‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside’

Local artist Jennifer Cunningham exhibits at Galway Arts Festival

ALL-YEAR-round swimming is a passion for Galwegians, but there are even more who never set foot in the sea, even on the hottest days - a fact made all the stranger given Galway is a coastal city.

However Just Add Water, a new exhibition by Galway artist Jennifer Cunningham, is a fond tribute to seaside resorts, a lament for their neglect, and a call to make use of and enjoy these resources on our doorstep.

Going swimming

Jennifer was born in Castlepark and grew up in Newcastle. Her grandmother was a keen painter while her mother and father enjoy drawing and sketching. “I was born into it,” she tells me during our Tuesday morning interview in the NUI Galway gallery.

Growing up Jennifer loved drawing, painting, and colouring. “I sold my first painting when I was eight,” she declares. “A neighbour bought it for 20p! I also won a Crayola Teddybear for a colouring competition when I was seven.”

Modest these achievements may have been but it set the tone for a career that has been going from strength to strength over the past decade.

Jennifer graduated with a first class honours degree from the GMIT in 2002 and completed a a master’s in fine art from NCAD in 2008. Since 2003 she has featured in RHA summer shows and nationally and internationally. Her work is collected by the Office of Public Works, the ESB, Siemens, the Galway City Council, the GMIT, and by private collectors in Ireland, Britain, and North America.

Now comes her Galway Arts Festival show - Just Add Water. It features paintings, videowork, and a documentary, and runs at the NUIG Gallery in the quadrangle until Sunday July 29.

Just Add Water came from both Jennifer’s passion for swimming and the repair works carried out in Blackrock in Salthill some time ago. She is an all-year-round swimmer and regularly takes a dip in Blackrock with some of her fellow female Galway artists.

“We jokingly thought of setting up a group, The Gas Girls Artists Swimming Society,” she laughs. “Then for a time repair works were taking place in Blackrock and parts of it were closed off and I started to worry. I’ve seen the baths in Clontarf and Dún Laoghaire that were supposed to be closed only temporarily remain shut and I asked myself; What would happen if this place that is so precious to me, closed?”

Jennifer began to develop ideas based around highlighting seaside resort areas - the decay and neglect they have suffered, the nostalgia that such areas evoke, and the potential they retain for providing the public with enjoyment.

“That’s why I called it Just Add Water,” she says. “Many of the places in Dublin have dried up due to neglect but if the water was there people would be using them.”

This point is most explicitly stated in the video element of the exhibition. On one screen are public baths and recreational swimming areas in Dublin falling into ruin, covered with graffiti, and overgrown with weeds. On the screen beside it are a group of Galway women, mostly regular Blackrock swimmers, wearing flowers in their hair and performing synchronised swimming.

The point is clear, swimming areas provide personal and community recreation spaces, enjoyment, and exercise, and have far more to offer society - as demonstrated in Galway - than simply letting them go to wrack and ruin in other parts of the country.

“I wanted to play with those ideas and for the video I wanted to bring a group of people together to swim,” says Jennifer. “I though maybe eight people might turn up, but on the day 35 did. It was amazing!”

Blackrock Beach Memoirs

The more nostalgic aspects of seaside and holiday resorts is explored in Jennifer’s paintings which form the majority of the exhibition. Here are some beautiful depictions of sights in Salthill, Dublin, and New York’s Coney Island - shelters, hotels, fairgrounds, diving towers, nightclubs.

“I’m interested in the idea of nostalgia,” she says. “I was looking at seaside resorts when I was over in America but I also wanted to give the show an Irish feel.

“When you were heading off on holidays you were expecting the weather to be good and it would be all sun, fun, and ice-cream, but as my father says, the only difference between summer and winter in Ireland is that the rain is warmer in the summer.”

Of greatest interest to Galway viewers will be Jennifer’s deceptions of Blackrock’s diving tower, the Burren Mount hotel, the Oasis nightclub, and the Nurses’ Home at the university hospital. These concrete entities are rendered in great, though never suffocating, detail in Jennifer’s highly linear, clear, and concise style, creating both an accurate depiction of the places depicted while also capturing their peculiar atmosphere.

While the buildings themselves are detailed, their surroundings dissolve into washes, streaks, and hazes of delicate, near translucent, colours, giving the images a kind of dream-like, hallucinogenic quality.

“I wanted to give the works the look of old, faded, photographs that have parts worn and frayed and stained,” says Jennifer. “That’s why the works look rough and ready. There is one painting which has a section torn from the top of it. It’s just that I found the piece of paper that way but I though it would help capture what I was getting it.

“I also wanted to use colours that were nostalgic for me which is why I used pastel colours as they are synonymous with Blackrock - oranges and yellows. I also wanted to bring an abstract quality to the works as well and contrast the layered paints with the controlled drawing.”

Given that the focus of Just Add Water is on seaside resorts, the painting of the Nurses’ Home - one of Galway’s most striking Art Deco building - entitled ‘On The Road’, seems unusual.

“I wasn’t sure if I should include it,” she admits, “but it’s a place I often walk by. In Bray there were a lot of modernist buildings constructed in this Victorian resort but those ‘modern’ buildings are now dated themselves, so there is a double-dating process going on.”

At the entrance to the exhibition space, visitors can see a documentary on Jennifer and her working methods, by film maker Des Kilbane.

“I know Des very well so I was comfortable with him making the film,” she says. “It was definitely a collaboration. I would have had input into where to put some of the shots and I helped him edit it. It was an honour to work with him as he has great technical abilities. I studied film and TV but I learned rakes from Des. It was a very happy experience.”

For more information on Jennifer, her art, and her art classes, see www.jennifer cunningham.ie


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