"I never paint places in my landscapes. They are all in my head and I work them out onto the canvas.” Seán Cotter, Sept 2005.
ARTIST INTERVIEW: Seán Cotter in conversation with Nicola Murphy on Monday 5 September 2005
“Paintings and their imagery can be generated out of the act of drawing. Drawing is useful as a quick method of capturing an idea or format, for a more involved and detailed work later. This is not to dismiss drawings as simply throw away notes, for the essence of a work can sometimes be caught more dramatically within the moments it takes to create a sketch. It can be frustrating and tedious work trying to recreate that snap of drama on canvas. Sometimes there is no point in going any further than a charcoal or mixed media drawing. This is not to say that a canvas can’t send you back to paper. Both feed off each other creating a symbiotic relationship wherein the artist can work and develop ideas.” Seán Cotter July 2005.
After a very successful exhibition of paintings at Eigse Carlow in June of this year, this solo show by Seán at Draíocht is a new body of work comprising mainly of charcoal drawings with one painting and is primarily concerned with the act of drawing, exploring the abstract notions of mood, tonality and sensitivity of line and movement.
Seán’s work has featured in many exhibitions, including both solo and group exhibitions. Before his exhibition in Eigse Carlow in June, Seán’s exhibition Corvidophilia was shown at the Hallward Gallery in Dublin. He has also mounted solo shows at the Galway Arts Centre, the Linenhall Arts Centre (Castlebar), and St John’s Arts Centre (Listowel). His paintings have been included in many group exhibitions in France and Germany, as well as throughout Ireland. Seán’s work is also in private collections in Ireland, England, Scotland, France and the United States.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, where you’re from and how you got started on the road to becoming an artist?
I was born and raised in Monasterevin, Co Kildare. I grew up on stables, my father trained racehorses, so I grew up riding out the horses. At the age of 13 or 14 I thought that was the way my career was going to go. I never entertained the thought of becoming an artist; I didn’t even know there was such as thing as being an artist as a career. I always loved art in school and it was an aunt of mine who first said to me ‘you’re always painting and you love it, why don’t you become an artist?’ So I latched on to that and there was nothing else on my wish list when leaving school.
I still loved the horses mind and still rode out all through secondary school, and even since then. Unfortunately, De la Salle Brother’s Secondary School didn’t have an art room or an art teacher, so in third year, I was let go to the girl’s school for some art classes. But I got sick of that fairly quickly; say after about 6 months or a year. All we ever did was still life, posters & imaginative composition, and I thought “I can’t do this day in day out”. So I left that go.
So it came to 5 th year and I still hadn’t had any formal art education in school. Then, the school burnt down a month before the summer holidays that year! Luckily they had to build a whole new school and with that came an art room and an art teacher and it was fully kitted out with everything from a kiln to a printing press, the whole works.
So I returned to school in September for my final year. All applications had to be into Art College by January. The new art teacher was fresh out of the National College of Art and Design and we had to work flat out to get my portfolio together. We had a whole CV of 2 years of work to try to get ready in just 4 months. We just blasted into it. We didn’t do any history of art during school, we just worked on painting. And any time I had a free class, I’d come into him in the art room, whether there were other students there or not, and worked in there. We’d stay late in school on Thursdays until 7pm, and on Tuesday nights he drove over to my house on his moped to Monasterevin (about 6 miles away) to do Art History with me. So we became friends out of it. He was only 4 or 5 years older than me. We lost touch after Art College unfortunately. I went to Galway and he went to Carlow. So that’s how I got into NCAD , and I graduated in 1991 with an honours degree in fine art painting.
Q: Was there a real career pull between horses and art?
I loved horses. I loved riding out. They’re lovely animals - the power and speed of them - they get in under your skin and you get so wrapped up in it. Every horse has a completely different character. One could be a real messer, or a pure brat, another could be quiet, or lazy, or you’d think one had the devil inside him – they’re like people. I knew my older brother was definitely going that way career wise, so I decided to give the art a shot. My parents worried initially about me going to Art College – would there be any money in it, would I make a career from it.
Q: Do you also have a conventional day job to supplement your income as an artist and if yes does this interfere with your creativity and focus?
I supplement my income working as a stonemason. In art college, I was never quite sure after the first year whether I wanted to do painting or sculpture. So I could see myself going back to sculpture again, especially with the stonework skills I’ve now developed. I’m good with my hands and have projects ticking over in my head the whole time that I can never get around to doing and things that I’d like to do with regard to sculpture – I’d like to think that I wouldn’t limit myself.
