Gail Kelly, County Down, Northern Ireland

Gail Kelly PrintMaker - County Down, Northern Ireland

You studied print making in both Ireland and America. Can you discuss the differences and similarities?

I studied print making in Belfast at what was then the Ulster College of Art and Design. There was less emphasis on the academic side of things then and although we did attend lectures and had to write essays I remember most of our time being spent in the print workshop throughout the three year course. We had tutors who were passionate about their own work and great visiting lecturers. We learnt what I consider to be ‘proper’ traditional print making techniques and focused on developing the content of our own work throughout our time there. I mostly concentrated on etching and screen printing but did get an introduction to stone lithography at another print workshop in my last year.

While I was in America studying for my M.F.A I worked for Louisiana State University teaching undergrad classes and as a technician in the print workshop. I also worked editioning prints for established artists, all of which was good experience and helped me build up my CV. I mostly worked in stone lithography and etching there.

The print making department at L.S.U. had a great litho area and was altogether a much bigger set up than we had in Belfast. As grad students at L.S.U. we all had our own little studios which was a big difference from the shared desk I had in Belfast.

After returning to Ireland from America, did you find the landscape sharper to your eye?

I lived in America for seven years but I came home to visit every year so I never lost touch with the landscape here.

Please expand on ‘Fairy Bridge’ both the content and your use of colour?

The ‘Fairy Bridge’ depicts a little bridge my father often took me to see when I was a child. It was along a path, through a clearing in the woods. We loved going along that way. The whole area seemed secret and undisturbed. I don’t think many people knew the little bridge was there. The colours I used in this lithograph are the colours I remember from those woods – the autumn leaves lying untouched for years on the forest floor, the bright green of the new leaves on the beech trees above our heads and the misty mountains in the distance.

‘Fairy Bridge’

How do you decide whether to use monochrome or colour in your prints?

I chose whichever I feel will suit the image.

Can you discuss ‘The Immigrants Bridge’ and the historical content?

Also known as ‘The Bridge of Sorrows’ or ‘The Bridge of Tears’, it is on a small road in Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), County Donegal which led to the port in Derry. The population of this Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) area was badly affected by the famine and evictions. Many people left Ireland at this time, heading for America. Their friends and relatives would walk with them as far as this little bridge where they would say their goodbyes. The folk staying walked back to their homes and those leaving walked on to get the ship, all knowing that they would probably never see each other again.

‘The Immigrants Bridge’

Can you expand on your work in relation to trees and the seasons?

I live in the country now, in County Down and I am always very aware of the weather and the changing seasons. I have a big garden and I keep ducks and hens so I’m in and out all day long between one thing and another. The Tree series developed out of my interest in nature and the landscape where I live. Folk lore and traditions have always been an influence in my work. I like the idea of remembering and respecting the old ways of doing things, whether daily activities or annual events.

You made a calendar for 2013. Could you expand on this?

A few years ago I had a commission to do a calendar for one of the banks here in Ireland and I had been meaning to do one of my own ever since. I tend to work in series’, often in 12’s, so made sense to use some of these images for calendars. It has become an annual project now and I’ve produced my own calendar for the last three years. I used my Tree series for the first one, then my Gardens for 2014. For the 2015 I used a mixture of images, all my linocuts printed on linen.

Can you discuss your Linen Prints and how and when you started to print on linen? Does it have any restrictions?

I started printing on linen about 15 years ago. It really suits my linocuts which I print in black on natural linen. I like this colour combination and I think it works well. Working with linen can be a bit tricky as it creases easily and has to be ironed and starched.

‘Sail Away with Me’

Discuss your ‘Emigrant Series’?

This series refers to people who have left their native homes and long to return. Although I enjoyed my time in America I eventually became homesick and moved back to Ireland. I was lucky in that it was only a flight away and these days if you have the money for a ticket you can be back in no time at all. Years ago when people left it was often a one way journey and many never had the chance to return. When you are away you are more likely to think about home at certain times of year such as Christmas (‘Coming Home’) and I imagined in the past people wondering how the family would manage the farm without them (‘Harvest Time’). The title of ‘Promises to Keep’ comes from the Robert Frost poem where someone is travelling and has to keep going along their way. ‘Sail Away with Me’ refers to young couples moving away to start a new life together.

‘Gardener’s Friend’

You also have a ‘Bird Series’. Discuss: ‘Gardener’s Friend’ and ‘Garden Girls’ in relation to each other and as a part of a series?

I feed the wild birds in my garden and enjoy watching them every day. ‘Gardener’s Friend’ is about a robin which is always nearby when I’m working outside. I keep hens and ducks for eggs and ‘Garden Girls’ refers to some of my little banty hens and chicks. The images in this series are a combination of the patterns of garden trees and flowers along with an element of storytelling depicted by the birds.

You attend Craft Fairs –  can you explain the importance of these to presenting your work.

I usually take part in 2-3 trade shows a year where I wholesale my linen prints and greetings cards to galleries and shops throughout Ireland and the UK. The retail craft fairs are quite different from the trade shows as they give me the opportunity to meet the public and sell directly. I enjoy the peace and quiet of rural County Down but it is also nice to have the buzz of excitement at a busy show. I have made some good friends among the other exhibitors over the years. It’s interesting to chat with customers too and build up a connection with them. I like travelling and taking part in the shows. It gives me the chance to see other parts of the country and I plan for a day or two off to go exploring whenever possible.

Discuss how important it is for you to represent your country through your art?

The landscape of Ireland is obviously very important in my work and has always been the main influence over the years, even when I was living abroad. I don’t feel I represent my country as such. I depict the elements of it which hold my attention and these could be anything from a scrap of ancient folklore to mountains and fields to the shape of a tiny leaf. My imagery is not intentionally ‘Irish’ but once people know where I’m from they see the strong connection I have with the land here.

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Gail Kelly, County Down, Northern Ireland

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, March, 2015