Cork artists exhibit work inspired by the solace they found at the river during the pandemic

Two women who found solace from our waterways during lockdown showcase a new exhibition this month, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork artists exhibit work inspired by the solace they found at the river during the pandemic

Angie Shanahan and Bridget Flannery at Backwater Artist Studios, Wandesford Quay.Cork.

CORK-BORN artists and Crawford graduates, Angie Shanahan and Bridget Flannery, always wanted to work together, and thanks to Covid and the solace they both derive from rivers, they are showing Watermarks at the Backwater Artists Project 12 Exhibition Space until March 13.

As Angie says: “Water is the element that attracts us both, in terms of swimming or walking. The term ‘watermark’ refers to a mark on paper made with water. So we felt that related to our journeys through water during lockdown.”

Originally from Shanakiel and now living on the Boreenmanna Road, Angie went walking every day during the lockdowns, from her home towards the dockland area.

“I’d pass The Idle Hour and one of the first buildings I’d see would be a grain silo on the quay (which Angie has drawn in pencil for the exhibition). 

"When I couldn’t get into the studios because they were locked, I circumnavigated the city, exploring the river. I’ve been circumnavigating the city my entire life, coming down from Strawberry Hill along the quays to school. Latterly, living on the south side, I would walk in the direction of the Crawford College.”

Documenting her exploration of the river during lockdown, Angie always carried a sketch book in which to draw and also took photographs.

Angie Shanahan drawing, WATERMARKS, Studio 12 Exhibition/ Project Space, Backwater Artists Group, Wandesford Quay, Cork.
Angie Shanahan drawing, WATERMARKS, Studio 12 Exhibition/ Project Space, Backwater Artists Group, Wandesford Quay, Cork.

“I was observing the river, noting that the weirs at Clarke’s Bridge and at Parliament Bridge, were exposed at different times of the day. You’d see otters and cormorants and ducks. There is incredible wildlife in rivers if you look down. 

"I was looking at the bulwarks along the river, especially at George’s Quay. One of my drawings came about from looking at the river and the bulwark opposite Holy Trinity.”

For Angie, the river, during lockdown, saved her.

“Watching the river move along, there’s an energy in it. You can let your dreams get carried along with the flow.”

At the beginning of lockdown, “everybody was panicking trying to decide where to go within their 2km. For me, walking, observing and drawing the river was a natural thing to get back to. That’s why we decided to go for the exhibition. Our initial impulse felt very connected. We wanted to try and get back to some kind of balance.”

Before this exhibition, Angie was always focusing on the water “but more in coastal settings because I would have been able to get in the car and go to the sea. The fact that Cork city is an island city is an emollient, if you like, in terms of calmness.”

Angie’s work used to be photo realist “but I’ve definitely moved away from that. When you’re drawing from life into a sketch book, you’re not looking at the photo realist element. You’re just making inputs and marks.”

Angie adds that an important element of the exhibition is doing a mapping, taking in the river.

“The initial impulse if you wanted to tell somebody how to get from Wandesford Quay (the location of the Backwater Studios) to the Crawford, would have been to draw a map for them. Or you’d give a verbal description. 

"Because we’re visual artists, we’re still inclined to think in terms of maps, even though a lot of people have dispensed with them, using Google Maps instead, a modern method of finding your way. 

"But I love pouring over an actual physical map. It allows you to find your place in the landscape or the environment.”

Bridget Flannery, originally from St Lukes and now living in Carlow, says she spent a lot of her life in Cork “walking up and down the hills and over bridges and then into the city going to the Crawford. I was criss-crossing all the time.”

Throughout lockdown, Bridget went out every morning, walking along the River Barrow, which inspired paintings.

“I have a whole book of the paintings I made. They are watercolours, gouache paintings, pencil work and bits of the earth, whatever I had. I would come back from my walk, refreshed, because I also started going for a swim in the river. That was interesting because I had never been a river swimmer. I was a sea swimmer. I had a slight aversion to river swimming because I thought there might be pike nibbling at my toes. But it was wonderful. There was that lovely sense of being carried. It’s a very different feeling to sea swimming.”

Bridget Flannery drawing at 'WATERMARKS' Studio 12 Exhibition/Project Space,Backwater Artists Group, Wandesford Quay.
Bridget Flannery drawing at 'WATERMARKS' Studio 12 Exhibition/Project Space,Backwater Artists Group, Wandesford Quay.

Bridget is exhibiting charcoal drawings at the exhibition.

“They are gestural drawings and mark-making. What ended up happening was that the gesture of the drawing started to echo the gesture of swimming. And I was listening to a lot of contemporary art music at the time. So there were these long string pieces of music, the swimming movements and linear mark-making. It was a very rich time.”

It was also a worrying time for Bridget and her husband as their daughter, a nurse, had just moved to London and was working on the frontline. But Bridget found solace in the river.

“Angie and myself were talking about the impulse to go to the water; to be in the water. It’s interesting to hear Angie talking about walking the river. I started thinking about how I used to walk the River Lee.

"I found old photographs of my parents and myself as a child in the Lee fields. There were pictures of myself and my husband there also and more of me with my parents and aunt and uncle at Gougane Barra.

“I started thinking a lot about the river. So I got out my maps - of which I have far too many - and started tracing the actual course of the River Lee while I was walking the course of the Barrow. On a physical level, I was walking the Barrow which is close to where I live. But on an emotional level and on a memory level, I was tracing the route of the Lee. There was something really nice about that.”

Bridget reflects on the “knitting of ideas” coming from both her and Angie, including their interest in maps. She is a fan of the late Tim Robinson, writer, artist and cartographer. He walked the landscape of the West of Ireland and the Arran Islands for his books and maps.

“Tim Robinson also investigated place names as well, which is something I’m really interested in.”

In one of her drawings, Angie quotes the words of James Joyce in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, writing about the father of Stephen Dedalus.

“They had unearthed traces of a Cork accent in his speech and made him admit that the Lee was a much finer river than the Liffey.”

A sentiment that proud Corkonians no doubt identify with.

Dancer, Inma Pavon, is responding to the exhibition, having previously responded to Angie’s work about ten years ago.

“When I told Inma that the exhibition is about water, she got very excited as she had taken up swimming from the Lee Fields,” says Angie.

“It’s important to her. It has grounded her. So she will respond to Watermark through a dance format on March 12 at 3pm at the Backwater’s Studio 12.”

It will belatedly celebrate International Women’s Day.

There will also be an artists’ talk about ‘Watermarks’ in the Wandesford Quay Courtyard on March 12 at noon. All are welcome to attend.

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