I feel if I did teaching or taught art in a college, to be involved in art the whole time, would be quite draining. It would be very hard to go into your studio at night and work on your own work. It works for some people but not for me. So I prefer to be out doing a bit of stonework, making as much money in a short period of time, so then I can take time out to go back to painting.
Painting for me at the moment is just so full on. There’s so much I want to say and do in painting, which very rarely leaves any room for anything else. Before you finish one show you’re thinking about your next show, and you swear for the next show you’ll be more organised, but you just have to run with it. Things are going well with the painting now, so I’m hoping I won’t have to go back to the stonework for a while.
Q: When you started out in Art College what was your subject matter?
In college I worked on notions of history and Irish mythology, the bog and things buried in the bog. I grew up in Monasterevin, which is in the Bog of Allen. So landscape and place became important. So my pallet was very full of burnt sienna, ochre’s and naples yellow. I never really included people in those paintings. I might have included something that could have been interpreted as a person in the distance, or there might even be a hint of wings or something, to link in with the mythology and crows.
I never paint places in my landscapes. They are all in my head and I work them out onto the canvas.
Q: So take us through your life after Art College to now?
I went to Galway for 8 or 9 years, got married and had my 3 children there. I tried to give the art career a go. I did posters and window designs for shops. It was quite hard.
From 1994 to 1998 I was a member of Artspace Studios in Galway, a collective of Artists that included Ger Sweeney, Marja Van Kampen, Ruth McHugh and Kathleen Furey. During that time we moved from temporary studios in Dominic Street, beside the Arts Centre, by raising finance to get a long-term lease site in industrial estate premises, with the help of Michael D Higgins, who was the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht at the time. So we got a permanent home for Artspace Studios, which also included about 4 to 6 studios in the Black Box Theatre in Galway. So we went from having 6 temporary spaces to having 14-15 long-term studios that we could use for artists, or for when we travelled shows.
We went as part of L’Imaginaire Irlandais to Lyon for a major show and part of what came out of that was a show that included five artists from Artspace Studios, five from Germany (Ludwigshafen) and five from France (Laurient). There was a workshop and exhibition in Laurient of the 15 artists, and another the next year in Germany for 10 days, and then the next year it all came to Ireland to the Galway Arts Centre for a big exhibition.
Also in 1994 I got a solo show as the Emerging Artist in the Galway Arts Festival. I did that show about Irish Mythology, and one particular character Tuan, who describes the history of Ireland – Tuan was a man left over from a mythological race and he was the last one to survive. And when Tuan died he became an eagle. And when he died as an eagle he became a stag. Then when he died as a stag he became a salmon. And he saw the mythological history of Ireland unfolding in those eyes, with the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha De Dannan etc. I sold most of the pieces in that show, so I was delighted.
I went to Donegal in 1999 and did a stonemason course and it was in the middle of that that my personal life went a bit haywire and my marriage split up. I finished the stonemason course in 2000 and I had taken a break from painting between 1998 and 2000, I still kept my hand in with some charcoals and a few drawings, but not really painting.
After that I came back and did the show Corvidophilia , which is all about the love of blackbirds and crows. I just used to see them all over the place, on the landscape. I started to read about them, finding out interesting facts about them, how smart and clever they are, how family oriented they are. And also I suppose there was a bit of the dark side to them - I saw them as positive, but some people saw the black crows as heavy and dark and a bit gothic. Corvidophilia was in the Arts Centre in Galway upstairs, and Ruth McHugh had a show at the same time downstairs.
Following on from that, I brought Corvidophilia to the Hallward Gallery in Merrion Square in Dublin. Since then I’ve been with the Hallward, who have shown two solo shows of mine and are getting ready for the third.
In 2001, after the Corvidophilia show, I wanted to get back into the painting full time and go at it hell for leather and see if I could make a real go at it and do what I wanted.
So it’s been a real balancing act, between the children, the stonework and the painting for the last couple of years, so now I’m trying to get rid of the stonework and make the painting pay! I now share my time between Monasterevin in Kildare and Ardee in Louth.
Q: What other artists or people have influenced or inspired you, and in what ways?
I’ve always admired other painters – not necessarily with regard to the subject matter, but with the method of the painting – the real blood and guts of painting, getting stuck in there, messing about with the paint, discovering the paint and seeing what you can do with it. So I love artists that revel in the joy of painting – you can tell who they are.
Irish wise, I do love Ger Sweeney’s work. I’d be an admirer of Paddy Graham, Sean Scully, Hughie O’Donoghue, Francis Tansey and I love Debi O’Hehir’s sculptures. In England, I like Christopher LeBrun, Therese Oulton and Frank Auerbach.
Q: How do you keep motivated if you’re having a bad day?
