We recently went to see Helen Merrigan Colfer’s solo exhibition at the Alley Gallery, Strabane. She is a sculptor & painter. She lives & works on the tip of the Hook Head Peninsula, County Wexford, Ireland. She works with resin & steel. Her work is quite incredible and very engaging.
This exhibtion included paintings, many resin sculptures and parts of her lockdown diaries that started as a series of notes she wrote for her mother-in-law Noreen, who was living “with” (but cocooned) Helen and her husband during lockdown.
Helen Merrigan Colfer
Portrait of Noreen – Helen Merrigan Colfer
The scultpures were all about the same size, I didn’t measure them but I would say they were about 2 foot high. There was work there from 2016 and more recently. The earlier work was highly coloured but darker and heavier. This is not surprising as these pieces in Tribes and Tribulations was made while she was recovering from childhood trauma. Her counsellor encouraged her to return to her art after emotional difficulties meant she had given up.
It is evident that she is working through disturbing emotions. The eyes of all the figures of the scultpures were either hidden behind a mask/bag or closed. Shoes are a theme too – I was drawn to the large red boots and shoes that many of the the figure wore. The arms of the figures were either missing or constrained by corset/straight-jacketed affairs. There are some free arms, but those are the later works that seem lighter, paler and more at peace. The smaller the shoes the lighter the emotions.
I don’t think you needed to know the details of her dyfunctional childhood to realise that there was a lot of frustration, anger and grief in these work. They contrast quite starkly with the out-pouring of love for her mother-in-law, Noreen, in the lockdown letters. We all remember lockdown as a frustrating and frightening time when many emotions were heightened. Noreen was clearly cocooned in love, even if it was from a distance. I liked the mixture of letters, sculptures, video and paintings. I found it an invigorating mix.
This is a touring exhibition but I don’t know where it will be headed to next but its well worth seeing.
On Thursday I did something I have never done before. I did a presentation to a bunch people in London via the internet. During the darkness winter days of lock down I have sat at my computer and listened to quite a few people give presentations on subjects as diverse as Art (Jennifer Pockinski, Elizabeth O’Reilly), Irish Language (Manchán Mangan), Irish Bogs (Creative Rathangan Meithea), Irish Cottages (Ulster Architectuaral Society) and Literature (Gabriel Byrne) and thoroughly enjoyed them.
This Thursday, I got my chance to see behind the scenes of these sorts of events and talk about my experiences for Mental Health Awareness Week with On Thursday I did something I have never done before. I did a presentation to a bunch people in London via the internet. During the darkness winter days of lock down I have sat at my computer and listened to quite a few people give presentations on subjects as diverse as Art (Jennifer Pockinski, Elizabeth O’Reilly), Irish Language (Manchán Mangan), Irish Bogs (Creative Rathangan Meithea), Irish Cottages (Ulster Architectuaral Society) and Literature (Gabriel Byrne) and thoroughly enjoyed them.the team behind the online gallery, Artfinder (www.artfinder.com). I was also featured in a news blog on their website. During the pandemic many people are probably used using Zoom or Teams for their work meetings but I have never had this experience before. I think this is why I suggested a quick trial hook up the day the before. I had also seen things go slightly awry during those webinmars. My personal favourite was when the speaker’s laptop battery suddenly died and he had to rush off to find another laptop and the chair had to fill in for ten minutes whilst he did this!
I am so glad that we did a practice run with Jane and Kirsty. We started with Zoom. The sound on my laptop was dreadful and everything sounded like it was underwater. Jane and Kirsy sounded like a couple of unintelligable dolphins! Between my old Laptop and a ropey internet connection (Now TV, or “Not, Now TV” as we like to call it in this house), it wasn’t working. I wanted the throw the laptop across the room, cry and/or swear a lot. Obviously, I did neither.
Eventually, Kirsty, the tech genius, came up with the idea of doing the meeting with Google Meet. “It is very low tech”, she said. “That’ll suit me just fine, I am low tech”, I said! The rest of the test worked well and we had a chat about what it was like working remotely.
On the afternoon of the presentation I waited nervously for the meeting to start and even said a prayer beforehand. Then all these youthful faces pinged onto the screen. More and more until it was full with 9 boxes and more names listed along the top of the screen of people I could not see. I am not sure if the prayer helped because I still had problems getting my screen to share my powerpoint. Thankfully Michal (the CEO) talked me through which buttons to press , in which order and we were finally in business.
I then had that wierd moment before you start speaking that seemed to stretch on for ever. I looked at my screen. All I could see was my presentation, no faces now, which was odd too. I took a big breath and began.
OK – I am just going to give you the highlights.
In 2006 I started having panic attacks on the motorway – I saw a couple of (not very good) therapist/hypnotherapists and bought a lot of books on panic attacks. It did not solve my problem. I avoided motorways.
2012 Minor Car Accident – which led to me developing PTSD & Burn Out (also known as a “Breakdown”). This resulted in hypervigilance/nightmares/flashbacks/inability to concentrate/exhaustion. I found a very good therapist and had EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and during the course of this therapy started painting every day. It was a very slow recovery and it took a year to return to work part time
How art has helped me with my recovery / mental health over the years: – I find it calming, restorative, meditative and it boosts my fragile self-esteem. It also improves my concentration & energy levels. It provides a positive focus to my life, I find the colours therapeutic and painting also provides an intellectual challenge as there is a lot of problem-solving in painting. It also provides social connections through blogging & social media
As this was a presentation to Artfinder staff I talked about how important Artfinder has been in my journey into becoming a professional artist.
