Interview & Review of Exhibition at Draíocht by Vincent Sheridan

The following interview with the artist and review relates to the exhibition Animation to Murmuration in 2013. It is reproduced here with the permission of Draíocht Arts & Entertainment Centre in Dublin where the exhibition took place.

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Q1: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, where you’re from and where you live? 

I grew up on a farm near Kilcock, County Kildare. I lived there with my parents and commuted to my then place of work on City Quay Dublin. In summer, weather permitting, I made this round trip journey by bike. At this time I was doing a lot of competitive cycling with the Kildare Cycling Team. This daily exercise was part of my weekly training schedule. I moved to Donnybrook, Dublin in the mid seventies and remained in the city until emigrating to Canada in 1989. I returned in 1998 and now live in Drumcondra.

Q2: When you were small, what did you want to be when you grew up? Were there any clues in your childhood that you would follow an artistic path later?

As a boy, I had no clear ideas about a career path, but being in the countryside I developed a keen interest in all aspects of natural history in the local area. I joined in the usual ‘boyish’ activities of catching pinkeens, stealing honey from wild bee nests/hives and making catapults and sling shots to hunt rabbits and other animals and birds which were often referred to as vermin.

Nonetheless, through these activities I was often very close to nature and therefore able to observe animals behave in their natural surroundings. These field excursions, usually at dawn, around the local fields were most rewarding and sparked a life long interest in animal behaviour. Gradually I realized the errors of my ‘hunter gatherer’ behaviour and replaced the urges to capture and collect specimens with field observations and communications with the local wildlife. After listening to and learning the calls of birds and animals, I was able to ply my skills in imitating and ‘calling in’ some birds and animals in the area. I had most success and fun each spring with the cuckoo.

This was the time when I remember attempting some pencil sketches of birds, usually copies from illustrations in my first bird book, The Observers Book of Birds.

My interest in art continued through the early school years, when regular studies were often neglected in favour of doodling with pencil and watercolours.

Q3: How long have you been an artist and why choose an arty profession over a more conventional career, like being an accountant, or working in an office for instance?

During the mid-seventies I embarked on a two year course of intensive studies  (evenings) at the National College of Art in Kildare. After this I joined the Graphic Studio Dublin to study all aspects of Printmaking. In 1980 I got married to Brid Laffan from Co. Kilkenny. At that time we both agreed that we would combine incomes and from then on I would devote myself to full time art. Brid was an avid enthusiast and supporter of the arts, particularly literature, music and painting. She was a talented singer and was a founding member of the RTE Philharmonic Choir. My artistic endeavors always had her wholehearted support in good times and bad, even when she didn’t particularly appreciate some of the themes and variations in the work. Sadly, Brid passed away in April 2006. 

Q4. Perhaps you also have a conventional day job to supplement your income as an artist and if yes does this interfere with your creativity and focus? 

To supplement my income I have in the past worked as a part time art teacher at  Second Level, both here and in Canada. Also, I occasionally teach courses on Greener Etching methods at Black Church Print Studio. I really enjoy some teaching but find that the demands of preparation and application certainly leave little room -head space-for ones own creativity. Some artists can manage this mix and are very well adapted when it comes to multi-tasking.

Q5: When did you create your first artwork and what was your subject matter? 

My earliest memory of a ‘First Art Work’ was a watercolour, copied from a book on birds of prey. It was a small falcon called a Hobby -This was painted when I was age 15 or so when I had begun a life long fascination with birds of prey. This was followed by a very ambitious painting in oils, an exact? copy of Constable’s ‘The Haywain’. It was a very fine fake, if I may say so!

Q6: Has your style changed over the years and what might have influenced this change if yes?

Yes, my style has changed a great deal over the years from the early watercolours already referred to, to the more recent abstract impressions of bird flocks (murmuration series) to the works based on photography and animated video images – works on plastic – based in the cut away bogs in the midlands. (See First Floor Gallery in Draiocht).

Q7: Have you ever tried other art forms like sculpting, making music, or dancing for instance? 