If I’m having a bad day I normally don’t work on any pieces that are close to being resolved. You’re playing with fire and could completely mess up the image and loose everything. So you might start on a new canvas, or make up some stretchers, or clean up the studio. Or get out of the studio and so something else – do the shopping or something. If it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen.
Q: How have you handled the business side of being an artist, promoting yourself and getting exposure, selling your work etc?
Well I have a great relationship with the Hallward, people are used to seeing my work there.
I do promote myself through my website too. My website came about from just sitting in a pub in Monasterevin. I got talking to a fellow beside me who was in the industry and had just moved down from Dublin. I was saying I was thinking of getting a website, and he was thinking of doing websites himself. So he did my website for nothing and used it as promo for himself. So we’ve been friends since.
I try to put a painting or two aside for myself every year. I do sell well, so I’d have very little work left if I didn’t put some pieces aside.
Q: Do you have any advice you could give to an artist just starting out?
You need to take advantage of whatever situations come along. If certain people have expressed interest in your work and say that it’s good, then contact them and see if they can help you out. That’s what I’d say to younger artists. Especially if it’s another artist – I’ve had tremendous help from other artists, who’ve put my name forward, like Francis Tansey and Ger Sweeney. Good artists who respect each other champion each other and offer mutual support.
Q: Could you tell us a little more about your current exhibition in Draíocht? How did the exhibition come about and can you describe the work a little?
Initially I was going to do a show of paintings, but when Carissa (Draíocht’s Visual Arts Officer) saw some of my charcoals in my studio that were heading over to England to a gallery there, she suggested I do a show of charcoals instead. So last year I started thinking about what I was going to do. I wanted to keep things quite stark – black and white - making for stronger images.
The concept was brewing for a long time. The inspiration came from my ongoing relationship with the imagery of the crow; I like using the crow, because it is the symbol for family from ancient Egypt. Crows and ravens are very family orientated and mate for life. A family of crows will live together, and if the fledglings mature and don’t find a partner, they stay and help the parents raise the next brood. It’s an iconic bird really and it works well in an Irish context as well as internationally.
I also try to have an emotional connection with the charcoals and combine my interest in crows with my own personal experiences at the same time. For example, I might put three birds together on a line and that’s my way of personalising the work. Each bird represents one of my children.
I would like to think that I put titles on the paintings that give a slight key to where I’m coming at. But I’ve never really sat down and written a paragraph about where the paintings have their origin.
In this exhibition in Draíocht, the charcoals of seedheads for instance reminded me of seedheads initially, but it started more with the circle and the black hole. You kind of get sucked down into it. I like the idea behind that, because when you look at it first you see yourself reflected in it because it’s so black. But its not de-lineated, so you never know when you’ll slip in or out of it, so I have it breaking up, dispersing, so it works as just purely landscape as well as on another more subconscious level.
Skyband is a painting from 2003 and when I started to think about the charcoals I thought that Skyband would work quite well because of the amount of dark and light in it. On a purely aesthetic level I knew it would work, but also on a theoretical level, with the crows (family) and the dramatic play that takes place within the piece.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don’t know exactly where I’ll be in 10 years but I would like to think that things will have settled down a bit more. My children will be raised and in college hopefully and I’ll be in my comfortable quarter with a little more freedom.
I want to be exhibiting more internationally. I have ambitions that I would like to fulfil as an artist. I’ll still only be in my mid to late forties at that stage, still young enough.
Q: Do you have other interests and hobbies outside of painting and drawing?
I do have, but I don’t have time to do them at the moment. I think life takes over in your 30s – you’re always in such a rush!
I like going to the races the odd time. If I had a few more pounds I’d buy ‘a leg of a horse’ for the interest. I definitely love the sea and want to live by the sea. I’d love to take up scuba diving, because I love the feeling of weightlessness and the freedom that you get when snorkelling and being under water. I’d also like to take up drag hunting, riding horses through the countryside following a predestined scent – it’s a great way to socialise too ending up in the pub after a day out riding. That’s if I ever get time for it.
Q: So what’s coming up for you after Draíocht?
There’s a solo show of large-scale new paintings in Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda in October. After that I’ve a solo show of more new work in November opening in the Hallward Gallery, Dublin. And there’s a couple of Galleries in London I’ve to sort out a few things for next year.
Seán Cotter’s exhibition Drawings and Other Work will be on view in Draíocht’s First Floor Gallery from 1 September to 15 October 2005
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For media information please contact:
Nicola Murphy, Marketing Press & PR Manager, Draíocht / Tel: 01-809 8021
Visual Arts Administrator, Draíocht / Tel: 01-809826