Crawford still inspires as building gets revamp


The Crawford College of Art and Design is marking its centenary with an important refurbishment programme, restoring the original design and the marble pillars in the foyer

FOR OVER a century, learning in various guises has been ongoing at the Sharman Crawford Street campus in Cork. The red-bricked building, located close to the domineering steeples of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, has housed technical instruction in areas as diverse as botany, gardening, building construction, electrical engineering and tailoring.

It helped provide graduates to drive the Cork motor industry when the likes of Ford and Dunlop were a major part of industrial Cork. Since 1979, the building has been heavily associated with art students with the Cork Institute of Technology Crawford College of Art and Design situated at the site. The college itself has been in existence for two centuries. From time to time, in the past few years especially, there has been talk of the students moving to a campus in the suburbs, or of the art college being reassessed in line with tightened third-level funding.

Art degree courses, be it in photography, fine art, design or sculpture, can often be costly to run and require a smaller pupil-to-teacher ratio than perhaps straight arts or business degrees. Yet the Crawford College of Art and Design stubbornly remains. It recently branched further into the city by taking over part of the old FÁS buildings on Sullivan’s Quay and since 2010 has held a lease on the Wandsforth Quay art gallery.

To mark 100 years of learning, a refurbishment programme is ongoing in the foyer of the building, which will restore it to its original form and reveal the marble pillars. Throughout Heritage Week (from August 18th), the building will be open to the public, with an exhibition in the foyer featuring memorabilia from the past 100 years.

One morning recently, walking down paint-spattered corridors with head of fine art Trish Brennan, the college was a hive of artistic activity.

From large printing presses to sophisticated digital design studios and traditional art rooms, the definition of what constitutes an art degree has expanded in line with the type of students enrolling in courses. The downturn has encouraged some people to reconsider attending art college and there are many older students on campus.

Brennan estimates at least 30 per cent of the student population are mature students and some of them may have put off art college for “sensible” careers many years earlier. I chatted to some who cited parental pressure as reasons why they decided not to pursue art as a college or career choice at a time when art college was perhaps seen as an indulgence only for the very gifted or financially secure. It reminded me of a story a friend in rural Ireland told about bringing home an art college student, complete with long hair and dungarees, to the family farm in the mid-1970s. Her father took her aside in the kitchen, agreed he was a nice lad, but warned: “You can’t ate art.”

In the live drawing class, students were sketching a female model in various poses under the tuition of life-drawing lecturer, Megan Eustace. She asked them to draw the model without looking at their canvas. In between short bouts of drawing, Eustace then asked the students to take a critical look at what they had done.

“Our function here is to teach technique to enable students reach an advanced level of skill in observational analytical drawing,” she said. “We are providing a level of detail of analysis and whether you go into film, textiles, painting or whatever, you can use it.” So, can anyone learn to draw? Surely, you are either talented and have a natural ability which can be refined at a young age, or you’re not?

“If you can read and write, then you can learn to draw,” explained Eustace. “There are so many people that get put off because they are not taught properly. You need to learn how to override the way the brain functions and sees stuff. Anybody can draw. It is a question of having the inclination.”

One of the second-year students was 45-year-old Joseph Keating, who worked for a long period in New York as an engineer and later an architect. “I grew up in the 1980s and went to a Christian Brothers school where boys did engineering and girls did home economics,” he said. “I worked as an architect in New York up until three years ago. When I came back home, the construction industry was gone belly up and it was a chance for me to indulge myself and do something in the art world.”

Keating says the art degree will help inform his architecture work, but he is not studying as part of a premeditated career plan. This time he’s doing it for himself and he hopes to move into art practice when he graduates.

Alongside him was 36-year-old Brendan Smyth, who worked in graphic design and later bookselling for a number of years. He says he was always suspicious of art colleges before he enrolled in one.

“I was worried that I wouldn’t know enough when I was looking at work. I always had this suspicion that the piss was being taken out of me when I was looking at art.”

Student Margarite Long was offered a place in the Crawford in the 1980s when she was 18, but swapped it for a professional career in the UK.

“I was made redundant in 2009. When I was 17 or 18 my father was not very supportive of it even though it was my passion at the time. It is wonderful being here now and it doesn’t matter about the time that has gone by or anything. It is brilliant to be fulfilling this. Because of the 30-year gap, I have been very critical of myself, tearing up a lot of stuff, so it took time to be comfortable with my work. I’d love to be a full-time artist.”

Down the corridor in a packed lecture room, art historian Vera Ryan was talking through a slide show presentation of the history of religious iconography in art through the ages. Head of fine art, Trish Brennan says Ryan will be sorely missed when she retires in the coming months.

A new masters programme in fine art, which runs alongside programmes already established in media and journalism at the Cork Institute of Technology is helping to further educate graduates. Funding cuts have been felt at the Crawford College of Art and Design, which caters for up to 200 students, and staff such as Vera Ryan will be difficult to replace in the current financial environment. Some art degree courses elsewhere have been shortened from four to three years, and while the Crawford College of Art and Design is not currently considering this, funding remains a pressing issue.

Brennan talks about how graduates are becoming “active art citizens”, who can go on to “practice or work in institutions and art practices, within museums and across the sector”. She says next September’s budget will be very challenging.

Finally, just as we’re about to leave, 46-year-old student Ann Mechelinck says she wants to tell me how she ended up studying at the college. Her father was an artist who made her promise never to go into art. And for many years she didn’t.

“It became really hard for my dad to make a living out of art and he didn’t want that to happen to me. For 25 years I worked in social welfare in Belgium and eventually I ended up in Macroom and unemployed. I started teaching older people at my home and had a solo exhibition in the local library. I then enrolled on the course.”

Mechelinck now hopes to go into business with her husband, who has begun making furniture, and she will also continue to provide art classes. She sounds optimistic for the future. As for her father’s attitude towards her once forbidden career path?

“He said to me, ‘why did I ask you not to do it?’. The man is over the moon at the moment because he sees it is really what makes me happy.”

Proof, perhaps, that you can after all have your art and eat it.

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