I have only dabbled a tiny bit in sculpture during the Multimedia studies in DIT. I am interested in exploring a work combining some aspect of music/sound, perhaps in the next year or so. I usually leave the dancing until after the speeches at weddings!

Q8: What other artists or people have influenced or inspired you, and in what ways? 

I greatly admire the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Cezan, vanGogh, Toulouse-Leutrec, Twonbley, Nora McGuinness. I am inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock, Brigid Reilly, Patrick Scott, and more recently Ai wa Wa, Jackie Invine, Joy Gerrard, Mark Garry and Anthony Little.

Some of the above artists inspire by their ability to work with multiples, i.e. employing a wide variety of materials and methods of mark making, using a repetition of lines and dots to build an image, sometimes in a minimal way, and conversely, on a monumental scale as in the works of Anselm Keefer and Ai Waiwai.

Q9: What is the thing you most enjoy about your work?

I mostly enjoy the element of surprise in my work. Although disappointment is sometimes the end product of a imagined idea. Each piece is like a planned journey with an imagined ending or destination. Sometimes the would be destination is never reached as the journey may veer off down a side road and end at a much more satisfactory destination.

I pay particular attention to peoples responses to my work. Often a given print, painting or video piece will reawaken and unlock a flood of stories and images from past encounters and experiences, mostly relating to the natural world. The stories are a mixture of the real and imaginary. The responses are often a wonderful blending of folklore, myth and memory. It would be nice to think my work is sometimes connecting the viewer to past memories, while at the same drawing attention to other ways of perceiving and connecting with the richness of our natural environment.

Q10: How do you keep motivated if you’re having a bad day? 

It is always difficult to navigate through a ‘bad day’ given that such days usually arrive out of the blue and totally unannounced. My own strategy is to step back from the problem and try to regroup. This can best be achieved by maybe taking a break, making a cuppa and contemplating the problem. A kind of staring at the proverbial canvas. It is often a good idea to take a walk around the block, get some fresh air which can be good therapy for relieving any mental blockages and refocusing on the task at hand.

Q11: How have you handled the business side of being an artist, promoting yourself and getting exposure, selling your work etc? 

Handling the business side of being an artist is usually the ‘Beecher’s Brook’ for many colleagues I talk to. We just want to put our heads in the sand and get on with creativity. Having an friendly advisor/support system with a good listening ear is very worthwhile. Ideally, this can be your supportive partner/spouse/friend or family member. For me it is essential to have an accountant who will take care of the annual headache of making returns. This helps to free up your ‘head space’ and allows you to get on with your work. Also, join an arts organisation such as Visual Arts Ireland who offer a wide variety of support systems and programmes geared specifically to the requirements of being an Artist.

Keep a keen eye on Gallery Open Call Notices and similar opportunities from Arts associations and the like. Get going by submitting to open competitions, group shows both local and international. Remember the motto’ the people who show up run the world’.

Q12: Could you tell us a little more about your current exhibition in Draíocht? How long have you been preparing for it?

This current exhibition is based on an ongoing project based on the minimalist pattern of birds in flight. The aim is to catch the ‘brushstroke’ patters of flight in a minimalistic way. This imagery was colourfully described by the poet Brendan Kennelly who likened such spontaneous murmurations to ‘a fistful of black dust flung in the air’. The other dimension to this show is a result of experiments using a mixture of synthetic materials which are painted on and manipulated by sunlight and landscape as backdrop, then photographed in order to create distortions and illusions in the subject matter. This work was undertaken over the past three years or so.

Q13: Have you any future exhibitions planned?

Some group shows planned. Also, some works in the annual RHA Exhibition

Q14: Do you have any advice you could give to an artist just starting out?

The main object of an artist starting out is to believe in what you are doing and be motivated and enthusiastic about your subject. Keep an open mind any don’t be afraid to ask questions, share ideas and experiment with different ways of expressing yourself. This process should lead you down the path of identifying and ‘finding your voice’. Once you are fired up and committed to what you want to achieve, then believe in it and forge ahead. In other words, having found your voice you now have to be heard, so perform, ‘sing up’ and put it out in the public domain.

Be patient, as this could take some time to achieve.

