Art and a Sense of Place

Climbing Brockagh 19 April 2015

I suppose that my return to live in the place where I grew up was inevitable. In the forty-plus years that I had spent trying to escape the clawing claustrophobia of a rural 1950s childhood, I had pined for fresh mountain air, walking freely along the forest paths and wild, open mountain-tops, without having to travel back to traffic congestion, blaring house-alarms, the garish, eerie orange glow of street lighting and the constant movement of people. Two new generations had sprung up in my absence. Times and customs had changed but, with the exception of moderately modernised shops and hotels and the addition of a small housing estate in the village, the landscape I remember has embraced – and withstood – human presence.

I am very sensitive to places. I like to be in a place, not just on it, not just passing through. I pay attention to what my senses pick up as well as its rhythms, beyond the obvious movement of human daily life. In suburbia, I functioned but I could never be in any of the neighbourhoods that I called home; I didn’t feel part of where I lived. By returning to the countryside, I hoped to ignite a sense of self that I had been searching for since childhood, when the only question became what to do.

At school, English and art were my best subjects; the tip of the iceberg, as it turned out. But, without financial support, and no clue as to what to specialise in anyway, I fell into a subordinate end of the workforce; further education vaporising into a pipedream. My interests were so broad that I would have felt stifled by having to specialise in one particular subject. The disciplines that were available at third level had artificial boundaries. Social history, culture, heritage, environment, landscapes, art and humanities did not come in one package and it would have taken half a lifetime to study each one, graduate and move on to the next. In recent years, it is becoming more and more apparent that all of those interests were connected. I am interested in human stories, in relationships with landscapes: how people have lived on the land through time, their effect on the land, its effect on them and principally how they survived and thrived. I like to record their stories and I like to paint.

Woods at Glendalough
Woods at Glendalough. Oil on canvas board, 2014

When I first met Harry, I had completed my first year in secondary school and I was offered a summer holiday position as an assistant in the local post office. It was also a grocery shop and newsagent’s, selling comics and postcards as well as daily newspapers, and outside, a petrol pump and a diesel pump, cylinders of gas, coal, and paraffin. At one end of the shop, I operated the telephone exchange switchboard and sold stamps. At the other end, I sold ice-pops, choc-ices on sticks and ice-cream, served in three, four or sixpenny sizes, sandwiched between two wafers.

A thin, wiry woman with cropped silver hair and a perennial sun-tan, wearing a long, loose top and shorts, came in about twice a week and in a refined English accent, asked for fruit. “She must be away on holidays a lot,” I remarked to my boss. “Indeed, no,” she replied, still leafing through a book of sales dockets. “Mrs. Bewick spends most of her time outdoors, gathering berries and nuts, and swimming in the river. She’s a vegetarian and she lives in a glasshouse, in the garden of the castle.” “Where you grow tomatoes, you mean?” “Yes, a greenhouse. In winter and summer. She’s as tough as old boots.”

Greenhouse of the type that was Harry’s home

Some weeks later, I had to deliver a package to Mrs Bewick, and in the grounds of the castle, I found the glass-house that was her home. Strange objects: mostly bits of broken saws and other metal, assembled together into separate ‘pictures’ or tapestries’, hung along the inside of the glass. Years later I heard this type of assemblage referred to as ‘Scavenger Art’ and learned that ‘Harry’, whose real name was Alice, had a daughter, Pauline Bewick, an artist who is mostly associated with watercolour painting, although she also does oil painting, sculpture, and tapestry art and the subject of her artwork is mainly nature. The auction record for a work by Pauline Bewick was set in 2004, when her painting, entitled ‘Salmon on a Plate’, was sold at James Adams, in Dublin, for €48,000.

Pauline Bewick
The artist, Pauline Bewick

Looking back over fifty years, I can see how Harry Bewick’s artistic bent and her close connection with nature influenced her daughter’s work as an artist. She is fondly remembered  by friends of mine, with whom she had a much closer association. They tell me about the stories she shared with them and the knowledge she imparted to them about the flora and fauna of the area, and I wonder if she had a hand in influencing my thinking too. Who knows? There was something about Harry that resonated with something inside me, but I’m not sure what it was – or is.

