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A NEW LANDSCAPE – scenes of [a] local nature

‘A NEW LANDSCAPE – scenes of [a] local nature’

“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.

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.

Shannon Maria Carroll, Curator, Art Historian, Environmentalist, Gaeilgoir. August 2023.

@ Grennan Mill Craft School, The Island as part of THOMASTOWN CREATIVE ARTS FESTIVAL/KILKENNY ARTS FESTIVAL 2023