú Street Art Initiative. Picture: Clare Keogh

Artist, Shane O’Driscoll , kicking off Ardú Street Art Initiative. Picture: Clare Keogh

“In terms of physically designing the artwork, selecting the wall and designing the piece to fit the wall and the area is probably the most important part of the process. The rising and fall of the River Lee is also something that

affects our everyday life and these tidal changes are directly linked to the moon.”

Any concern there might have been about the response of the city’s communities to the pieces have long been allayed by the reaction of individuals and groups living nearby, commuting around town or just coming to see the art in progress, a huge part of the initiative’s appeal in the absence of the usual spaces and venues amid the current lockdown. Job done, says O’Driscoll.“

It’s been massively positive. I was painting last week on Harley Street and meeting people every day: many had added the street to their daily walk to see the progress, and welcomed the artwork in the city. Feedback from the other artists has been good also, and residents have been welcoming the new addition. As lockdown has just started, it’ll be great for people to see the progress of the artworks, and their part in rejuvenating the city, so that people will have something to look forward to seeing at the end of it.”

 Artist, James Early's work. Picture: Clare Keogh

Artist, James Early's work. Picture: Clare Keogh

Adds Gleeson: “We always knew from our own experiences that the public in Cork were supportive and open-minded about murals and new art in the city, but the reaction to Ardú has been really communal. The same people are coming by each day to see updates, have a chat and even buy the artists a coffee as a thank you… it really justifies our whole idea behind this.

“As well as this, we’ve had residents and traders from the surrounding buildings introduce themselves, provide food and coffees etc., obviously all at a safe distance, and for us, their approval and enthusiasm about the pieces is what’s most important.”

That same open-mindedness on street art has long been a part of Cork’s cultural consciousness, from ‘guerrilla’ efforts, all the way up to intricate, co-ordinated street campaigns like Mad About Cork are all part of the city’s identity in the eyes of keen watchers. Gleeson discusses the importance of these initiatives in opening up the conversation on murals and street art, and their role in cities’ cultures, communities and appearances.

“I think these pieces will absolutely open the door for a whole new conversation about street art, murals and public art in general in Cork City and also the role it can play in revitalising streets and adding life to an area,” says Gleeson.

 Artist Shane O’Driscoll.

Artist Shane O’Driscoll.

“At a time where there is so much negativity in the news and general day to day, this serves as an escape, and an opportunity to spark life and hope into people’s enjoyment of their own streets. The most rewarding thing I have seen in the past week of this festival has been watching children with their parents react at the sheer scale of the pieces and asking their parents questions. Each of these walls shows these children that they shouldn’t see boundaries to creativity, to think big and embrace their creative side.”

In addition to the goal of adding a new dimension to the experience of living the city centre, the Ardú initiative’s creativity and star power aims to place Cork on the international street-art map, adding to a ‘cool second city’ status reinforced over the years with progressive and radical music, performance and literature scenes.

 ACHES pictured working in Cork City centre. Picture: Clare Keogh

ACHES pictured working in Cork City centre. Picture: Clare Keogh

“On a purely commercial or financial point, I think these works are a hugely positive addition to the city for its traders and businesses. People will come in to see them and also walk new streets they normally wouldn’t and when that happens people will discover new shops, cafe’s etc along the way.

“People flew out of Cork Airport every week to visit London, Lisbon, Berlin etc to take in their public art, and explore their street art… we can now offer that to locals and tourists alike in a way we never did before. The artists we have chosen are huge names, and draw a massive following from fans of street art.”

Of course, we can’t ignore The Prevailing Circumstances and their possible impact on this and future initiatives, although the doors have been firmly held open by necessity, but for now, Gleeson is glad to see the project being realised, and imagining the city’s response in turn to the work therein.

“For me personally, I’m just looking forward to taking my kids to see the finished walls as they’ve loved being part of this with me. I look forward to happening upon them when I’m roaming town and I definitely have a lot of pride in what the artists have created for us.

“I think Ardú will show the hugely positive impact public art has on changing how a city functions, and how people interact with their surrounding spaces. Cork is a very proud city, and hopefully these pieces will become a new source of pride, and if nothing else it will show people that they should embrace their creative side and go out and make something.

“I think art is best when it’s free, and public art is the purest form because it doesn’t discriminate and has no boundaries to who can see it. Anyone can walk that street, rich or poor and make their own mind up on what that piece means to them.

 ACHES street art.  Picture: Clare Keogh

ACHES street art.  Picture: Clare Keogh

”The painting of Ardú murals runs for the rest of the month around the city, with select pieces being completed in December, with all art being permanently installed for public viewing.

  • For full details visit www.corkcity.ie/ardu.