Born in North London, I grew up above my Dad’s antique musical box shop. In my 20s I joined a band of new travellers and eventually arrived in Ireland. After falling in love with Leitrim I made my home here in the early 90s. My 3 grown up children and grandson all live in the UK and Canada. I am a trained counsellor and now in my last year of a Fine Art degree.
We’d love to know what fires your imagination, what things take your breath away? Nature – animals, trees, rivers and hills, the mountains, birds and dogs, flowers, the wind and rain, sun and clouds – these are my passion and inspiration. Although I grew up in a city, the countryside called to me and I love to wake up to the sound of birds and cows! Maybe a donkey and some sheep too. I’m excited by life itself, by mystery and magic, by all that humans don’t know about the world and what might lie beyond our perceptions, as well as our immediate sensory reality. Music has always been important in the way it shifts my body and my mood.
What was the first thing you made, what was it and what age were you? Set the scene for us. These are great questions! I painted a picture of a panda when I was about 8 that my Mum still has on her wall. I copied it from the World Wildlife logo. But I also remember making a den in some woods when I was about the same age, using sticks and bracken. It had a sign saying: ‘all animals welcome’. I think that’s probably the first hint of where my art and my life might lie.
Fox No Frame – Rachel Webb
You live in a remote mountain community. Your work is clearly inspired by this. Was it a deliberate move? There were already blow-ins living here when I first visited. I was living at Lisadell beach at the time, with a bunch of other people in trucks and caravans. The community we had in Leitrim once I moved here was great. It was a very happy time with lots of kids and growing veg and being content with very little. I left for a while but I came back because I’m in love with Benbo and North Leitrim. Whenever I see the hill in the distance, I know I’m home.
What artists do you admire and why? Ha – an endless list. I have huge love for Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel and lots of Americana. Currently I’m listening to Wardruna – a dark, runish Norwegian band, and Nicolas Jaar who my daughter turned me onto. Visually, I really enjoy Bill Viola’s videos, and recently was overwhelmed by ”The Revenant’, so brutal and beautiful. Today I watched a great video by Luke Fowler about Scottish travellers, and I keep re-watching David Holmes’ short film ‘I Am Here’ which I find very moving, and it’s filmed just up the road. I love movies: Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, True Romance, the English Patient, Bladerunner, Dead Man, Lost Highway, Babel, Magnolia, Only Lovers Left Alive. David Attenborough’s nature progammes have had a great influence and also writers like Michael Ondaaje, Angela Carter, Rose Tremain and David Mitchell. There’s a lot of eco-art that I like – a Scottish artist called Dougie Strang who creates spooky and immersive installations in woods and on moors; an English collective called Red Earth that do dramatic rituals in the landscape; Mary MacIntyre, a Northern Irish photographer of liminal places that are beautiful and uncanny. Locally, I have really liked Simon Carmen’s work for a long time. Actually, I like a lot of weird art, to do with folktales, legends and uneasy landscapes, humans with animal heads, the edge between us and the rest of the world.
Do you keep notebooks, have you a system when approaching your work and do you prefer solitary practice or group activities? At college they’ve really encouraged us to keep a visual diary but I’m terrible at that. I keep written notebooks and take thousands of photos. My practice is solitary – I like my own company! I’m just developing a way of making videos. I tried doing a storyboard but it felt so rigid and all the energy drained away. I work with an idea in mind but take lots of different shots, then edit them together and see what I need to add. I’m just as interested in the sound aspect – using layers of natural sound with spoken words. With photo montage I use photos I’ve already got, I take lots all the time. Mostly of nature, no people. I’ll find one I like and then open it on photoshop and try other photos, textures, objects with it, erasing sections, using layers, until I get a combination that works for me.
You are nearing the end of a long and focused period of education. As a mature student take us through what it has been like, would you recommend it and what did you learn aside from the course? There are things I think we should have learned more thoroughly at the start – we didn’t get any formal drawing tuition, and I’m still not good at drawing. Some of the tutors are great, some not so much. But I’ve learned how to see so much better, how to think about my work and research and let ideas percolate and merge and morph. I went to college intending to be a painter but now I work mainly with photos and video, so that’s a real change. I’ve learned a great deal from my fellow students. It’s a wonderful group with lots of ideas and insight. I would recommend anyone who wants to paint to go to Sligo IT – it’s very strong on painting. But I think other places might be better for digital work. Although one thing that Sligo offers is that students don’t have to settle for one area, an art student can access the ceramic workshop and print studio at any time in their studies, as well as painting, drawing etc. I feel so lucky to have been able to study something I love so much later in life. I would tell anyone in their 40s, 50s or older – if you feel there’s something you’ve always wanted to study, just go for it. It’s a thrill to be learning new things, feeling new ideas and making work in which you can immerse yourself.
Do you see yourself as an artist first and foremost? I’m beginning to see myself as an artist now. I’m also a counsellor and a mindfulness teacher, and I love those roles too. But being an artist feels like a way of being in the world, a way of feeling and expressing oneself. I’m moving into that now: realising that I’m going to keep going with this work, growing with it and continuing to evolve.
What, about living in Leitrim do you like? Leitrim is really special, isn’t it? The landscape is breathtakingly lovely – hills and lakes, hidden boreens and all the history. I love the way that ruined buildings are just left to slowly dissolve into the land. The people are generally warm and witty. Manorhamilton has grown so much since I first lived here in 1994. Then it really felt remote and very quiet, now we have the Beepark, the Women’s centre, the Glen’s Centre, the Sculpture centre, the Five Glens Festival, the farmers’ market and Supervalue! Do you know that Leitrim has a higher number of artists per head than any other county in Ireland? I think it’s a good place for people who like to spend time alone but still want to feel part of a community. You can come down from the hills now and then and say hello to all the fa
miliar faces, then scurry back to your nest. It’s perfect for me. When I moved to Ireland I was very alienated. Ireland has healed me – Leitrim has given me a home and a sense of belonging.
Do you have a favourite form of artistic expression? is there one that you find particularly challenging? I love the camera. The challenge of trying to portray something of what I feel out in the landscape. Not that I manage it very often, but I love to try. And I also really enjoy using photoshop and using a video editor. The whole process is a delight. One step out in the natural world, in the weather, stomping up the hills or lurking in forestry, the next step all comfy at home on the laptop, with a cup of tea. I find drawing challenging, I’d like to do more and get better at it.
Now that you are finishing your studies, do you have a plan/idea for the next few years or do you prefer to see what presents itself? This summer I intend to make a website for my photo montage work. I’m going to apply for exhibitions, awards etc and see how I go. I’m hoping to develop my installation work and see if I can get any gallery space for that. I really want to keep growing as an artist. It has crossed my mind to apply for an MFA up in Belfast – they have some wonderful tutors and a part-time option. But I need a year off college just to see how it goes being an artist out in the world!