The vaulted ceilings, mullioned windows, long tiled corridors and the silent, cosy, convent chapel in the elegant old abbey where I was a boarder, held everything I had hoped for, most of all, an hour every week to draw and paint. Over the course of the next five years, many of my artistic endeavours disappeared to competitions, some winning prizes. The rest were hoarded – not very judiciously – by my mother; haphazardly stored amidst bric-a-brac, laundry – even my brothers’ football gear – and eventually disintegrated. When she died, I acquired the only two: sepia with age, curling at the edges, but still reasonably intact. Recently, in a search for something else, they resurfaced and took me back across fifty-plus years to 1964.

The theme of my schoolgirl pictures – nature – has endured although it could be argued that, growing up among mountains, lakes and forests would account for my leaning towards the natural landscape for inspiration. After a long absence, I can now absorb that landscape, first hand.

On Paddock Hill

Whatever the weather, a walk in the valley or across the hills is always full of small wonders and changing light. In winter, a stiff westerly wind pushes against me and a passing rain cloud overhead decides to release its load. But the sun breaks through and suddenly, I am enveloped in dappled light and glistening foliage. Torrents of rain fill the streams and the rivers and the sound of rushing water echoes, in varying cadences, from one side of the valley to the other. At the upper lake, the wind drives the water into churning ‘white horses’ and in spring, the feathered family inhabiting the shore has grown.

Coming out for a swim

The resident deer share their space with a flock of newly-shorn sheep and young lambs in the fresh pasture by the lower lake. In summer, the tourists come and coaches, cars and motorcycles gridlock the road and the car parks. Hill walkers, cyclists and ramblers take to the rough mountain terrain and the well-worn paths along the valley floor. A hundred languages reverberate across the still water of the lakes and yet there is stillness – among the Scots pines, on the slope of a hill or by the lake shore.

Deer by the lower lake

There are memories everywhere. This is my father’s country, its ruggedness a contrast to the gentle rolling hills and open, green pastureland we left behind on the outskirts of a town eight miles to the south, where my mother grew up. Here, my world is filled with a very different hue: of glistening, moss-mottled granite, the peat-brown water of the river flowing in the shadow of the dark, looming, pine-clad Camaderry Mountain. I can still see my father, dressed in ‘old’ clothes and rubber boots, raincoat and miner’s helmet across one arm, walking up along the lane, with the smell of gorse in bloom, to start another shift.
There is the sound of the river, but I cannot see it for the height and density of the gorse bushes growing alongside the rutted lane that runs parallel to the river and leads to the head of the valley. My mother is pushing the big maroon pram with my brother inside, guiding it through the loose stones and tufted grass, the baby rocked to sleep by the gentle sprung motion.

River reflections 2

A little further along, and another scent wafts towards us on the gentle breeze: turf smoke, blue-grey plume rising from among a grove of tall trees. And then, the unmistakable smell of baking bread. My grand-aunt, in cross-over apron, sandy hair pulled back in a neat bun, greets us at the half-door. “Come in, come in, Daughter, and have a cup of tea, the kettle’s on the boil.” Hanging from a hook suspended from a crane over glowing embers on the open hearth, the black iron kettle emits a singing sound and beside it hangs a black flat-bottomed pot, the lid covered with hot cinders. Inside the pot-oven, a cartwheel loaf is baking. The memory is as fresh as if it were yesterday.

In June this year, a walk has taken me to the head of the valley. Beyond the river, at the foot of Camaderry Mountain, a tall ‘monkey puzzle’ thrives among the old pines and the crumbling stone walls of a tiny farmstead and I wonder if the siblings, a brother and sister who once lived there, had aspirations to cultivate a garden of non-native plant species: something exotic to add colour and variety to their spot in the valley. My cousin’s sheep, with new lambs, graze happily in the sunshine and tiny river insects frolic in the peat-brown water.

Frost and Sunlight on Towers

On the horizon, I see the first of the pilgrims, as they weave their way through the boulders, and descend onto the old miners’ road, the final leg of their journey from Hollywood to Glendalough, for ‘Pilgrim Path Day’, walking in the footsteps of the ancestors. They have met new friends and enjoyed stretches of silence and mindful walking, fallen into rhythm with the natural world, to find a joyful sense of peace and connect with the awe-inspiring beauty of Wicklow´s sacred landscape.

Gateway2 (1)

I float to the end of my walk, high on endorphin, reflecting, as I exit through the centuries-old gateway to the monastic city, on the contrasts we enjoy, the transition from the ancient to modern as we walk, with maps and cameras, among the ruined memorials of another time and I am thankful for the rediscovery of myself and the inspiration that I have derived from the landscape that has retained its natural beauty whilst the footprint of human occupation and visitation has ebbed and flowed – even before the historic monastic city was founded.


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