Young Irish artists exhibit in Brooklyn – for one night only

Female collaborative visualise their roots while working in New York

Turf: a clump of earth that makes up so much of Ireland. It is also the name of an Irish female collaborative based in New York, whose members are Ellen Egan, Georgie Twamley, Hannah Whelan, Ash Burke, Elsa Brightling, Ashleigh Merrin, Stephanie McDermott, Fiona Fitzpatrick and Robyn Carey.

As a word that relates to roots, the name of the collective harks to the artists’ ties to land – the land from which they came (Ireland) and the land in which they seek to stake a claim (New York).

It is comprised of nine recent Irish graduates, most of whom are on a J1 visa, and they all share the common experience of being 3,000 miles away from home, trying to make a living while simultaneously pursuing their creative ambitions.

Each knew that in order to find personal and professional success, they would have to leave Ireland, due to the limited scope of creative opportunities. For many, this past year has been a milestone in their lives and this is exactly what the curator, Hannah Whelan, aims to highlight.


Their debut exhibition, TORN, showing tonight (June 22nd) for one night only at the John Doe Gallery in Brooklyn, will consist of works that express the emotional and physical experience of the limited time the members have to set up a life (legally) in New York. Feeling stuck between two places, some are torn with the decision to leave a life, a lover and the land of opportunity as they come to the end of their J1 visa.

John Doe Gallery is in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which is also where these Irish artists live and play in their adopted city. With Manhattan being too expensive for most artists to live in, Bushwick has become the new creative hot spot.

When Hannah Whelan began looking for gallery spaces in which to curate the exhibition, John Doe’s philosophy of realising experimental artistic visions sat well with TURF’s multidisciplinary approach.

Whelan, founder of TURF, says that “as a group, we are tied to our Irish roots but enthralled by the vibrancy America has to offer.” Most of the artists involved say that they would not have had the opportunities they have enjoyed if they had stayed in Ireland.

Elsa Brightling, a photographer, says: “New York is the obvious option for any artist or photographer. I didn’t really think twice about it, I just felt like that was where I was meant to be. Ireland has had to create its own creative work opportunities and although they are growing, they are still limited. I did three internships during my time here. I don’t think I would have achieved anything close to the experience I got here versus what I would have found for myself in Ireland. New York has helped me find my voice as a person and as an artist.”

Robyn Carey feels the same. “Opportunities here are plenty, and with so many creatives around, simultaneously pursuing their dreams. With many various different jobs and projects going on at once, it feels right to join in and work hard towards my artistic goals here.”

A big question for Irish artists upon graduating is whether to go to London or New York. Carey, a textile print design graduate, chose New York because it is easier to get a paid internship there, in addition to the fact that it has so many textile print studios. Currently working at Soge studio in Brooklyn, she is doing well selling prints to the New York market.

Displaying mixed media prints in her series Foreign Terrain, they show her state of mind while living here. The busy, fractured art works reflect the many sights and inspirations of the city, while deeper down contemplating which city she would like to call home. "I definitely feel that in an artistic sense, I belong in New York rather than at home."

Whelan agrees. “Without a doubt, I personally feel I have made the best decision, for this time in my life, to reside here and to try and mould some sort of career path for myself.”

Visiting the city in 2015, it was at one of MoMA PS1’s summer concerts that she met the team behind the textile studio Fort Makers. As a fan of their work, she contacted them after graduating to arrange for an internship, and has been working there ever since.

Her work Rooted consists of two 'sculptures' that accommodate plant growth. As someone who aims to make nature an integral part of any environment, the larger, more vibrant piece relates to New York's constant energy, whereas the muted floor piece emulates Ireland. She has recently been selected as the 2017-2018 artist-in-resident at the Textile Arts Center in New York.

Ellen Egan, unlike the others, found too many limits to her creative pursuits while in New York. “The J1 is a massive hindrance to your ability to develop your career or even just gain experience in your field. Once potential employers hear the words ‘paper work’ they freak out, unless they’ve done it before. In addition, a lot of employers want you to be available for the foreseeable future, which we cannot guarantee. There are definitely lots of opportunities in New York but it’s very much driven by who you know.”

Her work I've To Go Home examines the enjoyable experiences she has had in New York while existing in uncomfortable circumstances. It consists of a printed hardback book accompanied by a stool. The book explains Irish slang and terminology in an illustrative and light hearted style, recalling Paris vs New York by Vahram Muratyan. Guests are invited to read the book on the stool to experience her concept fully.

“The stool looks very comfortable but when you sit down it doesn’t seem as good as it looked. Essentially, the book stands for the good times in New York and the stool is the uncomfortable circumstances one can also experience here. The reason the book focuses on Irish terminology is so that Americans can learn something new, like I learned lots about the States.”

Egan says that many people have two or three jobs in order to get by while they were in New York; in Ash Burke’s case, she had four. The 25-year-old suffered from burn out and had to go home for three months to recover. While at home, she thought about whether to stay in Ireland, but ultimately New York won out. “I knew I had too many crazy ideas not to be in New York.”

She has since returned with a more focused outlook on her life here. As someone who suffers from depression, anxiety and ADD, her work Behind the Mask, involves an interactive garment. It aims to reconstruct the emotions associated with these conditions.

A weighted hood gives the wearer the impression of a heavy head (depression); a visually and physically uncomfortable waistband and neckband creates the sensation of stomach knotting and throat scratching (anxiety); a soundtrack derived from the materials used to make the garment is an incredibly irritating series of noises that pull you from left to right, resulting in the hyper awareness and easy distraction associated with ADD.

To calm guests down after experiencing the garment, they need only take one of Burke’s business ‘cards’ – tablet bottles filled with lavender, labelled with pharmacy stickers listing her contact details.

The decision to come to New York wasn't a light one to make for Fiona Fitzpatrick. Her work This Holy Spark is a response to feeling truly torn between the two places. One foot is firmly in Ireland with her family as they endure a difficult period, and the other in New York, trying to make the most out of her year. Her work ascribes to how she felt, leaving home with "everything still raw."

As a city rife with artistic opportunities, it can be incredibly tough to be forced to leave New York. Brightling's photographic series Something Borrowed is inspired by the stories of immigrants who have said "I do" so they don't have to lose the life they created for themselves in the US.

A self-portrait of the artist shows her sitting on the floor, legs akimbo, with her nudity obscured by her long locks and a veil. With one eye open, she is always looking out for what her next move might be, seeking the next opportunity because “visas don’t just fall into your lap, even if your legs are spread”.

Ashleigh Merrin similarly presents a photographic series but focuses on other Irish people who have become rooted in New York. Getting the stories of bartenders at old haunts such as the Long Haul in Midtown and McSorley’s Ale House in the East Village, she found it interesting that in this melting pot of a city, the bartenders only surround themselves with other Irish people.

In relation to what is in store for TURF, Whelan is quick to say that even if they won’t physically be in the same location in the near future, the group will continue to collaborate and come together to exhibit in various places internationally.

As for the next few months, Egan and Fitzpatrick plan to head home. Brightling, Carey and Merrin are involved in creative projects and are very keen to stay in New York. Like Whelan, Ash Burke also has an upcoming residency – off the coast of São Paolo – for the next month, with plans to return to New York after that.

TORN is exhibiting for one night only on Thursday, June 22nd, 4.30pm-10pm, at John Doe Gallery, 112 Waterbury Street, Brooklyn, NY 11206.

You can follow the collective @turf_collective

Hannah Whelan: @_hannahwhelan_ ,

Elsa Brightling: @elsabrightling,

Robyn Carey: @robyncareyart,

Ellen Egan:

Georgie Twamley: