Time and space: How awards can help unblock creativity

Four award-winning artists talk about the many obstacles to creating their work

What stops creative people from working? I don’t mean the regular procrastination (which I prefer to imagine as valuable thinking time). I mean, what are the larger obstacles to getting work done?

Unlike a great deal of arts funding, which is given for specific programmes and projects, the Golden Fleece Award, now in its 20th year, aims to remove more general impediments to creativity. This year a prize fund of €60,000 will allow €10,000 to be offered to each of six artists and makers at various stages of their careers. Meanwhile the RDS Craft Awards, which has been running in various guises for more than 50 years, has also just bestowed €10,000 each on five emerging makers.

Angela O’Kelly is chair of the Golden Fleece advisory panel as well as head of design for body and environment (essentially everything you can wear) at NCAD, two roles that make her keenly aware of the things that get in the way of making.

“It’s very much down to fundamentals,” she says. “Space, money for childcare, the kit you need, and to be able to buy time.” She adds that Covid has had its own effects, keeping artists from studios and makers from materials.

For some, however, the pandemic has influenced their work in unexpected ways. Golden Fleece winner Aideen Barry has been making a drawing every day, and will to use the award to take the time to develop them as a body of work. Another winner, textile artist Lorna Donlon, recently completed a master’s in molecular and cell biology. She will use the funds to buy a large tapestry loom, and take the time to integrate her research into her work, saying, “science needs art to tell these stories”.

Maria McKinney, artist, Golden Fleece Award winner

I did feel a bit paralysed this time last year, and things have been very fluid, but I’ve got used to rolling with it. I have a routine now – actually the talk of things opening up again gives me anxiety. There are many things that stop you working and being creative. There’s a whole demographic who wouldn’t even consider becoming an artist, because they may not have the means or the opportunity.

I spent 12 years as a gallery technician to support my own work. I think that was also an arts education in its way, but the momentum in the studio gets broken up. A big project can take years to develop, and application forms are endless. No one tells you in art college that at least 50 per cent of your time is going to spent in applying for funding, a studio, a residency. The good thing is it makes you put down what you want to do, to refine the idea, but you can get sucked into the laptop world – a distraction to actually making the work you’re forever writing about.

The award will give me the time and headspace to be fully in the studio, immerse myself in the work for as long as I can stretch it out

What stops you working in general are insecurity and worrying about other things. This is often financial – how you’re going to support yourself for the oncoming period. It takes up a mental space that would otherwise be put to better use like thinking about ideas and developing them. These days I also worry about decent housing. I’ve just been given notice to move, which isn’t fun.

My work has been focusing on agriculture. Sire looked at human interventions in animal breeding. The award will help me to research into the Irish Moiled – "Moilie" – one of Ireland's only four surviving cattle breeds. It's hard to say what the work will be before it exists, but the award will give me the time and headspace to be fully in the studio, immerse myself in the work for as long as I can stretch it out. This is the real gift. cargocollective.com/mariamckinney

Paul O’Brien, furniture maker, RDS Craft Award winner

You apply for a body of work. I had to make a small video and do a Zoom interview with a panel – it wasn’t scary at all! The award means two things to me: the money will help me invest in equipment. You’ll never meet a furniture maker who says “I have enough tools now”. But it’s more than that: craftspeople can be an antisocial, lonely bunch, and the exposure and recognition of your work is so important.

It’s nice when someone from outside looks in and says: “We like what you’re doing, you’re good.” The award will give me more visibility – making furniture is one thing, selling furniture is hard.

It’s weird these days. I have been up for a few awards in the past, and you turn up, have dinner or drinks, and you meet people, have conversations. Now it’s all a bit abstract. But people have now realised what their home means to them, what’s important – because we’ve been in our homes for 12 months straight.

Is bespoke furniture expensive? It depends on what your priorities are. There’s also a positive aspect to the two-headed monster of Covid and Brexit. People are saying: “I’m not going to order that from abroad, I’m going to see if someone in Ireland is making it.” Clients are saying, “I didn’t realise someone in Ireland was doing this.”

If I'm doing a commission, I send pictures, from the rough timber though to the finished piece. I'll bring an offcut of a hairy lump of timber, and say that's what it came from. modet.ie

Sinéad O’Dwyer, fashion designer, Golden Fleece Award winner

The award was an opportunity for me to buy equipment. Since graduating, I had been renting a vacuum chamber and pump – think of it like a really intense vacuum cleaner: it pulls all the air out of the material, in this case silicone. This last year, I haven’t been able to rent a machine at all, because of the pandemic. Usually, I’d hire one for the week, and have to be incredibly organised to make 15 pieces in one go. I’d be stressed in anticipation, choosing the perfect week, one when I had as little as possible to do on my part-time jobs. Now I can cast a small piece, have a think about it, experiment.

I never usually win anything, but applying for this award made me realise how stuck you can be when you don't have certain things

I’ll also be able to buy a full-body mannequin in Size 20. Dress forms are so expensive. You can find them on eBay, but they’re usually the smaller sizes, or sample size. The bum is very flat, there’s no stomach and the breasts are high and tiny. The award gave me the opportunity to research my dream dress form – it has more form, more bum and stomach. To have arms and legs are great! I hate using the words “plus size”, but everyone I know in that bracket says “oh, for the love of God, could you not make it a better fit?” Usually larger sizes are sample size, scaled up.

I'm also getting an industrial sewing machine. I want to get into wholesale for the first time. I never usually win anything, but applying for this award made me realise how stuck you can be when you don't have certain things. It was a dream scenario. sineadodwyer.com

Bassam Al-Sabah, artist, Golden Fleece Award winner

Artists are very adaptable. When you first graduate, you get rejected for everything, because no one knows who you are. The first time I did an Arts Council application, I spent about a month on it. Then you get rejected and you get really sad. But you learn how to do it, and you get more strategic about what you apply for.

This award isn’t about presenting work, but the ease of making work. The financial support makes work easier because you have something to fall back on. All artists are experimental to different degrees, but this allows time for making something and not knowing how it’s going to turn out. For my first couple of shows, the budgets were so tight everything had to work or there would have been empty spaces in the gallery.

I’ve been really lucky, I went from the RHA Studio Award to Temple Bar and back to the RHA again. Older artists will tell you: you do all the residencies, but what happens after that? Do you do the round again? Part of success is luck, but you have to be in the right space for the luck to land. There are a lot of people who are also very good, but they don’t get the opportunities.

The shortlist came out, and I thought: I'm never going to win. To be in a line up with Aideen Barry? That's insane to me

Covid has been difficult for everyone. Some days I just can’t be creative. Creativity isn’t something that just happens – you have to work at it. Now the ratio of bad days to good days is harder. What I miss is the responding to something, where you see something and the cogs start turning. Every once in a while I’ll go to something online, but it’s a different engagement – you’re not entering the space.

It still hasn't set in that I have won the award. It will help me make work for a show at the Gasworks [in London]. It will give me access to higher-quality materials and different ways of production, like 3D printing. The shortlist came out, and I thought: I'm never going to win. To be in a line up with Aideen Barry? That's insane to me. bassamalsabah.com