Layer by layer: how Siobhán McDonald paints like a geologist

Siobhán McDonald was torn between careers in science and art, but her exhibition at UCD has enabled her to combine both

Thu, Jun 5, 2014, 01:00

Methods used by Irish monks in AD 500 to write and embellish their manuscripts are finding new use in the creation of modern art. Burned bone, crushed rock and iron gall ink are all being used to express the geological rhythms of the earth in an exhibition that opens at University College Dublin on Saturday.

The large-scale commission is being developed by Siobhán McDonald, who, when she was a child, was torn between a career in art and the sciences. “I loved geology and collected rocks but ended up in art,” she says. Her exhibition, to be installed at the entrance to the Science Centre at Belfield, will show that she is still strongly allied to geology, with UCD geologists helping her prepare the materials used.

Blood-red rain

She titles her exhibition Aimsir: Red Rain and Showers of Honey – What the Irish Annals Can Tell Us About Life. It is part of the celebrations on Saturday to mark 50 years of the college of science at Belfield.

The pieces on display represent a true crossover between art and science, with a strong grounding in early medieval Irish history. “I wanted to give them something with history and the past but with a link to modern science,” says McDonald, the associate artist-in-residence at the school of science at UCD. For this reason the Irish annals and a set of 350-million-year-old Irish coral fossils from the geology department are key components of her display.

The Irish monks started their Irish annals in AD 500 and continued them for centuries. Their record of life at the time provides information about the weather, politics and major monastic happenings, she explains.

McDonald decided to use vellum – fine calf skin of the type used by the monks who scribed the Book of Kells – as her foundation, then began to acquire the colouring agents used by the monks for her own work. The geologists were central to this, helping her prepare minerals including cinnabar for brilliant red, azurite for blue and alabaster white.

“This is how the monks made paint,” she says. “I am like a geologist in a way: I paint in layers and layers of rock.”

While researching the Irish annals McDonald came across the work of Prof Francis Ludlow, a Trinity College Dublin graduate now based at Harvard. He had studied the annals in fine detail, looking for evidence of major weather events in the past. He found a number of examples, often described in startling detail such as the annals’ reference to the winter of 855/856, says McDonald. “Famine and pestilence prevailed in Ireland for three years so that man ate man.”

The title of the exhibition also reflects this when it references, as the annals describe it, that there was “blood-red rain for two years”, or another reference to when the lakes of Leinster froze over.

The assumption is that the red rain was caused by volcanic ash ejected by an Icelandic volcano, and other examples of climatic change recorded in the annals may also have had their origins in volcanic ash based on the work of Prof Ludlow, she says.

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