Fire Station: a space that helps artists think big

The Dublin studio has offered generous residencies for artists to live and work for 20 years. As former resident Jesse Jones puts it, ‘the space demands more of you’

People have always lived in the 100-year-old large, functional red-brick building on Dublin’s Buckingham Street that is announced with the words, in clay relief, “Fire Brigade Station”. In the days when many jobs came with a home, fire-service families resided on the top floor and singles slept on the one below.

"A friend of one board member was born in this building," says Clodagh Kenny, director of Fire Station Artists' Studios, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. We are standing on an upper balcony, waving at a small child who lives in one of the living/working spaces where artists spend nearly three years on coveted Arts Council-funded residencies.

Since opening in 1993, Fire Station has been home to more than 80 artists, including Corban Walker, Sean Hillen, Patrick Graham, Sarah Browne, Alice Maher (see panel) and Jesse Jones. The generous length of its residencies sets Fire Station apart. "It's a massive support," says Kenny. "It means artists can focus on their careers. There's no need to teach. It is not project-based, it is career-based," with the aim that artists emerge "even more determined".

The board periodically discusses the length of the residencies, and, says Kenny, it always comes back to the artists, who say that one year, say, would be too short, as they are only getting going at that stage.

Of course, each residency is hugely oversubscribed. Kenny says the selection process is unbiased and rigorous, with external assessors joining Fire Station staff to make a panel of six. Typically 50 people apply for two places at any given time.

So how are they chosen? “Quality of work is the first thing,” says Kenny, “as well as commitment to practise and the artist’s desire to use those two years and nine months actively.”

Ones to watch
Artists to look out for, she says, are Nina Canell; Kennedy Browne, comprising Sarah Browne, who is just finishing a residency, and Gareth Kennedy, who is about to start; and Jesse Jones. "I'm not the only one to say that about Jesse; getting a solo show at Redcat in Los Angeles is massive."

Jones, who teaches part-time at the Crawford College of Art in Cork, had a residency at Fire Station from 2005 to 2008. “I had just come out of a master’s at IADT [Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology],” she says. “It was kind of wonderful. I had never had a proper studio. I worked at college or from my bedroom. I had a sense of expanding straight away, walking in the space. It expanded the possibilities in my mind about what you could make. You couldn’t be discreet: the space demanded more of you. I spent the first couple of weeks making massive drawings; looking at work in a totally different way.”

As well as the eight living/working units (expanding to 10 as they move into the building next door, provided, like this one, by Dublin City Council for just under €7 a year) there is a large room with bare walls in which to display work and have meetings, while across a courtyard is a sculpture shed.

The domestic front
"It was great to always be in your studio, even when getting out of bed and making toast," says Jones. "When you are an artist, work meshes into your life so much that it doesn't feel like work and not-work.

“The domestic side of being an artist is a really interesting thing that nobody thinks about. Where artists wash their clothes is not kind of sexy. Fire Station looks at the whole spectrum of life, not just somebody who puts stuff on a wall or makes a video: it supports artists as human beings. It takes that pressure off just surviving and gives you the confidence to do this. It feels as if you are being endorsed as an artist.”

All facilities – including a digital room – come with technical support. “In art, it is so important to push oneself and push through boundaries and experiment,” says Jones. It does this in other ways too, renting out sculpture space and running short courses.

“I can’t imagine where my work would be if I hadn’t have been there,” says Jones. “[My] moving into film happened through Fire Station. It was such an important time in my practice. Without having that space, would I have made those risks and decisions? That was true for a lot of artists there: there were moments of shift in their practice.”

The centre works with the local north- inner-city community and is now expanding its remit internationally by inviting in artists and curators from abroad. It’s a way of getting them to consider Ireland and Irish artists when they return to their home countries and set about choosing work for exhibitions. But, wherever an artist exhibits, by that time a huge amount of work has led up to it, perhaps many years. “We are a cog in that wheel,” says Kenny.

The Fire Station is holding an open day on November 28 with demonstrations, exhibitions, talks and performances. 9-11 Lower Buckingham Street, Dublin 1,

Alice Maher's residency: 'It gave me space to work'

Alice Maher lived at the Fire Station in the early 1990s:
"I was more or less the first resident and was thrilled to get a huge space to work and live in. It was at a critical time for me. I was just giving up my job at NCAD: I very quickly made that decision after a year teaching. I was full of ideas for things I wanted to do, and it was really incompatible to do the two.

“Fire Station was a great transition space. It totally helped me leave teaching and to fully live life as an artist all day long. It gave me the space to work: physically and psychologically.

“My bedroom was up in the eaves, with a beautiful wooden beam I had to climb over to get into the bed.

“My first really big exhibition came from there, in the Douglas Hyde gallery in Trinity, in 1994. Douglas Hyde is a huge space, and having a big space to make work in made it easy to project work into the space.

“Also, the curator could come and see progress and we could have the discussion with the work hanging there. That upped the ante for me, it fed the ambition, and gave me courage to make work on a large scale.

“It was difficult to leave such an amazing space. The main thing for an artist is where to store stuff; it is not about having a nice room.

“Afterwards I had a residency in Paris, and when I returned to Dublin I went straight back to the north inner city, two blocks away from Fire Station, and I often got help from them. I have now built my own space in Co Mayo, which is based on my experience in Fire Station and my memory of working and living in one compatible space.”

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