Cork exhibition features forgotten female heroes

‘Women Unremembered’ is a new solo exhibition by Cork-based artist Oonagh Hurley. NICOLA DEPUIS chats to the artist - who is also behind the recently unveiled Lady Opera at Cork Opera House
Cork exhibition features forgotten female heroes

Oonagh Hurley pictured at the launch of "Women Unremembered" running at County Cork Library until 13 May.  Pictured: Ger McCarthy

CORK Opera House recently welcomed a new diva in the shape of Lady Opera – a large acrylic on canvas portraiture, which incorporates elements of the theatre into its colourful female representation.

“The shape of both the balcony and ground floor seating plans made for interesting adaptations,” says Cork-based artist Oonagh Hurley.

“Using them, I imagined a female character in costume, which could conceivably be found in opera, drama, or pantomime.

“The shapes of the balcony and stalls lent themselves to designing the head-dress, bodice, and upper skirt of her costume, and the red theatre curtain made a wonderful skirt.

“I based the face of Lady Opera on the make-up on Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra, which I love. But I didn’t want it to be Liz Taylor either. It had to be every performer; everyone and no-one.”

Oonagh Hurley with Lady Opera at Cork Opera House.
Oonagh Hurley with Lady Opera at Cork Opera House.

For the position of Lady Opera, Oonagh took many photographs of her 19-year-old daughter in various poses, and for scale, she lay on her studio floor and asked the artist Mary Galvin, who she shared a studio with at the time, to outline her in chalk.

“It was like a crime scene,” adds Oonagh.

She has become well known for her portraiture work, such as her ‘Women Unremembered’ series, which was first exhibited in Cork City Hall in March, 2019, in celebration of International Women’s Day and the naming of the new pedestrian bridge after Mary Elmes, one of the subjects in her ongoing portrait series.

Other portraits in the series include journalist and aviator Lilian Bland – who was “anything but bland, she was amazing”, abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, civil engineer Catherine Walsh, “the first female working engineer in Ireland”, chemist Rosalind Franklin - who first identified the structure of DNA - and The Wallace Sisters, who were spies for the IRA during the War of Independence from their little newsagents in Cork city.

Oonagh’s also working on portraits of Dr James Barry, aka Margaret Bulkley, and Ballylickey botanist Ellen Hutchins. But there’s one issue when it comes to painting Hutchins – there are no photos of her – so all Oonagh had to work off was a description of her from her grand-niece, and a reproduction of the men’s boots she used to wear.

'Amelia', 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 45 x 35 cm, Oonagh Hurley, which is part of the Women Unremembered exhibition.
'Amelia', 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 45 x 35 cm, Oonagh Hurley, which is part of the Women Unremembered exhibition.

The latest Women Unremembered exhibition opened at LHQ Gallery, at County Hall last week and continues until May 13. It also features Agnes Clerke (an astronomer from Skibbereen), Oonah Keogh (first woman in the world to work in the stock exchange ), and Rosalind Franklin (chemist who discovered the structure of DNA).

Oonagh keeps a box of photographs and cut-outs of women who inspire her work.

“The entry point for me to this subject of women unremembered was a lovely photograph of Amelia Earhart.

“I started researching her and learned a lot - she was a writer, teacher, she taught flying, had a fashion range and was an activist for women’s rights.”

While researching Earhart, Oonagh came across an aviatrix much closer to home.

“Lillian Bland wanted to join the local flying club in Belfast, but they wouldn’t allow her because she was a woman,” says Oonagh.

“So, she built her own plane, and eventually men from the flying club were coming to her to teach them how to build planes.”

Oonagh’s work is helping to keep the spirits of these remarkable women alive.

“There’s a saying that we all die twice. The first time is when you take your last breath. And the second time is when the last person who remembers you dies. Many of these women were shelved, forgotten about. Women Unremembered is my way of helping to keep them alive.”

'Rosalind' or 'Photo 51', 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40 cm, Oonagh Hurley
'Rosalind' or 'Photo 51', 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40 cm, Oonagh Hurley

Oonagh has been drawing from a young age. But it was after taking a few night classes at the Crawford while working as a physiotherapist that she began to feel a real call to the life of an artist.

“We used to be encouraged to wander around the college at night, to see the artist’s work and their spaces, and I used to think, I’d love to be in here. So, my husband gave me the nudge, and said ‘just do it, go for it’.”

Oonagh started with a portfolio preparation year at Scoil Stiofain Naofa, which was “great, very structured”.

What took a lot more getting used to was her first year at actual art college, which wasn’t so structured.

“Art college is very chilled and relaxed,” says Oonagh, who was also raising three young children during her student days.

“I’d come from a very busy nine-to-five day. So sometimes I’d be sitting there with nothing much happening, thinking - I’m paying a childminder for this?”

It took a while but once the hectic exam days crept up, she was grateful she had a solid work ethic behind her.

“It does have frantic times, and deadlines for essays and projects that you’re working on,” says Oonagh.

“I came close to packing it in once or twice with essays and stuff to get in. You do come out licking your wounds a lot of the time. It’s probably not for everyone but it was a great experience.

“Most of the time I was pinching myself that I was just able to be there.”

A painting by Oonagh Hurley, called Synchrony I.
A painting by Oonagh Hurley, called Synchrony I.

Oonagh believes “everyone has the potential to make art”, but that’s it’s not encouraged very much in Ireland.

“We don’t have a strong art history because of our situation, our poverty, and all the rest - we weren’t art collectors,’ says Oonagh.

“I read somewhere that Belgium is the highest collector per capita, because it’s the home of diamonds, but some fantastic painters have emerged in Belgium. They value art. And so, if they’ve grown up as a child seeing art on the walls - it doesn’t have to be expensive art, it could be prints – it helps it become normal, and helps you develop an interest. It’s not just something then that belongs in a gallery.”

Oonagh believes that once you stop going to secondary school in Ireland, most people never draw again, nor are they encouraged to.

I would like to see it continued as a means of expression… the way music is when people just jam away together,” she says.

“I think for kids, especially kids these days, who maybe find that words aren’t enough to express what they’re feeling, art can be great at helping them release all that pressure and stress.

“It would be great if there was an art room in every school that people could just go into, just to doodle, to draw.

“I’d love to see children engaging with Lady Opera – looking at what their seat number is in The Opera House, and then finding it on the painting. Having fun with it. That engagement is very important.”

Lady Opera can be seen at the Cork Opera House. Oonagh’s ongoing extended series of ‘Women Unremembered’ is being exhibited in the LHQ Gallery at Cork County Hall until May 13. LHQ Gallery is open Monday to Friday, from 9am to 5.30pm.

Oonagh will also be exhibiting with The Blue House Gallery in Schull, Co. Cork in July, 2022.

Her work is also in public and private collections including OPW and MTU.

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