During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.
Alison Lowry is a glass artist living and working from her studio, ‘Schoolhouse Glass’ in Saintfield, Co. Down in Northern Ireland. In 2009 she graduated from Ulster University with an Honors degree in Art and Design. Since then she has won numerous awards including first place in the category, ‘Glass Art’ at the Royal Dublin Society in 2015 and 2009, the Silver Medal at the Royal Ulster Arts Club’s Annual Exhibition in 2010, the Warm Glass Prize in 2010 and 2011 and more recently the Bronze Award at Bullseye Glass’ exhibition for emerging artists, ‘Emerge’. Alison exhibits nationally and internationally, and her work is held in several public collections. Her current exhibition, ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’ is currently on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin
AS: How are you coping?
AL: I think I’m coping pretty well, but I’m not particularly enjoying this time period and I think that comes down to not being able to be creative. My studio is at my house but I can’t really get near it as my 3 kids are at home, because their schools are closed. I’m spending my days ‘home schooling’, which is frankly torturous for all involved. My eldest can work independently (or at least that’s what he tells me!) but the younger two need assistance and support. My middle child, James (11) has autism and dyslexia, so it’s not particularly straightforward and by the end of the day I’m exhausted. So yes, I’m “coping” but I’m not being productive, and that gets me down.
One shining light in this crisis is the fact that my exhibition ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’ has been given an extended run until the end of the year at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. It’s an exhibition that I’m especially proud of. It tackles historical abuse towards women and children in religious run institutions in Ireland- something, that as a nation we are only really starting to come to terms with.
AS: Have you had a show or other creative opportunities canceled?
AL: I teach to supplement my income, and all that is cancelled for the foreseeable future. All the galleries that stock my more commercial work are also closed, so I’ve currently no income.
I had started a commission for a local Museum, built around the site of an 18th Century Gaol (jail). We had hoped to install in June, but that won’t happen now. It’s a really interesting project. I’ve really been given free rein to interpret any aspect of the Gaol and have decided to tell the story of the female transportees- women who, for mostly minor crimes like theft -were transported to Australia to work their sentences off. On completion of their sentences they would have been given a “ticket of leave” and many the women subsequently stayed there and became ‘good citizens’.
I love working like this- especially the research aspect. I really want to try to both connect to the emotional aspect and to place the narrative in the correct historical context. For ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’ I felt the need to present my work with an deeper explanation of the social context of Religious and State Institutions in Ireland. The public needs to understand how “Mother and Child Homes” and the “Magdalene Laundries” came into being; why they continued for so long (the last laundry closed in 1996) and explore their terrible secretive regime. It was important to allow the voices of the women and children who lived in these places to be heard. You can listen to the late Catherine Whelan, a Magdalene laundry survivor, talk about being held down by the nuns and having her hair cut off, while you look at dangling glass scissors and piles of human hair. It’s incredibly powerful to be able to marry the objects with sound.
The work ‘A New Skin’ is a piece created in collaboration with lrish leather worker Úna Burke. It examines the place of Irish women today and their experience pursuing sex crimes through the court system. The experiences of rape victims within ‘the system’ is something I’ve documented for years in my work. I have a whole body of small glass dresses called the ‘95%’ series which looks at the 2007 (UK Gov) statistic that an estimated 75-95% rape victims will never report the crime to the police. Out of the small percentage who do, even fewer cases make it to court, and out of the small number that do go to court the conviction rate is extremely low. The system is damaging to the survivors and the cards are entirely stacked in favor of the perpetrators. ‘A New Skin’ talks about the rape victims need to literally grow a new skin, maybe through tattooing or scarification, to display their scars and keep the broken pieces inside. The glass is still fragile, but it is also hard and impenetrable. This work I am pleased to say was recently been acquired by the National Museum of Ireland
AS: Has your routine changed?
AL: Yes, my routine is completely upside down at the minute. I have always been pretty strict about getting into the studio after walking the dog and doing the school run and then working there til the boys came home at 3pm. Now by the time we get up, have breakfast and start school work its nearly time for lunch! I don’t get near my studio at all- the little scraps of time that I have are been spent writing for funding, answering emails and doing interviews like this. My husband is an ‘essential worker’ so he’s still at work, so that means the domestic chores/ home schooling/endless washing and cooking fall to me. I am looking forward to the boys going back to school, as I can get nothing done when they’re here, but its looking like they wont go back til September, so art will have to wait a while.
AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?
AL: I’m frustrated. I don’t like to not be working. But on the flip side it has been nice to ‘slow down’ and not feel under pressure to produce and to also enjoy the small things- like walking the dog and the nice weather Ireland is (unusually) experiencing!
AS: What matters most right now?
AL: Without getting too philosophical I think the world needed this break in production and consumption. The air quality is better with no cars and planes, and nature is being given a chance. The slow down is allowing us to refocus too. It’d be nice when this is over that we maybe don’t rush back to our old ways, but its unlikely as I fear we will all be paying for this crisis for years to come.
AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?
AL: I love to collaborate and as part of ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’ I worked collaboratively in many different ways, for example, ‘The Cardigan’, with poet Connie Roberts and ’35 I Cant’s’ with performance artist Jayne Cherry
Last year I was approached by an aerial artist to see if I would like to collaborate (artistically -not physically!) on a performance piece documenting some aspect of the Magdalene Laundries. We have met up several times to discuss plans and recently went to visit one of the last Magdalene Laundry buildings still standing in Ireland. There is now a theatre production company that specializes in site specific and immersive productions and they are interested about coming on board to help us direct. Of course, COVID 19 is slowing our progress down, but it’s allowing more time to research, think and reflect as to what we want this work to say
Working in this way is totally out of my comfort zone- I have no experience in theatre or dance. It’s reminding me of when I started working with glass. I had zero understanding of it as a material- I didn’t know ‘the rules’ of what was possible or not. I have to say I’m really looking forward to seeing to exploring a familiar theme with fresh eyes and a different perspective when this is all over.