Alice Maher: a singular artist brought to book

It’s a rare ability to be able to communicate equally with those interested in art and those not so interested, and is only possible because Maher is so gifted

Alice Maher is an artist who makes art of the kind that engages people who are usually not very interested in art, as well as those who are. It's a rare ability to be able to communicate equally with such diverse audiences and only possible because Maher is so exceptionally gifted as an artist.

These are some of the things she has made over three decades. An immense ball of illuminated brambles. A dress made of bees. A necklace of lambs’ tongues. A coat stitched from nettles. Vast charcoal drawings of hair that cascades like black waterfalls down a wall. Identical bobbing female heads in a body of a water. A thorn stairway. An indefinable refrigerated bed of ice that suggests tomb, chaise longue and plinth. These are visceral, powerful and haunting images that startle on first viewing. On subsequent viewings, they make a viewer wonder, question, even dream.

For four months during 2012-2013, her retrospective, Becoming, attracted thousands of visitors to Imma's temporary gallery at Earlsford Terrace. Many of those visitors returned, to stare again at the humming slab of ice, the cage of lit bramble, the tiny staircase of thorns.

Singular work

So where do the ideas for her singular work come from? This month, Roads publish


Reservoir, Sketchbooks and Selected Works,

which is illustrated with pages from Maher’s sketchbooks from between 1986 and 2012.There, for instance, is a little silhouette of a girl running away from a large green mound: ‘running away from a bunch of nettles’ reads the handwriting on the facing page.

Sketchbooks are only unsteady stepping stones to ideas and bigger work, but they do illustrate interest in themes and subjects. Maher, visiting Dublin from her home in Mayo, looks down at the drawing of the running girl and the nettles; the jacket made of nettles is one of her key pieces of work.

“I grew up on a farm in Tipperary, near the Glen of Aherlow,” she says. “It was very pastoral; big rivers and big trees. I spent a lot of time alone. Nettles were part of my lexicon. I ate them when I was young. The tradition was that you had three meals of nettles in May, and then you wouldn’t get colds or flus all year. We had them boiled and mashed with butter.” She was struck by the “outside coming inside”: a motif she’s used consistently in her work.

“We collected nettles, berries, rosehips. You can make syrup from rosehips, which means you can ingest them. And if you split open the rosehips, there are little hairs inside, which we used if we had an itch.” It’s rosehips Maher later made her Berry Dress from; a glowing red structure that looks like a startling form of chainmail.

“I thought of nature as a material,” she says. There is a sketch of the Berry Dress in Reservoir, on a transparent shelf. “That piece was made in 1994 for my first really big show. In that sketch, I was trying to figure out how it was going to be shown.”


During the 1980s Maher lived in Belfast, where she did a Masters in Fine Art. One of the pages reproduced in Reservoir is a page of writing from one of her sketchbooks during that time, when she regularly travelled by train between Belfast and Dublin.

She wrote: “On the Belfast-Dublin train, leaving Belfast behind with relief. Just a week ago a man got on a train, sat opposite another for a time then took out guns and killed him. He was a member of the Ulster Cubs. Yet on this train the two men wheeling the tea-trolley enter singing ‘If you go, will you send back a letter from America?’ There was such a hysterical relief that everyone is infected. The joy of normality goes through the train like a breeze, so that when the train breaks down in Malahide no complaints are heard, but people almost enjoy the old-style delay and a man quips, ‘Are ye right there Michael are ye right’ . . . . Then we slowly steal our way creaking into Connolly Station”.

Maher looks down at her notes from three decades previously. It’s by far the longest single piece of text in the book. “It must have really made an impression for me to write that down. In the 1980s, the Troubles were still troubling. Trains were an intense thing to be on. You kept getting stopped. Once you were over the Border there was relief.”

In the mid 1990s, she went on a residency to Paris for six months. “It was the first time I’d lived there. I found it cold and socially quite cool as well; the French are very reserved. It’s a bit like being in a museum because it’s about a hundred years since Paris was the centre of the art world.”

When she returned to Dublin, she had nowhere to live, and applied for one of the residential studios at Imma. “The studios had huge ceilings, and once I started drawing, the drawings climbed up the wall, because it was such a huge spaces.”

This is when she worked on Ombres, a triptych of vast charcoal drawings of long, long hair that resembles cloaks, shields, animal fur.

Human hair is a recurring motif in Maher’s work, it is perhaps the material she is most associated with. Virtually every female figure portrayed in the sketchbooks has exceptionally long hair.

“Hair is a really interesting material. Its history is interesting; it’s relation to the female is interesting, it has multiple doors into itself as a material.”

The cover image of Reservoir is of two women joined together by a sort of airborne skipping rope of hair that rises from each of their heads. “There are lots of doubles in my work,” Maher says. “What’s interesting is that you can look in two directions at the one time. You can be positive about one thing and negative about the other. Contradiction is interesting.”

With such a rich visual sensibility, does she remember her dreams? “My last vivid dreams were of battleships and fires and great floods. And of flying. Whenever I wrote about dreams in my notebooks, I’d write the words upside down, so that I knew those notes referred to dreams.”

At one point, Maher acted, and also worked backstage in college theatre. The theatre could have been her alternative career, and one can only imagine what creative work she would have made with lighting and set design. Her light installation, L'Universite, in the former lecture auditorium at Earlsford Terrace was a beautiful piece of both theatre and art; tiny stars of light picking out details on desks from decades of graffiti by long-departed students.

Found objects and objects that most people discard have always fascinated Maher. One of her best-known pieces is the Necklace of Tongues, sketched out here in the notebooks, on a page that includes tongue-like clouds.

“I was going through the English Market in Cork, and I saw a pile of tongues,” she says. “I bought some and put them in the freezer. They were there for years, until I got them out and started working on them.” It is made of lamb tongues – “cow’s tongues are massive”. The impact of animal tongues sewn together on a string, and photographed around a human neck (Maher’s own), stirs many uncomfortable emotions; denied speech, torture, adornment.

It’s a classic signature piece; the haunting unease she creates becomes something both physical and abstract.

Sheep horns

Among the materials she is focused on working with at the moment are sheep horns. “There are a lot of sheep in Mayo, They lose their horns a lot.”

A neighbour knows she is collecting them, so, lately when Maher has been out walking the dog, she has returned to find horns placed on the car bonnet; offerings on an unlikely altar.

To illustrate this interview, Maher volunteered to “become one of my sculptures”. One of the sketches in Reservoir is of several female heads bobbing in water, visible only from the eyeline up.These were for a site-specific installation she did in Paris on a lake, called Les Filles d’Ouranos. Those heads were made of red resin. “They each had an anchor with a chain, so that the heads could float about,” she explains, “and that sometimes they look like they might be following you.”

When the piece was installed, Maher spent time by the lake, observing reactions. The one that charmed her most was a little girl, who asked her mother, “If the mermaids all stand up, will the water go down?” Even children, it seems, are intrigued by Alice Maher’s remarkable work.