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A journey started alone and completed together
Painter Ciara Roche's new triptych grew out of a commission from the Glucksman to reflect the lives of women living in the Good Shepherd's Edel House in Cork city.
Back in the autumn of 2022, Wexford artist Ciara Roche was contacted by the Glucksman about a commission. Ciara’s work, which features quotidian scenes devoid of people - the interior of a local shop, a car park at night, a McDonald’s drive-through at night - is in private collections across Ireland, Europe and the US.
However, the Glucksman commission was different.
For starters it had parallels with journalism or documentary making, and it first involved Ciara spending time with women and staff from Good Shepherd Cork. For just over 50 years the charity has been providing emergency accommodation for homeless women and children in Cork city. The Good Shepherd also supports women and teenage girls who have left home early, as well as working with women who have returned to independent living.
The handful of informal meetings, or “creative consultations”, stretched over hours, and put Ciara, Tadhg Crowley, a senior curator from the Glucksman and a pointman on the commission, as well as women from Edel House together. The group tried their hand at painting and making collages, laughing and smiling at what they created. The women also showed Ciara around Edel House.
At another meeting Tadhg guided them around the Glucksman which sits on the grounds of UCC. The group talked about fashion and “a lot of other generic stuff, like what the nightlife in Cork was like,” Ciara said. Another time, they took Ciara on a stroll through Cork city, giving her the lowdown on life on Leeside. The conversation, much like the River Lee, meandered and flowed along, covering the the ups and downs of the women’s lives.
And then when the meetings wrapped up Ciara did what she has hundreds of times. She returned to her studio to paint. From those conversations, from the memories the women shared with her, their insights and lived experiences of becoming homeless and from photos they had sent her, Ciara created a triptych called A Journey I Started Alone which was unveiled on March 10 in The Glucksman gallery. It was an uplifting and emotional reception bringing the group of women back together again in the confines of the gallery.
Ciara said she jumped on board when the Glucksman approached her about the project.
“But, also I thought, ‘who am I to tell this story?’”
“It became more obvious when we had our first meeting that I would be good at it,” Ciara said, not just because of her artistic talent, but because she was able to form a connection with the women almost from the get-go. For the Glucksman and The Good Shepherd, Ciara was a strategic and inspired choice: people are a noteable absence in her paintings.
“I never paint people (into my paintings) and I think that was important in this commission,” Ciara said.
“I like to keep people out of my paintings because if you don’t see people in it you’re more likely to get into it yourself, to sort of feel like what it might be like to be in the painting, and put yourself in the shoes of whoever or whatever is being depicted,” she added.
The three small paintings, Marie’s Room, Room for Making Change and Family Hub are an amalgamation of those meetings in Edel House, the tours in the city and the Glucksman, the photos sent to Ciara and the many memories the group shared together.
As with Ciara’s work in general, there is an air of solitude running through the triptych, but also one of quiet hope. They're documentary, but they’re also biography,
The focal point in Family Hub is a row of empty prams lined up in a hallway; the morning light dawning on them. Marie’s Room, which recalls Van Gogh’s famous bedroom painting (Bedroom in Arles), depicts a room in Edel House: a bed, a table, and kitchen. A home and a safe harbour.
At the launch last Friday in the Glucksman some of the women Ciara had befriended pulled her aside.
“They were very grateful and thankful, but specifically one of the women gave me a little gift,” Ciara recounted.
She had written a simple but profound message to Ciara.
“In the card she wrote that she’d never thought she’d have the privilege of being at an exhibition in the Glucksman of all places.”
She also told Ciara that she never imagined what she had been through would be reflected back in an artwork.
Back in Wexford in her studio, Ciara is “crazy busy” preparing for an exhibition at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny. However, she said that the totality of the commission and the experiences that grew out of it still hasn’t hit her.
“It was genuinely incredible from start to finish. I was driving home back to Wexford last Friday after the launch. I was in the car and I was telling myself to ‘wake up, wake up’. I felt like I was in a dream.”
“I’m crazy busy with work but I feel like that was exactly what I needed to realise that this is the stuff that matters. Making something for somebody…if one person looks at a painting and feels something similar to any of what those women have expressed or what they felt, then your job is done,” she added.
For Ciara, A Journey I Started Alone has made her “understand a little bit more about the world.” “Their stories linger,” Ciara said, speaking of the conversations and meetings she had with the group of women.
And now they’ve been translated and transformed into art. In an appropriate next step, the three paintings, which belong to the university art collection at UCC, will be transferred over to Edel House where they’ll be displayed while on loan.
For their part, the Glucksman hopes to build on their relationship with the Good Shepherd and welcome back the community of women to the gallery and to the wonders, absurdities and complexities of art.
A Journey I Started Alone will be on diaplay in the Glucksman until March 16 after which it will move to Edel House before being loaned out to schools and community settings.