Deborah Watkins meets with an artist who finds inspiration in the ‘timeless mysteries’ of Connemara
Mary Donnelly has lived and worked as an artist in Connemara for most of her adult life. Originally from Co Louth, Mary uprooted her painting studio from Dublin’s Temple Bar in 1991 in search of a new landscape. She found in Connemara ‘a place of extreme weather and sublime beauty’, conditions that would combine to feed her artistic practice here for the next quarter of a century.
Mary has received many accolades throughout her career, among them the Oriel Gallery Award for a landscape of distinction at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2004. She also received the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2013 and she has had solo shows in Dublin, Australia and New York.
Her most recent show was in the Paul McKenna gallery, in Omagh, last autumn.
Mary takes her inspiration from the contours of Connemara, often seeking out quieter places – a small copse or field, rather than the dramatic mountainous peaks you might usually associate with the West of Ireland. She describes her landscapes as ‘groundless’ and many appear to exist without a distinct skyline or depth of field in the traditional sense.
More significant for Mary is the metaphor this provides for an exploration of the transcendent nature of landscape. She views the line of the horizon as a sacred place where Heaven and Earth come together. The surface of her paintings appear suffused with a silvery light, the half-light of winter, Mary’s favourite season of the year. It is under this delicate film that the land and its timeless mysteries are revealed – the hidden furrows of another era or the gentle arch of an animal grazing, as animals have grazed here for centuries.
In some paintings, the activity of man is evident in the form of a telegraph pole or the faint outline of a building, but it is always unobtrusive. Others paintings contain an object within the work – a wire strung across the canvas might indicate a fence. Mary explains that the external nature of the additional material may serve as a gateway or threshold for the viewer.
The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh was an early influence and Mary cites the poems ‘March’ and ‘Wet Evening in April’ especially. The lines from ‘March’ continue to resonate with her most current work – ‘There’s a wind blowing / Cold through the corridors, / a ghost-wind.’
Other artistic influences include the sepia water colours of Victor Hugo, the light filled landscapes of J.W.M. Turner and the work of contemporary American artist Lawrence Carroll.
Music fills Mary’s studio, helping her to focus. Currently she is listening to ‘Stabat Mater’ by Italian composer Agostino Steffani and the music of contemporary mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Mary quotes the words of William Blake, who said that poetry, painting and music are ‘the three powers in man of conversing with paradise’.
Most of the paintings are worked on for several months at a time, in some cases up to a year. Each begins with a drawing and layers are built up slowly and carved away to create the sense of a surface that has been revealed.
Mary tells me that the best advice she has been given in relation to her art is to hold on to the adage to ‘never give up’. I ask what advice she might give to aspiring artists and she replies: ‘To understand that being an artist is a privilege and to always remember that you are a seeker of truth.’