My husband, Séamas, joined the Artfinder site on my behalf in April 2013. He also set up a website a blog for me.
My first sale on Artfinder was in June 2013. It was a giclée print of “A Tenby Reflection” for £39
I sold my first painting via Artfinder July 2013
In the last 8 years I have sold over 800 works via Artfinder and gained over 6000 followers, which makes me the most followed artist on the site!
I left teaching in 2017 and became a full-time artist – I put a lot more time and energy into my painting, my website, blogging and social media sites
Mental Health, the Covid-19 pandemic and other emergencies
PTSD – I tend to think of the worse possible outcome to most things at the best of times. I usually have to talk myself down from my initial extreme reaction, but for once in early 2020 I was RIGHT! This new virus was an end-of-the-world scenario!
I kept a diary to help cope with the sense of panic and anxiety I was experiencing and then. I took my dogs for a walk in the woods on my own (Séamas was in Ireland)
I tripped and broke my leg and had to wait 5 hours for the emergency services to rescue me. You can read that long story here.
I spent 9 days in hospital waiting for an operation to pin my leg.
During my long recovery from this experience, I reflected on the differences between how we all, myself included, treat physical and mental health issues. With physical health issues there is the physical pain (there was certainly lots of that), the practical difficulties of getting around, frustration at the loss of independence and the physical exhaustion as your body heals. I also discovered that this sort of trauma was easy to talk about. There was a lot of public sympathy & concern from people.
It was a lot easier to deal with than mental health issues. I was delighted to realise that I dealt with the trauma and pain with (mostly) good humour and fortitude – although that wore off a bit when my rehab took a whole lot longer than I was expecting. I felt mentally sound even if my body wasn’t.
In contrast, when I experienced my mental breakdown, there was a lot of isolation, shame, fear, embarrassment on my part as well as physical exhaustion. I had always been a tough, independent and reliable person and I hated that my breakdown changed that. I still struggle with accepting my limitations. It was clear that a lot of other people felt sorry for me. That was not easy to bear either.
One of the few positives of the pandemic is that people have been more open about how they have struggled with their mental health. I think that it has shown people that a lot of mental health issues are related to having to bear “unbearable” situations. My huband, Séamas, says I didn’t have a breakdown down but a break through. My life, as it was, was making me ill and it had to change. During the pandemic that unbearable situation was universal. Everyone had to deal with having our freedoms curtailed, especially the freedom to see our family and friends. Many people people discovered that the joy of doing things with your hands/body such as gardening, yoga, painting, baking saved their sanity. I know that in my darkest hour I was making scones with Séamas! Art continues to keep me sane.
I answered a number of questions from Michal and staff at Artfinder. What came up: Had I painted before the 2012 accident? What can Artfinder do to help people with Mental Health Issues? How do you help someone with mental health issues? Different therapies and medications and how they might work for person and not for another.
The presentation wasn’t recorded, and in a way I am glad about that. I don’t think I would have been so open about my experiences if I thought what I said could be picked over and examined by people who weren’t present at the time. It was a strange situation to give a talk to a group of people I couldn’t really see. When I have given talks before I have had people’s faces and body language to help gauge their reactions to what I was saying. This time I didn’t. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing afterwards because of this although the staff were all very positive. I hope that my audience got something out of the experience!
I will finish with a quote from “Anthem” by the Canadian singer and poet, Leonard Cohen.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
I was delighted to see my two Donegal paintings “Up Bloody Foreland, Donegal” and “The through Road, Donegal” on the walls of the London Irish Centre (Camden, London). These two oil paintings form part of a “real room” of an Irish family in 1950s Britain installation. The exhibition, which is on during August through to […]
Donegal is a big mountaneous county in a big country. Imagine my shock when I discover that it’s only the 4th largest in Ireland (after Cork, Galway and Mayo) at 4,860 km2 (1,880 sq miles). It seems even bigger as there is no railway or motorways here, so it takes a long time to travel around all the mountains. One of joys of the county is that it’s relatively empty (the 5th least populated in Ireland) with 32.6 people per km2.
There’s a good reason why landscape painters use the “landscape” orientation for their canvases – i.e. the longest side is horizontal – and that’s because you can fit more landscape in that way. I have recently discovered another good reason – social media and wordpress thumbnails don’t like tall narrow paintings and crop them.
Everybody loves the Georgian Houses It seems like certain styles never go out of fashion. Last year Georgian-style houses topped a poll of the most popular home styles. I suspect that people like scale of the house as well as the the pillars and generous sized windows. Nothing says lord of the manor like a […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Arch at Whiterocks Beach, Portrush
The Peace Bridge (Derry) by Emma Cownie
St Eugenes, Derry City
Polite Houses of Maghery- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Low Tide, Summer Morning on Three Cliffs – Emma Cownie
Boat on Inch Island Donegal
Across Whiterock Beach, Portrush
Dunluce Castle from Whiterocks Beach
Towards Bloody Foreland (Donegal) _ Emma Cownie
Houses at Port na Crin, Gola
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
A Road through Chalford (Cotswolds)
Painswick Yews (Cotswolds)_Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)