Artist Interview with Margaret Fitzgibbon
Gallery Lane Cove, July 29th, 2020
"I believe in the transformational power of art..."
We speak with Margaret Fitzgibbon about the extensive practice-based research that informs her art-making.
To start off, could you tell us your inspirations for creating “Still life”?
The context behind the creation of this work spans several years. Actually, how it emerged says a lot about how I practice as an artist; often allowing things to grow and evolve organically so its worth telling the back story to Still Life…
Early in 2017 I approached the local Women’s Refuge where I live in Dublin to introduce myself and ask whether they would be interested in me delivering a series of drawing workshops with the women who were using the services there (free of charge). After several interviews with the management we agreed that I could come into the large communual kitchen once a week over a 10 week period to work with those women who were currently in residence and who would sign up for individual classes as they wished. I stipulated that only adult women could attend as I wanted this to be personal time, set aside as dedicated quiet time for the women’s own development. To accommodate this, I suggested that I go into the Refuge during those times when the children were either out at school or in bed.
This is not the first time I have worked with women’s groups as I am interested in exploring the female experience of the world and its structures. However, there was another, broader context to my approaching the Refuge. Since 2016 I am the Artist in Residence (actually, the only one in Dublin) in Cathal Brugha Military Barracks that happens to back directly onto the back garden of Rathmines Women’s Refuge. In collaboration with the barracks I secure annual funding from the Dublin City Council to facilitate the residency and curate a range of art projects both individual and collaborative. In conversation with the Colonel I discovered that the barracks already had a relationship with the Refuge e.g. helping with various physical tasks and inviting the women and children into the barracks for an annual Christmas meal. This relationship intrigued me, and I determined to follow it up and bring these often-unheard women’s voices into the heart of the predominantly male barracks, in a creative way.
From the outset I had the title ‘Still Life’ in my mind, because it suggested to me that firstly, there was life after abuse - implying that women should not be defined by the abuse they had suffered but as rather as survivors with new possibilities and a different life ahead. Secondly, I wanted to revisit the ‘still life’ genre with its long traditional strategy of focusing on the intimate and domestic realm and the human connection to the everyday, the domestic, family and home and reframe it in a feminised context. With its focus on objective realism this art technique steers away from more overtly emotionally charged or self-expressive painting genres and this was crucial to my aims of the workshops. I was not interested in approaching the workshops as art therapy but instead wanted to create an envrionment where I could immerse myself in the world of the women inobstrusively, to observe and listen to the women while getting to know them through leading them in practical, knowledge-based workshops. Also I believe in the transformational power of art through offering challenging opportunities , encouraging self-esteem through learning new artistic techniques and introducing an exciting range of stimulus: research; materials and paper that would lead to the creation of individual art works.
My plan was to set up a new still life each week with objects representive of individual domestic spaces e.g. Living room; Kitchen; Bedroom; Bathroom; Dining Room. We explored the textures and surfaces of a range of different kinds of paper. We experimented with a variety of media such as: pastels, oil, and chalk, water-coloured pencils and Indian ink. We got inspired by studying images from a range of artists across time who worked in the genre. By introducing colour with the women’s workshops I hoped to create a stark contrast between their work and my new series of black and white drawings, which were based on my real-life research in situ with the women and members of staff and additional reading .
My drawings were done over a period of three months after the workshops were completed. The idea of transferring the women’s drawings to high quality digital prints on paper came about for two main reasons. Firstly, many of the women wanted to keep their original artwork and secondly to organise and keep and aesthetic unity in the work I decided to keep the size and quality of the surface unified for maximum impact.
What initially drew you to submit work for this exhibition?
Crucially the title of the exhibition ‘Shelter Domestics’ is what drew me to submitting a new iteration of ‘Still Life’. The opportunity to be part of a critical show that was looking for artists who had an interest in the subject of the Domestic and in particular the area of Domestic Abuse was really important for me as there are not that many art opportunities dealing with this theme. During Covid 19 lock-down there was sadly constant reports of a worldwide resurgence of Domestic Violence and I was looking for a way to contribute to this artistically. Also, the fact that the exhibition originated in another country – outside Europe was attractive and that it was a group show so my work would be seen in a broader context, alongside other international artists interested and exploring similar concerns. I always had the intention to revisit the drawings and in the back of my mind animation of some kind was always an option that fitted the underlying conceptual basis to the work.
Could you describe the creative process behind your storyboard Still Life, featured in Shelter Domestics?
‘Still life’s’ first iteration was a collaborative, large-scale, drawing sculptural installation, comprising of my 37 black and white drawings and a selection of 37 of the women’s colour still life drawings created on the workshops and transferred onto digital prints, and a sereis of white plaster scultpural objects and some of the domestic objects that feature in the women’s drawings. For issues of equaminity, all drawings have the same dimensions 22 x 25 cm.
