Softening boundaries and crossing borders


The American poet Robert Creeley speaking of a collaboration with the artist Francesco Clemente commented that “any person reading what I have written and seeing what he’s made is moving between two emotional fields”.

That sense of moving between emotional fields or crossing boundaries, is something I hope has been achieved in the project that brought craft artist and jewellery designer Angela O’Kelly and I together for Out of the Marvellous, an exhibition that has just opened at the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny.

It was hard to imagine what the result might be when we had our first exploratory conversation early in the year. We were each aware of the other’s work but had no idea how they might connect.

The invitation to participate in this union of poetry and craft came with a challenging though open brief that called for the exhibition work to be “an experience in which the audience member becomes enveloped and the senses are engaged”.

While it acknowledged that “the lines between object and poetry may become blurred”, the connection between the poems and the pieces “will be evident. Where these worlds overlap and intersect is of interest and it might allow the observer insight into the creative act.”

The process of those creative acts – five poems and five sculptural drawings, as Angela refers to her work for the exhibition – has mostly arisen out of an ongoing dialogue that, at the outset, identified some shared affinities, the first of which was a mutual interest in old maps; in my case maps of Dublin and how they reveal the evolving configuration of the city.

Angela’s materials are not the more conventional ingredients of craft-making, such as clay, wood, silver, gold or wool – paper is the main component of her jewellery. This is what attracted me to her work and partnering her for this exhibition. It also intrigued me and struck me as being rather adventurous. So that early idea of coming up with a conception based around maps made some sense.

For someone whose central activities had revolved around that ancient marriage of words and paper (apart from the poetry, my day job for more than 40 years involved producing the daily edition of this newspaper), working with an artist who recognised the virtues of paper seemed an obvious pairing. Japanese and Indian hand-made paper is the fabric of her jewellery – and yes, she has, like many artists before her, used old newspapers as well.

In the National Museum and elsewhere I had seen and admired her skills at transforming paper into her own decorative art, the beautiful and colourful neck and arm pieces and brooches for which she is known. As she later demonstrated during a visit to her studio, the techniques involved in that transmutation are labour-intensive and require something of a conjuror’s touch. That visit enlarged my understanding of her skills of dexterity and imagination as a craft artist.

Mapping out a plan

The exchange we had about city maps was the genesis for the first poem I wrote, Maps – a kind of tracing of the life of the city as it expanded outward from its origins on the muddy banks of the Liffey. The poem stands as one of the five in the show but, in the end, does not have a directly correlative piece by Angela.

As the discourse continued through the year, other ideas emerged; Angela was clear that she did not intend to make the kind of jewellery pieces with which she is usually associated. While the urban landscape was the focus of our first exchange, her interest in the colours and contours to be found in rural settings, in particular bogland – and her explanations of how they influence her work – entered into subsequent ways of looking at how we might take up approaches to creating text and visual work for the show, taking me in a completely different direction and back to an unfinished poem, The Blackbirds of Wilkinstown. That poem connects a number of strands: her fascination with bogland and my constant return in my own poetry to that area of Co Meath, where in the summer of 1968 I made my first attempts at poetry during a summer spent on my grandmother’s farm.

In finishing this memory poem and wanting to include it, I was conscious that, after Kilkenny, the exhibition would travel to Navan’s Solstice Arts Centre, only a short distance from the place that The Blackbirds of Wilkinstown tries to evoke.

As an epigraph for the poem, I used a quote from poet and first World War soldier Francis Ledwidge: “It is spring now and it must be lovely down in Wilkinstown. Are the birds singing yet? When you hear a blackbird think of me.” The quote is from a letter, sent after he joined the British army, to Lizzie Healy, then living in the Co Meath village. Ledwidge also mentions how he misses the blackbirds of Wilkinstown, which gives the poem its title.

An almost throwaway reference by Angela to the items she found in her father’s garage, which is now her studio, following his death sparked another of the poems, The Things We Keep. Perhaps most significantly, Angela’s own work is responsible for the poem A Decorative Art (printed above), a praise poem in which, through the images it summoned to my mind, I hope I have managed to say something about the mysteries of that art, and give an adequate response to what I detect in her shapes and forms and transformations of her material. What it most immediately evoked is how her repeated rhythms are, in fact, rhythms for the eye – a kind of apt corollary for the aural rhythms of poetry.

In the catalogue text, the various artists speak of the connection between their work and that of the poets; Frances Lambe of how Derek Mahon’s poems comment on the difficult process of writing and the solitude required for this task, and how this resonates with her own experience of making sculpture; Cóilin Ó Dubhghaill on how he used Vona Groarke’s poetry as a starting point for new pieces, allowing the words of her poems to conjure objects and images in his head.

Image and expression are exactly matched in Seamus Heaney’s tribute poem to his exhibition partner Sonja Landweer, To A Dutch Potter in Ireland, in which he speaks of “the fiery heartlands of Ceramica” and of how words like urns “come through the fire”.

When I finally saw Angela’s pieces for the show I was struck by how the utterances of the poems has been reshaped in the language of a visual medium, her three-dimensional drawings.

In her notes for the exhibition catalogue she states what she has attempted to do in these pieces is to “echo the fluent meanings and rhythms of the text and reinterpret them in a complimentary visual language”. The boundary has indeed softened and the poet is very happy to find that his poems seem to have chimed with what the craft-maker describes as “the quiet introspection of her life”.

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