The orchard in which art grew

A family orchard inspires Helena Gorey’s latest paintings, photographs and video


In the 1930s Helena Gorey’s grandfather planted an orchard on the family farm in the townland of Burnchurch in Co Kilkenny. Trees do well in the rolling countryside of the locality, and the orchard flourished. By the time Gorey was a young child there in the 1960s, the orchard was mature and in full production. She remembers the annual explosion of blossom as cookers and sweet apples came into flower. When the fruit was ripe, pickers moved in and the apples went to the Bulmers factory by the truckload.

As time passed the nature of the industry changed, and the orchard ceased commercial production and was gradually forgotten. Gorey moved away, became an artist and worked in arts administration, although she revisited home regularly. Then, about 12 years ago, she moved back to the area and established a studio in a building in the farmyard.

Fast-forward to the present day, and her exhibition at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny. As the title suggests, the paintings, works on paper, photographs and video that make up the show are inspired by and about The Orchard , though perhaps not so much the orchard itself as her experience of it.

Her rediscovery of the orchard commenced in 2008, when she bought a new camera. Thinking she would have a look and perhaps take some photographs, she found that the apple trees had been completely overwhelmed by a mass of vegetation. “There was just an overgrown tangle of brambles and ivy. You couldn’t actually see the trees, just this dark, impenetrable jungle.” When she did manage to cut through under the canopy into the shade, she found thickets of brambles sprouting out of bare brown earth, and entwined ivy stems almost as thick as the tree limbs they swarmed over.

Reclamation process
So began a process of reclamation that continues today. She and her partner began the painstaking task of releasing the apple trees from their vegetative cages. It seems almost perversely labour-intensive, yet they have found it rewarding in unexpected ways. “If we weren’t doing this by choice, it could feel like slavery. But it doesn’t. It may seem strange, but usually we’re really keen to get back to working here. We didn’t set out with a definite plan; it just developed over time.”

The orchard is big – dauntingly so – but, as she describes it, they tackle it hands-on. Everything is up close and localised. “We often lost track completely of where we were. For a long time you couldn’t see beyond the narrow circle you were working in. You have to be attentive, not to damage the trees. As a result you are focused on details all the time, with real intensity. You enter into this other world. You register the comings and goings of animals – foxes, lots of hares, birds – and you slip into their rhythm, rather than the kind of time we’re used to.”

As they cleared row after row of trees, preserving hazel, ash and hawthorns that had seeded themselves in the ground, they came upon an entire building, a former pig house that, like the orchard, had simply been overgrown and forgotten. It’s gained a new lease of life with a cider press installed.

Gorey had proposed doing an exhibition with the Butler Gallery. Initially, the orchard was not intended as the focus but it gradually found its way into her work. “I think you’re always working in your head, and I realised that it was just taking over, that whole experience.”

She doesn’t set out to make conventional representations of the orchard, but to convey something of how she encounters it and what it means to her. Her paintings are a series of often monochrome canvases, deftly delivered; expanses of colour with ragged edges.

Reflecting on her encounters with detail, she envisages individual plants and flowers as colour sensations that flood over us: the blues of speedwell and bugle; creamy cow parsley; yellow celandine; pinkish-red spindle; dark, dark ivy.

Gouaches and watercolours on paper bring us in close to tiny details of floral and leaf patterns enmeshed in the texture of the orchard floor. Photographic prints offer further, broader details of the environment; bundles of cut ivy and brambles; trees regenerating, blossoming, fruiting. The black-and-white photographs have a sketch-like quality, and Gorey mentions that she thinks of photography as a way of drawing.

In her video, Summer , we see the vitality of the orchard in terms of shadows cast on a white canvas by a hazel tree, acknowledging the cyclical and fleeting nature of things.

Her approach is tactful and beautifully nuanced. There’s a delicacy to the work that is very appealing as she delves not just into the present day but into her memories of the place as it was. The show comes across as an account of a sensitive engagement with the environment in the widest sense: natural, cultural and personal.

The Orchard . Butler Gallery, The Castle, Kilkenny. Until April 21st.