Cathy Dineen: relics revisited

The ‘Solvitur Ambulando’ exhibition showing at the Grennan Mill Craft School in Kilkenny presents experiences, events and stories from the life of the artist

Artist and teacher Cathy Dineen, who is an avid walker and benefits from ‘the long think’ she has while out walking, says her pieces have been influenced by the techniques of icon painting

Artist and teacher Cathy Dineen, who is an avid walker and benefits from ‘the long think’ she has while out walking, says her pieces have been influenced by the techniques of icon painting


Cathy Dineen’s studio is a bewitching place. It’s as if the fairy godmother of small stuff had flown in, waved her wand and sprinkled every available surface with tiny, fascinating, colourful things.

Ceramic dogs. Metal medals. Plastic cowboys riding plastic horses. Boxes and jars. Shells. Tools. “And here are some body parts – look,” Dineen waggles something limb-shaped at me. I’m afraid to look. But it’s just a doll’s leg, painted gold and suspended inside a wooden frame.

Gazing at us from a shelf is a Child of Prague statue, its fingers raised in benign blessing. “Oh, I have a whole rake of them,” Dineen says. “Once you get one, they start appearing. Somebody sees it and goes, ‘Oh – you like them? I have one which belonged to my mother.’ They don’t want to throw it in the dump. So they bring it. And before you know it you have lots, and you’re thinking, ‘Now I look like I’m mad’.”

After working in the fast-moving world of newspaper illustration until she was 30, Dineen moved to Kilkenny almost two decades ago in search of a more meditative pace – both for her life, and for her art.

For the past five years she has been teaching part-time with Kilkenny mental health services.

“It gives me a base for paying my bills, and enables me to be very picky about what work I take on,” she says. “I’ve had some nice commissions from An Post for stamps – and I’ve done some maps for a bloke down in St Mullins.”

Working with young adults on the autism spectrum is, she adds, energising and engaging. “I’ll paint, or do sewing – whatever they want. A lot of the blokes are really into comics, which is right up my alley. And it’s good for them too, because they often get bamboozled by masses of words. So working with images suits them much better.”

Dineen’s new exhibition opens at Grennan Mill Craft School in Thomastown next Saturday. It’s called Solvitur Ambulando, which is Latin for “it is solved by walking”. “Any time I’m stuck with any work at all,” she explains, “I take a walk. I live right beside a farm and I can walk through there. After an hour I’ll have worked out whatever it is I’m stuck on.”

aDineen’s passion for walking has taken her on longer treks, too. In 2009 she made her way from Kilkenny to London – cheating a little with public transport across the crowded middle of England, but finishing on the Thames path. Last year she walked part of the Italian Via Francigena, which runs from Canterbury to Rome. Earlier this year, she did a month on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.

“A major factor in both the walking and this new work was the death of four close family members within a very short period of time,” she says. Like many people who have been besieged by grief, she finds walking to be deeply healing. “It’s amazing. If I’m walking by myself, it’s great for clearing the head and having a good long think.

“And if I’m walking with somebody – well, spending eight hours walking with another person is a very nice way to catch up. You wouldn’t ever get their complete attention for that much time in any other way.”

Solvitur Ambulando presents events and stories from Dineen’s life so far. Her father was a painter and decorator and as a child, she used to sit under his desk and flick through his gold-leaf books, with their wafer-thin pages. “There’s gold leaf everywhere in this exhibition,” she says.

A major component of the show will be more than 100 oak blocks, roughly the size of paperback books, which Dineen has sanded, gilded and painted with images and observations which showcase her quirky sense of humour.

These pieces have been influenced by the techniques of icon painting. “I’ve done a couple of icon courses, and it’s the slowest I’ve ever worked. It takes a whole week to do an icon.

“The paints – even, say, red – look like clear water. On the first day you put the gold on. Then, the second day, you paint the whole thing black because you begin with the darkest colour. Then you start painting all these layers to make the lighter colours – but they look like they’re making no difference. And then, towards the end of the week, you can start to see the thing appearing. For the skin, there might be 70 or 80 layers of paint. It teaches you a lot of patience.”

Dineen loves the quiet of rural Kilkenny. But it is also a hub for artists and craftspeople – which is not only great for socialising, but has stretched her artistic practice in ways she could never have foreseen. For one thing, she is taking pottery classes. “I make a lot of really wonky stuff. People get them for presents for Christmas.” She laughs. “I know they look forward to my presents. Wow: another wobbly bowl that doesn’t match anything . . .”

Her ceramics in the show are witty and fun. There’s a series of tiny dogs in wooden mangers: yes, the proverbial dog in the manger. There’s a candelabra, based on the Mexican tree of life, whose branches contain – among many other miniature treasures – a teapot and a parrot.

A statue of a figure holding a baby, meanwhile, might be a Madonna and Child – if both of them didn’t sport dog’s heads. Blasphemy? “No. Traditionally, St Christopher used to be portrayed with a dog’s head. But now he has been demoted. He’s not a saint any more. Maybe that’s why.”

Solvitur Ambulando is one of six exhibitions which open at Grennan Mill Craft School, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny next Saturday at 5.30pm. The other exhibitors include Gerard Casey, paintings; Klaus Hartmann, pottery; Suzanna Crampton, photography; Larry Kinsella, candles; and Filament Fibre Artists, textiles and felt. Entry is free, 10am to 6pm daily until August 15th

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