IT’S only fitting that artist Kirsten Murray is showing portraits of inspirational women at an exhibition in Cobh Library.
The Dublin-born 43-year-old, who has been living in Cork for 20 years, is the only daughter of a strong woman who brought her up on her own.
Kirsten, who studied at the Crawford College of Art and Design, is all too aware that her mother could have been sent to a Magdalene Laundry. Kirsten’s mother didn’t tell her parents that she was pregnant “until it was too late”.
But she added: “My grandparents were fantastic.”
Kirsten says she has always been a feminist to some degree or another.
“As a single mother, my mum made sure things were OK for me and her. She got a job as a social worker from a local authority without full disclosure. (She didn’t tell her interviewers that she was pregnant.)”
At that time, “it was possibly illegal for a married woman to have that job. My mother had the job for nearly 30 years.
“When I was at school, a girl who was pregnant was sent away to a home at 16. My school was near Griffith Avenue where there was a Magdalene Laundry.”
As a young girl at primary school, Kirsten says she had to tell lies and say that her father was dead.
“I felt a bit different but I didn’t feel deprived. I would say I’m a feminist because I came from a situation with an independent woman. My mother is fantastic.”
Kirsten’s exhibition, entitled Incantation, features women such as Margaret Atwood (jointly awarded this year’s Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo), Jean Rhys (author of The Wide Sargasso Sea), American singer/songwriter Stevie Nicks, eco-activist Greta Thunberg, Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi and Bridget Cleary who was killed by her husband in 1895 and is popularly described as ‘the last witch burned in Ireland’.
There are some men in the exhibition, which is a mixture of mosaics and ink drawings. One of those portrayed is Diarmuid Ó Dálaigh, a Cork poet. There is also a portrait of Nuala Leonard, a friend of Kirsten, who is a performance poet and the only woman to win the All Ireland Slam Poetry Competition.
Portraits of famous musicians such as David Bowie and John Cale are in the exhibition too.
Kirsten, who works in Cork Art Supplies, has been drawing and painting for as long as she can remember.
“I’ve been obsessed with Stevie Nicks since I was a child. As a little girl, I was drawing pencil portraits of her,” she says of Nicks, best known as a songwriter and vocalist with Fleetwood Mac.
“Stevie Nicks suits this exhibition as there’s an element of witchyness going through it. She has written songs about witches and there’s rumours of her being a (white) witch. She was in American Horror Story as a white witch.
Kirsten drew her portrait of Greta Thunberg “when she started getting stick from men”.
“It just seems to be a bad time to be a woman and active in the world. Greta is very impressive to me but vilified when she stands up.”
The portrait that Kirsten has drawn of Margaret Atwood is based on a photograph of the writer with her cat in the ’80s.
“She has a very powerful face and is such an inspiration. I read The Handmaid’s Tale and watched the TV series. I remember reading the book in the ’90s and thinking how plausible all the small steps seemed to be, for women to lose power.
“One day, you go to the ATM and your card doesn’t work. It’s plausible and terrifying.
“When the TV series was made, you had Trump and the new right trying to overturn abortion legislation. It’s a really prescient book that is more relevant now than anything.
“While there are strides forward being made for women, in other ways, not so much. It’s a great time in Ireland to be a woman because we have repealed the 8th and we have gay marriage. It seems very progressive.
“But countries we would normally have looked to are getting worse, such as Britain and America. America is a terrifying place for women in terms of health care. These are scary times. I don’t feel scared being a woman in Ireland but I’m observing other countries.”
Kirsten loves portraiture.
“Getting a likeness is kind of like a magical spark. I also love mosaic work. A lot of the time, I make pieces out of broken crockery that I get from friends. I buy stuff too but I prefer crockery to have had a previous life. It makes it more interesting because they’re of a particular time. Also, it means there is zero waste. Mosaic is one of the most enduring art forms. There are mosaics that are thousands of years old.”
Kirsten Murray’s exhibition is at Cobh Library until November 13.