The Kilkenny art centre with a difference

Jubilant and celebratory, the Kilkenny Collective for Arts Talent blends art with disability care to create a studio like no other


Entering Kcat, an art studio for people of mixed abilities in Callan, Co Kilkenny, is an experience you are unlikely to forget. Passing beneath a three-storey mural of what looks like a mischievous bandit balancing a multicoloured building on his turban, you progress through a cut-stone portal, carved by Kcat artists, and find yourself inside a building decked with artworks of such untrammelled vibrancy and colour that you can’t help but want to start painting yourself.

Kcat – the Kilkenny Collective for Arts Talent – was established in 1999 by the Camphill Communities of Ireland. It offers art training and mentorship to people who can’t participate independently in mainstream education without extra support. The Camphill philosophy of working and living together was the inspiration for developing an open access course that would be truly inclusive.

There are studios, classrooms, a library and printmaking facilities for the 14 core studio artists and up to 100 weekly students who study various aspects of visual and performance arts, from ceramics, to sculpture and dance. There is also a theatrical dimension with the Equinox Theatre company on site.

“At its core it is a creative, inclusive community of people from all sorts of backgrounds that come together and work as equals,” says Paul Bokslag, one of the founders and now a tutor/mentor. “After 17 years, I still love the feeling every day of walking into such a highly creative, noncompetitive space.

“Where else will you find an early school leaver, a retired person and someone with a disability all following the same curriculum in their own individual and unique way?”

Celebratory colour

While Kcat artists have developed strong, unique styles over the years, their work tends towards celebratory colour, richly patterned jubilance and unbounded imaginative flights of fancy. This is art entirely free of cynicism, and many of the works display a fluidity and buoyancy that give no hint of the artists’ physical or intellectual challenges.

For many students, Kcat provides the first chance to be equal participants in a general learning group. Students learn both socially and artistically from each other. While those without special needs can be overly self-conscious before and during the creative process, this is less of an issue for some special needs students who are more courageous about just diving in.

Through perseverance, the Kcat artists have created a situation in which they are now truly included in the wider artist community and society at large. As professional artists who have built their reputations on years of practice, their work sells in professional galleries in Ireland and abroad. Last year Kcat artists exhibited at Galway Arts Centre, Ionad Cultúrtha in Cork, Laois Arthouse, Filmbase in Dublin, AKA Fringe and Damer House Gallery in Roscrea.

They have also held successful exhibitions and collaboration with groups in Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Scotland and the United States, although their foreign travel was curtailed by the years of austerity.

“Thankfully, the Arts Council have this year given us a significant funding increase on the basis that we are fulfilling their vision for arts participation,” says Camphill director Patrick Lydon, another founder. “The arts involvement in the centenary celebrations made it clear to many that cultural participation enhances our sense of citizenship.

“By empowering people in all different situations in life to engage with their own creative vision, Kcat is giving people the capacity to become contributors to a society that is interested in, and can be informed by, all of its citizens.”

Quality of tutors

One key to Kcat’s success has been the quality of its tutors. Some of them are professional artists who wanted a more authentic involvement with art than can be found in the often superficial mainstream art world.

“This is an inspiring place for artists,” says Bokslag. “Most of the tutors do not come from a disability care background. They are primarily artists who want to work in an inclusive environment and enjoy the hands-on approach to learning here.”

Callan as a town has been strongly impacted by the presence of Kcat, alongside Camphill and L’Arche, two communities for people with support needs. The area has become known for innovative, inclusive arts and social practise, with the annual Abhainn Rí Festival of Inclusion and Participation, as well as artist studios in the Callan Workhouse Union and, since 2010, an artist’s residence by the RHA in Tony O’Malley’s former home.

Ideally, every county in Ireland would have an equivalent to Kcat, and while there are other inclusive arts collectives and supported studios such as Cúig at Mayfield Arts Centre in Cork, Blue Teapot in Galway and the Cumas Arts Ability Studio in Wexford, the role that Kcat plays in the creative and social culture of Callan is unique and enviable.

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