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Bulls, Sheep and Rope Swings: A Month in Ireland 

Through an exchange program with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I was one of two American artists invited to participate in a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center, New Bliss, County Monaghan during the month of July 1992.

Despite the name of Rousseau, I have an Irish heritage through the Fagan line on my motherís side. For many years, it has been my dream to spend some time visiting and working in Ireland. The residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center provided me with an opportunity to get to know some of the country and my ancestors.

Because my flight from New York was through a charter airline, I was scheduled to arrive in Ireland three days before the beginning of my residency. I spent this time visiting the galleries and museums of Dublin. Stella Coffey at the Artists Association gave me an informative book, which made all the various exhibition spaces easy to find. I also walked for miles through all the byways in the Temple Bar area, around Trinity College, over the River Liffey and to many of the quays; finally managing with the help of Christine Redmont at the Photographer's Gallery to figure out some of the bus routes. The one disappointment was that it had been strongly recommended me by photographer Arthur Tress in New York that I show my work to the curator at the Museum of Art in Dublin, but despite many phone calls and visits to the museum I was unable to make an appointment.

After three days, I was exhausted by my long days of explorations but inspired and ready to begin my own projects. The two-hour bus ride from Dublin to County Monaghan took me through lush green countryside. It was on route to the center that the bus was stopped for a short time along a narrow lane in which a huge black bull was loose on the road. The bull was furiously snorting and stomping its feet and appeared to be terrifying the several farmers attempting to convince it to go through a gate. We watched as it darted to one side of the road and then the other, eluding the farmers and sometimes heading straight for the bus. When it finally went through the gate with one last stomp and kick, everyone applauded.

The Tyrone Guthrie Center is housed in a great old mansion surrounded by a working farm next to a lake, and it accommodates painters, writers, sculptors, musicians and composers from the whole of Ireland and abroad. The cost of the stay is subsidized for Irish artists. Excepting the fellowship for two Americans, overseas artists are expected to pay full costs.

I was shown to my room in the main building by the Director, Bernard Loughlin, and told that my studio was not ready. I settled in my bedroom, a rather pleasant room with pearl grey walls, red rug, large desk, overstuffed chair, armoire, bookcases, and a shower. There was also one very narrow bed. It is at least ten degrees colder than in Dublin, which in July is hot and muggy, so the first thing I did after unpacking and pulling out the two extra wool blankets provided, plus quilt, was to get in it.

On the following day, I was shown a studio in a building undergoing renovation, but the noise, dirt floor, stone walls, and lack of electricity made it an impossible place to work, so I must wait until another studio can be found. I spend my time exploring the grounds and the spectacular gardens where Bernard can always be found puttering and pulling weeds.

The next day I was shown to a second studio in an "attic" room. It was large, bright, and airy, with a little balcony on which I could step out to watch the sheep in their field. I know immediately that I will love this room.

On my little balcony I am endlessly fascinated by the sheep and the changing panorama above and below. Big cloud-filled sky alternates with heavy rain that often only lasts for fifteen minutes. While working, I enjoy the sounds of the sheep "talking" of sheep things in their field, and that sound is mixed with the distant laughters of small children and occasional adults who all take extraordinary delight in a long rope-swing hung from a giant tree opposite my balcony. The laughing brogue of a small girl with auburn hair swinging high on the swing comes floating over the balcony railing. "Push me higher," she cries, then, "Higher!" In the garden Bernardís grey sweater among the flowers is a constant, and the clothes left on a clothesline through repeated rainstorms blow in the wind.

Artists are invited to stay from one week to three months in what is called the Big House or for up to a year in one of five self-catering houses nearby. During July there seemed to be a core of about ten to fifteen artists with various people coming and going at any one time. On the first day at breakfast, which takes place anywhere from 7am to noon, (when it then officially becomes lunch) I met a painter who warned me about the Directorís famous pet peeve. He cannot stand to see a cup without a saucer under it. "You can take the artist out of the slob, but you canít take the slob out of the artist," I hear him remark to some hapless soul who has committed this travesty. Aside from this, there are few rules and regulations.

During the day the main house is desertedópainters in their studios and the poets and writers in their rooms. Evening meals are lively. Everyone gathers at the big dining room table. Bernardís wife Mary is the chef and her cooking is world-class. I remember particularly a cheese roulade, and fish dishes that were exceptional. Not a few of us, however, are in danger of death by dessert. The never-ending series of tarts trifles pies, pudding, and cakes (always accompanied by whipped cream) leave some of us in fear for our waistlines.

I gradually made the acquaintance of some of my fellow inmates. There are two other Americans. One is Anna, a painter from Virginia living abroad who can stay at the center for only one week, but is extremely productive during that short time. Mick is an Irish painter with an excellent singing voice limited to only one song, a sad ballad about an Irishman who moves to California and longs for home.

