Cork-based artist uses wedding dresses as her canvas

A Cork-based artist is using garments, like wedding dresses, to creative unique pieces of art, celebrating a person’s life story, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork-based artist uses wedding dresses as her canvas

Artist Kerstin Walsh. 

FOR artist and photographer Kerstin Walsh, a photograph of a wedding dress is a blank canvas for a unique painting that captures the essence of a person’s life story.

She creates her bespoke art works to honour a person’s memory or to mark an important rite-of-passage. After photographing a significant dress, often a wedding dress, she prints the image onto the paper bearing the white dress. The symbol of a dress is used to “house the story and spirit” of her subjects, creating a visual tale.

Kerstin, who is half German and was brought up in Dublin, now lives in Turners Cross, having spent a lot of time in West Cork as a child. Her German mother first hit on Cork when she moved to Ireland, instilling a love for the city and county in Kerstin and her twin sister, Astrid, who is also an artist living in Cobh.

Some of Kerstin's work.
Some of Kerstin's work.

After her BA at UCD, where she studied English literature and sociology, as well as a stint travelling around the world, Kerstin spent a couple of years in Berlin where she worked with the German equivalent of Friends of the Elderly. She came to Cork to study social policy and social work at University College Cork.

“I heard that the masters in social work in Cork was very creative. While I was doing it, I worked for Well Springs in Cork city which is a house for homeless girls. I really liked that work. The management team were amazing and supported me in being creative.

“I did everything with the girls, from baking to taking them out to try on debs’ dresses. We also wrote letters to each other. And I was doing The Artists’ Way (exploring creativity) with them, getting to know each girl.”

Why the switch to working full-time as an artist?

“There were a few reasons. I mean, social work is quite difficult. I found that the paper work started getting heavier and heavier. And I was taking the work home with me.

“Social work — not Well Springs itself — is getting tighter and changing from what I wanted to do. When I graduated, there was an embargo on social workers. The only job you could get was in child protection. I think I had reached the end of a certain line of thought.

Kerstin Walsh is half German and was brought up in Dublin but now lives in Cork.
Kerstin Walsh is half German and was brought up in Dublin but now lives in Cork.

“So I was running classes in creativity and doing drawing classes. My own practice was going on all the time. While I was in Berlin, I worked under a great artist who was very good at teaching drawing.”

Kerstin sold her art at art fairs. But then the recession hit, putting paid to that.

“Around that time, I got married and the career changed.”

Kerstin married an Indian man called Jay whom she met while waitressing at Greene’s Restaurant in Cork while she was a student. Jay was studying hospitality in Zurich and was in Cork on behalf of the Restaurant Association of Ireland. The couple got married in India, enjoying “the whole five-day Indian wedding.”

When her two children, now aged five and ten, came along, Kerstin explored different kinds of visual art.

“I started taking photographs of white objects, colouring them in. I was talking to a friend about her wedding. 

"Richael Mulvihill told me the story of her wedding dress. She was kind of lamenting the way you put so much work and thought into the dress then it ends up hanging in your wardrobe. So I said, ‘wouldn’t it be great to colour in a photograph of your own wedding dress?’

“I did a photo shoot of my friend’s dress. She was going to colour it in herself. But then she said she’d like me to do it. So I started drawing on the photo of the dress. We spoke about her life story and how her grandparents had a house on Cape Clear. I started drawing images based on this. Richael loved the result and has it hanging in her kitchen. It took off from there.”

Kerstin has done about 20 of these paintings. Finding out what to portray “is a bit like a treasure hunt,” she says.

Kerstin drawing.
Kerstin drawing.

“I like to talk to the person about where they’re from and what’s going on in their life. If it’s a wedding dress that is being used for the art piece, I ask the person how they met, what they like about each other and I ask them about the wedding.

“Sometimes, I work with the readings from the wedding and the songs and try to build up a picture. It fills up. I do sketches first and then draw on the ‘canvas’. The dress itself is untouched.”

For her next project, which will be “epic”, Kerstin is going to use the sari she wore for her wedding.

“A sari is very long. I will probably do it in three sections. I know an artist from Pakistan, Amna Walayat, who is a master in miniature painting. She said she’ll sit down with me and we’ll kind of collaborate.

“Amna uses miniature painting to tell stories about controversies and emotional stories about what’s happening to women in India and Pakistan. It’s kind of political art. The themes include female genital mutilation and she has done stuff on colonialism.”

Kerstin at work.
Kerstin at work.

Kerstin says that her personal project “will be like writing a memoir except it will be in a drawings”.

She doesn’t just work from wedding dresses. She has worked from a leather jacket and also communion dresses. Kerstin got a photographer and a couturier/stylist to go into the woods, where photographs were taken of a plain white dress in among the trees.

“I want to do a few generic dresses based on a universal experience, “ says Kerstin.

In a way, this artist is giving a whole new lease of life to wedding dresses. It’s an opportunity to take off the moth balls.

For more see

Pictures:Kate Bean and styling: Alice Halliday

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