The whole of the above should read, “They Changed Their Sky, But Not Their Souls, Those Who Travel Across The Sea.” It’s a quote from the Roman Poet Horace, who looked at the idea of what we leave behind and what we might gain by changing the sky above us.
We once flew back from Ireland to Boston with a young three-month-old collie dog we bought in Galway. I don’t recommend putting any animal through this, but the little guy seemed unfazed by the journey. When we got back up to Maine the next day, I picked him up and took him to the field below our house. I set him down to do what dogs need to do outdoors. As soon as he sat down on the ground, he threw his head back, and looking up at the sky, took in a series of deep breaths. He seemed to know he was no longer in Ireland, or at least he was aware that what he was smelling was alien to the world he had left twenty-four hours earlier. I sometimes wonder the same. After living here in Ireland for sixteen years now, how has my sky changed?
Believe me when I say that we were not being naive when we decided to move to this Island Nation. We understood that we were embarking on what might become something of an existential experience. How would the experience of changing our way of life affect the way we think? Affect the way we make art? We talked about the last question the other night: how has this simple geographic change affected what we create?
As a result, I decided I would interview Pat Owen (my life’s partner), an artist formerly from Maine but now entrenched here in Ireland. As far as I know, she is the only artist from Maine living in Ireland. (At least I have not been able to locate any others). Now, wait . . . You would think that two people living together for years would have few secrets to share, but it is surprising how a formal process like an interview will form a person’s answers. The interview went like this . . .
T: Pat, you had been actively painting for years in the State of Maine. Did you have any concerns that the move here would inhibit your growth as an artist?
P: No. In fact, I hoped this kind of a change would re-energize my work, giving me different insights into the way I thought about things. Also, we lived in London for three years when you were in theater school. I had that small, dark back room that I used as a studio. London and the flat we lived in was cold, so I think that found its way into my painting back then; at least, it was a subconscious thing.
T: When we lived in London we were there on my student visa, but here in Ireland we hold dual citizenship, which gives us a more permanent, settled place. Has that sense of being settled here changed the way you create?
P: In many ways, it has. When I first arrived, I joined an arts advocacy group similar to the Union of Maine Visual Artists, which helped with my sense of belonging. II knew I would only be there in London for a short-ish time. I felt like an alien, and consequently, my work felt uninhibited. But here on this peninsula, the artists I associate with are primarily Irish. Even though I have lived here for years now, I at times still feel like an outsider, not an alien, but one whose art is looked at differently. This is not a negative thing, but it can put pressure on me if I let it.
T: Some of your recent work takes on social and political overtones that are distinctly Irish-based. Would you have explored these themes if you were still living in Maine?
P: You are referring to my paintings about Mother and Baby Homes. Maybe it would have come out of me if I were still in Maine, but when the revelations of abuse came out in the Irish press describing the horrors these women went through because they happened to be unwed, I felt I wanted to make some form of a statement. I felt a need to support the women who lost their children in these places, all because of how the Catholic religious orders operated at that time worldwide. Recent revelations of unmarked mass graves at Kamloops in British Columbia, where Native American children were forced into industrial schools, again by Catholic Religious Orders, seemed to justify why I went down this path.
T: It seems to rise above something you just read in the headlines. How personal of an issue was this for you?
P: I was raised a Catholic. I’m not now associated with any organized religion, but the marks never really leave you; it’s always lurking somewhere in the background. My mother died when I was four years old, and my father placed me in a home for three years before he remarried. It was run by order of Catholic nuns, who gave us all numbers, no names, but numbers: mine was 12. That number appeared on all my personal belongings, even the dormitory bed I slept in. I became number 12. So I guess I found a certain empathy with anyone who was institutionalized. This is not to say I suffered the horrors the women in Mother and Baby Homes experienced, absolutely not, but my time as number 12 is still with me.
T: So, it wasn’t a political statement you were making with these paintings, but it took on those overtones, didn’t it?
P: Yes, I suppose it did. I guess you’re unable to completely escape the political from art; after all, like religion or even loose religious beliefs, things we don’t necessarily practice anymore, they are lodged somewhere in the way back.
T: So you’re telling me, you don’t see yourself as an activist artist.
P: When I was painting in Maine some time ago, I was looking at trees and their linear formation in the forest. At about that time, we were upcountry in Western Maine and came across a massive clear cut. When I got back home, the paintings I made began to reflect what I saw up there, so I guess you could say those works became political, yet I didn’t see myself as some sort of activist artist. It just came out naturally and still does from time to time. Some issues never seem to go away. Back in the 1990s, the UMVA sponsored an exhibition about the plight of the homeless. We both took part in that show, and in 2019, we mounted an exhibition here in Dingle that highlighted the homeless situation in this country. So you see, nothing really changes, and we use our past to make sense of the present.
T: Last question . . . Does Maine have any influence over your work here in Ireland?
P: That’s a hard one. I lived and worked in Maine most of my life, so there must be some sort of carryover. But how it actually manifests itself in my art physically would be vague, or abstract, or very hard to nail down. I mentioned that I was affected by what happened to me as a child, in the “home.” Given that experience, it made sense to make art about it because it impacted me: I mean, it was and still is vivid. So, it’s much subtler to answer your question about Maine and its influence on me here. For instance, when we build a fire in the fireplace at night, we burn turf from the mountain, a unique and totally different smell. In Maine, I remember those long winter nights in front of our wood stove and the perfume of a burning birch log; those two smells have become one and the same. So how does it creep into my art? I think it’s a matter for the soul, and that’s a difficult thing to find. Maine was and is still a big part of me and most certainly helped to inform who I am today. I can’t deny my past in any way.
When I finished asking questions of Pat, I was struck with a question of my own, one that I felt needed answering. Should an artist be defined by geography, by where we live? Do demographics play a role in how or what we create? If I were to call myself an “Irish Artist,” should I make art that is solely Irish (whatever that is)? I know a number of artists who live and work in rural Maine, and much of their work could be shown anywhere without the label of “Maine Art” attached to it.
Art has the ability to move freely, crossing borders, speaking to people whose cultures are different from our own. Art can be a great arbiter, leveling an intellectual playing field, affecting the lives of those willing to look. Those of us who make art only act as a guide, a conductor of sorts, someone willing to start the ball rolling.
So . . . A poet I know from Maine goes to Venice and finds history in its stone. What he creates with words brings those stones to us. Those words travel the world, crossing many seas, and we are better for it. The artist might change their sky, but the soul remains the same.
All the Best from the West,
Tony and Pat Owen (presently an Artist in Residence at Studio Tigh na Cuirte [Courthouse Studio] in Dingle)
Please note: the Archives have taken a short break this quarter but will return with new insights in the Spring.
Image at top: Pat Owen, And This Will Fix It, acrylic and mixed media on panel, 36 x 48 in.