Q15: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I cannot predict the future but my wish would be that ten years from now I would retain the urge to be creative and to continue to express new ideas and ways of  communicating my interpretations of aspects of the natural world.

Q16: What are your interests and hobbies outside of your artwork?

I continue to derive great satisfaction from the natural world, whether exploring in the Arctic regions, Irish and European mountain landscapes, or just being in the garden! I have always been involved in fitness through sport, particularly cycle racing, tennis and hill walking. I enjoy music, classical, traditional and some blues. I am a former member of The Guinness Choir. And of course relaxing with a book and a glass of Gigondas.

Review of exhibition by Desmond Kenny

Vincent Sheridan is better known as a printmaker but has extended his range of skills as an artist by including video, photos and animation to his repertoire. This is evident with the works on display in the two exhibition spaces in Draíocht. The main subject matter in this body of work is an aspect of birds in flight, flocking together, called murmuration. Physicists and biologists are intrigued in the formation of this natural phenomenon and are trying to investigate how the sudden change in movement is communicated instantly from one bird to another, a hundred feet away. Similar critical patterns occur in the neurons of the brain and the instantaneous magnetisation of metals.

This natural occurrence is explored in a video where flocks of starlings are observed over a stark winter landscape, pirouetting through the sky as if performing some ritual dance. The wind is heard in the background like a steady drumbeat and the birds fly and hurl weightless through the sky with the rhythm of the winds cadence. Suddenly the birds invade the viewer’s space and a thousand wing-beats drown out the wind like a thundering train rushing through a station. The memory of the Hitchcock film “The Birds” seeps from the depths of the imagination, coupled with foreboding and fear of uncontrollable nature. The birds move away on the turn of the wind and the tremulous imagination calms a heart hugged by fear. In Hitchcock’s film birds act as purveyors of justice on those who have sinned against man and nature and render a fatal punishment.

Outside the video enclosure arranged on the walls are large etchings, where Vincent uses all the skills of the printmaker’s craft, spit biting, carborundium and aqua tint to show birds in flight. In “Ritual Dance” Vincent hints that bird’s aerial balletic display might be a ceremonial celebration before a long migratory flight to distant lands. Swifts appear ethereal, flying so quickly through the immeasurable sky, leaving a ghost like after-image on the back of the eye. Some etchings portray the birds as mere wisps of smoke, velvet moments lacking definition. Other images find flocking birds assume the forms of animals such as a whale, humorously captured in photographs taken from video stills.

Upstairs in Draíocht a DVD of a large sheet of black plastic wrapped around a small hill caught by the wind, seems to reveal the farcical bulbous forms of elephants moving underneath. Vincent is exploring the way imagination influences how we see the world. We find animal shapes in clouds and stars, hoping to humanise and control nature, because what is ungovernable we fear. Perhaps this is evident in “Tidal Wave”, where the undulating semblance of a large destructive wave is created with the use of a black plastic bag. Its devastating natural power is contained, transforming our binding anxiety into an illusory belief, that we can shape and master nature. What the guileless soul desires, reality destroys.

The science of chaos theory implies the reverberation of a butterfly’s wing on one continent can cause a storm in another continent. The etching, “Motion 1”, depicts the tangled gloom of a wintery evening, birds swirl through the thickening air like a tornado funnelling towards the earth. Are these black crows malevolently casting a spell which will change the climate of a distant land? In the dim light of the witching hour the crow knows the latent power of its wing beat. In another etching the crows take the shape of a hammer searching for a battleground to crush bones and devour the fallen.

The artist has no gravitational control over the viewer’s boundless imagination and must relinquish sovereignty of his art to the observer, so it can live. These works fine tune the imagination and mirror the breath of nature.

Desmond Kenny is an artist based in Hartstown, Dublin 15. He is a self taught painter, since he began making art in 1986 he has since exhibited widely in Ireland and abroad, solo shows include Draíocht in 2001, The Lab in 2006 and Pallas Contemporary Projects in 2008. His work is included in many collections including the Office of Public Works, SIPTU, and Fingal County Council. Kenny’s practice also incorporates print making and he has been a member of Graphic Studio Dublin since 2004.