Barbara is an English abstract painter living in Belfast and Brendan is a wild haired poet who appears never to have had enough sleep. He writes his poetry far into the night. Carolyn is a young writer from Canada who has had one of her screenplays optioned. She is quite good at yoga positions and demonstrates the handstand for my camera. Janet is a Scottish painter living in Dublin and Paula is an Irish sculptor but lives in Canada. Grainne is also from Dublin and spends her entire stay working on just one painting of the garden. We occasionally find her standing in the rain, deeply concentrated, and oblivious to the rivulets of water running down the front of her oil painting as she works.

Red haired Helen lives in Ireland, but has been studying for the last year in the United States. Equally red haired Miriam is a poet from Israel and amazes and amuses me one day when she pulls up a chair to sit for twenty minutes in front of the open refrigerator in order to make her decision about what to have for lunch. Maree is the artist/mother of eight-year-old Patrick who good-naturedly agrees to pose for my camera when the light is perfect and later tells Carolyn he hated it. Geraldine is a writer of childrenís books and the mother of beautiful three-year old Findabhair who also poses for my camera and seems not to mind, or even notice, except when a bee tries to sting her in the garden where I ask her to sit.

In order to combat the meals, a small group of us begin taking long walks in the countryside. We find many wonderful roads and paths through farmyards and fields, but avoid the lane by the post office where the pungent smell of silage is overwhelming. Mick tells me that silage is hay that has been cut and stored with molasses poured on it for feeding to the cows.

On our walks one of the Irish painters tells me that I have a "New York style" of walking. I wonder what it is, and is shown how itís something to do with very long strides and swinging arms, and is decidedly unattractive.

One evening Janet, Paula, and myself are walking along a narrow path by one of the fields where two bulls are angrily butting their heads together. We pay them little mind, chatting noisily among ourselves, when suddenly the big red bull charges fiercely across the field directly towards us! There is a low fence between us and the bull, but it looks like he could jump it in a second, and the three of us had a minute of sheer terror wondering if we should run forward or back, or climb a tree. Itís at this moment that my "New York style" of walking comes in handy and the three of us quickly stride on as the bull comes to a full stop just at the fence.

On another night a few of us ventured out to the only pub in town, the Black Kesh. Iím told kesh means ditch and this place totally lives up to its name. The Kesh is a solid 45 minute walk from the TG Center (one hour if you do it slowly), which is not bad, but the return trip must be done in the pitch black along some deeply rutted roads, and, by some, under the influence.

At the Kesh it is my first time to have Guinness on draft. To me it is like an ice-cream soda and I treat myself to one glass. Of course some of the others had a bit more and our walk back in the dark is not without some hilarity. Mick sings his excellent song and Carolyn tells ghost stories, that on that road in that dark, really are scary. Brendan is himself, and I am the voice of reason and convince our group to leave at midnight rather than closing the place down which was their wish.

In every room there are bookcases with many old books, as well as a small library on the ground floor. In my room I cannot resist picking up and beginning A Kingís Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor, which seems a fitting accompaniment to all the stories currently filling the papers about Prince Charles and Princess Dianaís estrangement.

Agnes, a famous cabaret singer/writer from Dublin, arrived during my last week and it is not long before some of us discover that she is the former mistress of a huge old castle in the area. She is on friendly terms with the present owners, her ex-husband and stepdaughter, and she graciously agrees to take a group of us on a private tour of the castle, which she has not been inside of for over twenty years. One afternoon, we went with her on a little time travel trip as she rediscovers her past and we gape at room after rooms of dusty tapestries and ancient paintings.

The poets agree to give a reading of their poetry after dinner one evening. Each one shares with us something unique and special but we are stunned into silence by Miriamís very long poem that has been translated from the Hebrew. It is a deeply moving personal account of the death of her husband and her mourning for him. The painters also show slides and talk about their work, showing some of the rich variety and diversity of interests in this small group.

Mick takes on the daunting task of painting portraits of all the artists and writers, some of whom are not entirely pleased with the likenesses he produces, but all of whom agree that he has, in each case, definitely accomplished a work of art. I am one of the lasts to be painted and like many, find that vanity had hoped for a more flattering interpretation. In the meantime, I have been making photographic portraits of Mick and many of the others and this is its own kind of revenge.

Finally the month is up and sadly, it is time for me to leave. I have loved every day of my stay-- the sheep in their field, my wonderful balcony, the rope-swinging children, evening at the Black Kesh, and so much more. I have particularly loved the weather, about which everyone complained but which I found brisk and bracing and enjoyed whatever it was-- hard rain, blue sky, gray days and sun. I long to extend my visit, but Iím pleased to see how much work Iíve been able to accomplish in my lovely light filled studio, both with my painting and photography. It has been a productive time. Iíve made new

 

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