I use waste from Cork’s beaches in my art work

COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to two women who started their careers as chefs, but have both honed their artistic talents to become award-winning craftspeople
I use waste from Cork’s beaches in my art work
Helen O'Shea. Picture: Jed Niezgoda / www.venividi.ie

TWO Cork-based crafts women, who recently won awards from the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland (DCCoI) Future Makers Awards & Supports, have more than their artistic practices in common.

Helen O’Shea, from Cork, and Bernadette Tuite, originally from Navan, both initially trained as chefs and came to working in crafts via circuitous routes.

In the Emerging Maker category, textile maker Helen received studio support of €1,500. The judges remarked that her work “draws attention to the importance of sustainability within modern craft and design practice. Helen uses throw-away elements to create something new. The work is very well resolved.”

Fifty-seven-year-old Helen has only just completed the final year of her degree at the Crawford College of Art & Design.

“I have come a long road,” says this mother-of-two, who is going to buy an industrial sewing machine with her award money.

The year she left school, her father died.

“I got a place in the Crawford School of Art and I also got a chef training course. I decided to go for the chef course, just to get the practical skills. I was a private chef in the U.S.”

Among her clients was the Hollywood actor, Bill Murray.

Helen always wanted to study art and when she had enough money saved, she returned to Ireland and put herself through the Grennan Mill Craft School in Kilkenny.

“Then I came back to Cork and decided to do the foundation year at the Crawford. I then worked for years, teaching arts and craft in youth work settings, to kids after school. It was an amazing job because it was different every day. I really enjoyed it but I never had any room for my own work. Eventually, the job shrank and I decided to go back to college.

“After a while, I got a studio at the Backwater Artists. Having worked from home, it was really isolating. When I went to college, I realised that community is very important and went about getting the studio space.”

Helen was awarded a scholarship by the Crawford to do a masters.

“It’s a masters by research. I’m researching plastic, looking at people who are re-using it. I’m trying to focus on people who are doing something really positive with plastic.

“Because artists are innovative, I’m looking at what they’re doing and I want to bring all that together and learn from it myself. I think people are very supportive of the idea of re-using plastic.”

A light weight vessel, measuring about ten inches in height, in the colours of the sea, as well as rusts and yellows, is just one of the many beautiful artefacts that Helen has created. Amazingly, it is made from five plastic bags. A few of them came from a woman she knows in Switzerland. These bags have maps on them. There is also a Marks & Spencer bag used as well as bar codes printed on plastic.

“I’ve become more environmentally aware and I like to re-use objects. In 2015, I was on a residency in Iceland. There, I saw everything being re-used. Because it is a small island, the people there value everything. Back here, I saw all the plastic on the beaches and I was determined to work with it and to see what I could do to change it into something. Plastic in the sea is really impacting the environment.”

For her ten inch vessel, Helen took the five plastic bags apart and then stitched them together, layering them and changing the colours.

“If you put a green over a blue, you get a different colour. Because I’m a textile person, I wanted the threads to be visible. I remoulded the material into the shape of a vessel.”

Helen trawls the beaches around Cork, including Inch beach. Of the waste she picks, nothing is beyond use. She is wearing a blue ring that the made from a bottle top. “I found the bottle top on a beach and I recycled some plastic to make the ring. It’s a talking point. It gets people talking about the environment.”

And that is all important for Helen.

Bernadette Tuite
Bernadette Tuite

Bernadette, who is 48, was also a mature student. At the CCoI awards, she was awarded professional development support of €500. The judges said that her ceramics “speak of the connection between land and sea, the surfaces emulating the processes of erosion on the coast line.”

She went to the Crawford College of Art and Design in 2014 where she did the applied art degree. She was subsequently offered a ceramics residency and finished that in May. She considers herself very lucky to have got a place at the Backwater Studios.

Originally, Bernadette trained as a pastry chef at Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin. With her qualification, she moved to San Francisco. She had worked as a chef in Dublin, Germany and the Cayman Islands. But after a while, she decided she didn’t want to work in a kitchen anymore.

“I wanted to be outside because San Francisco is such a beautiful place.”

Bernadette wanted to work on boats and attended maritime college. She worked her way up to being a boat captain, having started as a deck hand.

“I have captained all sorts of boats including dinner yachts, party boats, whale watching boats and boats where weddings are held. I loved the work. And there were also my creative desires. I wouldn’t be that busy for the winter and I wanted something to do.

“There was a wonderful art department as part of the city college. It was in an annex near my house so I went there and had a go at ceramics. It was pretty much an instant attraction. I started a new voyage — a less salty one!”

Bernadette believes that we all have artistic talent.

“It’s about giving yourself the time to find it. Everyone has creative abilities, whether it’s a strong need in you or a lesser one. The more I did ceramics, the stronger my need for that work grew.”

Bernadette Tuite's work.
Bernadette Tuite's work.

Like Helen, Bernadette is concerned about the environment which influences her work, layering clay “to reflect the layered landscape. I make sculptural ceramic vessels.”

Bernadette has swapped yachts for a kayak in which she and her wood sculptor partner, Denis Lynch, clean up beaches.

“We have been going up and down the Cork coast for four years, from Youghal to Schull. We find humungous amounts of rubbish. On the beaches, we tidy as we go along.

“While Helen reconstitutes waste, I gather it. We can’t take it away as our kayak is too small and it would be dangerous. What we do with the waste is bury it under stones, like big stone tombs. Because I’ve been in extraordinarily beautiful areas, I just felt the need to bring some awareness to the natural beauty and what’s going on in terms of pollution.”

By tidying up waste on beaches and burying it above the water line, Bernadette says that at least it’s not going into the bellies of fish.

“It’s important to give back to those areas we go out in. We have an ambition to set up a non profit group in the future with some help from Cork County Council so that we can bag the waste and take it away and change it into something amazing.”

Bernadette takes photographs of “amazing rocks”.

Bernadette Tuite's work.
Bernadette Tuite's work.

“The scenery is stunning, with incredible colours. I turn that into pots, marbling clay and mixing clays. Where possible, I incorporate found material, like pieces of sand, into the pots. I suppose you could say the vessels I make are abstract. It’s an emotional depiction of what I see. I approach it with both awe and reverence.”

In thrall to Cork and its coastline, Bernadette says it reminds her of San Francisco because of its proximity to the ocean. She returned to Ireland because the economic downturn ten years ago affected her work. Also, she had got divorced and her father was ill.

“I came home to help my mother take care of my father. I set up a ceramics studio in the back garden. It was my means of sanity in an Alzheimer’s house.

“From there, like Helen, I attended the Grennan Mill Craft School from 2012-2014. That got me into the Crawford.”

Bernadette and Helen have clearly found their passions and are living proof that you’re never too old to study something that excites you

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