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A New Landscape – scenes of [a] local nature by Shannon Maria Carroll

“And I’d rather be strolling along the quay, 
and watching the river flow,”… 


is a line from The Two Travellers, a poem by C.J. Boland, which Bernadette Kiely and I discuss on a studio visit at her home in Thomastown.  


For anyone unfamiliar with its verses, the poem recounts a humorous exchange between two travellers, the first boasting of all of the exotic and far-off places he claims to have travelled, and a second traveller, who in a light-hearted and teasing manner, challenges the first traveller’s claims. He contrasts the first traveller’s extensive foreign travel with his apparent lack of familiarity with places in Ireland, in particular Tipperary. He highlights the irony of someone who has seen remarkable sights worldwide but has missed out on appreciating the beauty and charm of their own homeland.  

This is just one of the many themes Bernadette and I discuss in the wake of her upcoming exhibition, A New Landscape: Scenes of (a) local nature. 

A studio visit with the artist takes you to the banks of the river Nore in Thomastown, where her house and studio face onto the river.

The river has flowed through Bernadette’s life and work and is an enduring theme in her practice.  Many of her paintings and drawings have been an exploration of this stretch of the river outside her home which she encounters every day. Her home, the same in which Barrie Cooke once lived, is where Bernadette paints. She uses the same studio where Cooke painted his own scenes of the changing rivers and lakes. The house is tucked away in an idyllic location facing the river on the edge of the town, and is an area prone to frequent flooding.

Bernadette’s paintings depict these scenes of local flooding, in addition to flooded landscapes from less familiar locations. Her work juxtaposes images of local flora and town settings with more devastating scenes of life during a flood. She highlights the contrasts in our complex relationship with water. One of respect and awe. This majestic element is capable of providing valuable resources and a place of refuge. In contrast is the darker side of this relationship – a deep reverence for the force of water. A powerful entity that can be destructive and all consuming.

Roughly this time last year, when Kiely exhibited Imagine Life Without Art, Europe had just experienced its hottest summer on record.  This year, the world experienced its hottest ever July  on record.  Human activity has begun to alter the earth’s climate in unprecedented ways and one need only tune into recent news reports of wildfires across Europe and flooding in other parts of the world.

In school, many of us learned that rising temperatures meant the melting of polar ice caps and rising sea levels. Images of glaciers from a far off land and photographs of stranded polar bears spring to mind. But they presented themselves as a mirage of distant and abstract concepts, failing to hit home the real consequences of what those facts would entail.

In the face of this crisis, Kiely’s work offers us a local tale of such effects. Her paintings convey alarming weather effects and provide acute accounts of flooding. They tell a story of a local nature that speaks to local people. It’s a relatable story of climate change and its associated effects that is hard to ignore. Her work provides a record of events that affects many populations in Ireland, and not just the human ones. Scenes of rising flood waters, stranded livestock, and a landscape that is drastically changing before our eyes, appears too close for comfort.

It seems appropriate that such scenes of a local nature be exhibited at a local landmark: the Grennan Mill Craft School. A dedicated space for craft and design since 1981, housing classes and courses for local, national and international students on various crafts, the artist herself taught drawing here for many years. A beautiful and historical building at risk of closure, the Nore runs right through, having powered the Mill wheel for many years. This wheel reflects back at us through a puddle in one of Bernadette’s paintings. In another, the building’s entrance hangs before us, presented in a flood – denoting a very different setting to the one that visitors to this exhibition will encounter.

A haunting image of the artist’s daughter paddling a canoe along the quay shows water levels that surpass window sills of a local building. The paintings are large and hang low, and the viewer could well be sitting in the boat with her.

The large canvases act as backdrops to the reality of life living by this river. The muted colours of the compositions are not glamorous, and evoke the murkiness that comes with flood water that has accumulated in such places.

Bernadette is an artist who is tuned into local environmental events but also engages with international news stories, and her paintings are also inspired by flooding from elsewhere around the world. Her research is a convergence of processes as the artist walks, observes, reads, records, photographs, listens and paints what it means to live by the river and live in today’s world.

This body of work, although local, speaks to the rest of the world. Bernadette paints a picture (literally and figuratively) of events that are taking place simultaneously around the world in other communities, affecting different towns and populations elsewhere. Events that are quickly becoming commonplace as global warming ensues. Her painting A Savage Flood – what use (is) geography now is startling, depicting fields flooded as far as the eye can see. Another painting, It could be Graignamanagh offers up an indistinguishable landscape that could be of anywhere. It signals a collapsing geography that is evident due to dramatic weather events, erosion, and human activity.

Amid the powerful scenes of weather and water, Kiely’s work also conveys a glimpse of hope for the future. Expansive paintings of Irish wildflowers intersperse the exhibition with pops of colour, as wildflowers often do. Pictures of dandelions, represented both in flower and in seed, evoke a sense of resilience against oncoming climate change. Painted from the artist’s garden grown wild, these billowy plants create a garden room in the exhibition space. The bright imagery offers a reprieve from the more hard-hitting and dramatic images of flooded towns and fields.

            This ubiquitous yellow flower, familiar to most, is known to spring up in even the harshest of garden landscapes and serves as a message of endurance and perseverance. The title,’ Survival of the Fittest, (the answer is) blowing in the wind’ emphasises this endurance of nature and suggests our own responsibility in stewarding that.  

            A series of Lichen paintings, textured works of a more abstracted nature, are reminiscent of the complex organism lichen. Unlike any other organism on earth, it consists of a symbiotic relationship between two organisms: algae and fungus. It is a partnership in which one organism provides a structure or sort of home, while the other produces food. It is sometimes known to grow in the most barren and severe of locations, and in this setting highlights the damp or mould of a building affected by floods.        However, the plant is also indicative of good air quality and is often used by scientists to measure air qualities. It is known to thrive in areas with purer air. The symbiotic partnership between both species may serve as an example of a relationship we could imitate, one in which all organisms benefit from each other’s interactions.  

            This river and its corresponding nature has flowed, flooded and forged new landscapes since before our time. It will continue to do so, but at a more alarming rate. Like the course of nature, or a river altering its landscape overtime, Bernadette’s work in this exhibition is a reminder that we too have the power and potential to change course. To shift our currents and make changes in and for our environments as we pass into the future landscape for which we are headed. Before we alter the course of that landscape forever.  

by Shannon Maria Carroll, art historian, writer and curator with a special interest in the environment and the Irish language. Shannon is Kilkenny Arts Office Emerging Curator 2023.