However, for ‘Shelter Domestics’ I created a new iteration of my series of drawings, transfering them into a moving slide show format, referencing the early black and white, silent movie era. Movement is a crucial aspect of this iteration of Still life and allows the viewer a storyboard presentation that is closer in form to my original inspiration from Silent Movies with their intertitles …. Movement also suggest the interior of the domestic scenes as we move through the house from exterior to interior views, from kitchen to living and dining room and from downstairs to upstairs, which from my research is a fundamental experience of Domestic Abuse that appears to permeate every inch of everyday home life.
Tell us some more about your transition from sculpture to installation?
Around 2000, after years of working in sculpture, drawing and mixed media I discovered my father’s 1960s, hand-held camera, projector, and cache of home movies in the family attic, I became interested in making super 8mm film. This new medium introduced me to installation as I began to think of new, spatial and more immersive way to communicate that could embrace more senses and I was also influenced by travels to international art events like Kassel’s Documenta and The Venice Biennial where installation was becoming dominant and very inspiring in the range of materials and themes. In 2006 – 2008 I completed an MFA in Installation at The National College of Art and Design Dublin.
Being a practitioner of digital and traditional art, what are your thoughts on these mediums.
This is a really interesting question and leads really to the heart of how and why I make art. Generally I’m trying to find a place for myself in the world and to respond to that which shapes me inside and outside as a woman and a citizen of a modern global world.What stories, situations and objects can I make to communicate this to others and share my experiences through artistic methods. Therefore for me whether it is digital or traditional methods is simply a choice of what it is I’m highlighting or trying to convey and I usually know pretty early on the medium or materials I’m drawn to as the language of the medium is in and of itself that which becomes the metaphor for the idea.
Online and virtual art exhibitions are becoming the new normal. What do you think this means for yourself and to artists in general?
I am excited about somewhat new opportunities may now start appearing online. For example, with Shelter Domestics I conceptually had to rethink the best way a series of 37 static drawings could be viewed in a new context to immediately engage the online viewer while keeping the artistic virtuosity of the sensuality of the drawing medium i.e. texture and tone. I also feel that maybe galleries, art centers and institutions worldwide now that they are operation online might be now more open to viewing new artists that are not part of their usual lists.
You have an impressive history of exhibitions. Did any of them stand out to you?
Thank you, in the last 10 years, I have had many site-specific installations around Dublin and I always enjoy this early research of finding a site that has some special resonance. The decision is either through deliberate research or happy accident.
For example, my first year as Artist in Residence in Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, on my walk around this large working intact 19th British Built barracks I discovered a beautiful small brick walled yard and adjoining triple cells and knew I wanted to put some art there. Having researched the history of the site I discovered that Francis Sheehy Skefington, a well known advocate for women’s rights, vegetarianism And Nationalism and the husband of the famous Suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was held in those cells illegally and shot dead in the yard during the 1916 Irish Rising. So, I set about developing a sculptural sound Installation with Hanna’s story at its center. It was also a fabulous coincidence that Hanna and Francis lived in the local area. The resulting installation titled “Echoes of Hanna” consisted of a series of eleven hand-made silk banners hung in the corridor leading to the cells and yard; printed pamphlet booklets (handed out) to accompany a sound work that was installed in the yard; three site specific artworks for each of the three cells. In collaboration with Cork Co Council we are in negotiation to bring a new iteration of this installation to a site in Kanturk in Co Cork, the birthplace of Hanna, during the celebrations of The Irish War of Independence 2020 – 2022.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you could share with us?
Recently I was approached by the Arts Officer in The Cork County Council to work with the Architects who are designing a new Visitors Centre in a remote part of Ireland. The centre explores the unique partly inhabited island of Dursey off the coast of The Beara Penninsula in West Cork and joined to the mainland by the only cable car in Ireland. In 2015 I was commissioned by CCC and I made a super 8mm on this pretty archaic cable car (it has since been upgraded). The film moves outside and inside the cable car and is mostly silent highlighting the sensuality of that wild landscape and the embodied experience of travelling across the narrow and treacherous sounds below on the Cable Car.
There is a soundtrack and an interview with the long serving Local Cable Car Operation, Paddy Sheehan (now deceased). The idea is to install the film as a pernament feature in the Visitor’s Centre. I have proposed to curate and design an expanded installation that would aesthetically reflect the interior of the cable car. I also have a marquette in mixed media of the car; its tracking system and pylons in situ to inspire me during filming. There are also a number of poems inspired by the Dursey cable car that I would like to include to enhance the viewer’s experience.
Lastly, is there is anything you’d like to share with our readers pertaining to art?
Increasingly as art has moved into the social and political arena and artists are akin to activists raising issues and Exploring those stories and voices of the underrepresented or marginal. I believe that art with its emphasis on the senses and materials and memory and by also creating collective immersive experiences makes a unique contribution to raising awareness and starting positive dialogues as well as creating spaces for dreaming and the imagination.
More about the artist