Michael Brown's Many Strings
Meet the multifaceted artist using his skills in filmmaking and more to highlight social issues and service the community in Enniskillen
Michael Brown is a landscape artist, print maker, photographer and documentary filmmaker who works out of his home studio in the townland of Makenny halfway between the small towns of Ballinamallard and Irvinestown. As illustrated in his art exhibition Fermanagh Landscapes, shown earlier this year at the Waterways Ireland building in Enniskillen, he draws inspiration from the wetlands around Lough Erne, from the gentle rolling farmlands or the upland blanket bogs by Cuilcagh and Benaughlin mountains. Brown’s oil paintings, monotypes, collagraphs, etchings and photographs reflect his sense of place, for they are singularly sympathetic to the simple beauty of the area in which he lives. On the other hand he is also keenly aware of the vulnerability of our natural habitats.
As director of Development Media Workshop, a not-for-profit organisation committed to working with marginalised and disadvantaged groups, Brown helps people to discuss and articulate the issues which directly affect them. When an Australian firm, Tamboran, was planning to establish some sixty bore holes for the extraction of shale gas in the hills around South Fermanagh he facilitated a group of twenty young people to research the process and, with his help, produce animations to illustrate the effects fracking could have in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The teenagers took an active part in the filming process, operating the camera and interviewing local farmers, fishermen and others who depend on the tourist industry for a living. The final film entitled Fracking in Fermanagh, What Could it Mean? was ably narrated by Maeve McCann, one of the young team. Tamboran has since pulled out of the venture but the British government continues to offer licenses for the extraction of shale gas in the UK.
In May 2013, four weeks before world leaders met for the G8 Summit at the Lough Erne Golf Resort, the Fermanagh Trust organised a Youth Summit at the same venue. Over two days 120 delegates from the island of Ireland met to discuss the issues they felt were important and urgent in the world today. Having concluded that these were Equality, Poverty, Health and Peace they posited their full aims and formulated their objectives in a communiqué that was handed to the world leaders in both print and film formats. Brown’s film, G8 Youth Summit Communiqué, records group discussions and presents the terms of their petitions using concise, clear graphics.
A native of Oxfordshire, Brown first studied art and graphic design in Bristol then gained a PhD in participatory communication from the University of Derby. He spent five years In Katmandu where he set up development projects and it was there that he met his wife Emma who hails from County Down. Upon their return to Northern Ireland they wished to settle in a place where they might have a low carbon lifestyle and Fermanagh seemed to them to be emotionally and physically spacious. They bought a small farm of land and set about renovating the farm house. Following trails recommended by a booklet entitled 24 Walks in Fermanagh they soon discovered just how quiet and appealing the area really is. Unlike England where there are formal footpath signs, many of the recommended walks wend their way through forestry sites such as Big Dog Forest or border the lakes and their islands.
When the Bellanaleck local history group began researching and documenting the story of Irish soldiers who survived the First World War and were allocated small farms on Cleenish, one of the larger islands in Upper Lough Erne, they asked Brown to help them make a film about their project. Though well-meaning, the resettlement scheme for 11 ex-servicemen was flawed and ultimately failed due to the lack of a bridge to the island and the burden of unsustainably high mortgage repayments. Making It Home allows the families of those soldiers to speak movingly about the horrors their fathers or grandfathers experienced on the battle field, the injuries they sustained, both physical and psychological, and the insurmountable challenges they faced on this isolated island. 'The film is not unrelated to my participatory film work,' says Brown. 'I did all of the filming and the editing but I was really facilitating that community to tell a story.'
The same is true of his film about the Fermanagh Feis which was established in the 1940s to promote Irish language, music and dance but which, in recent years, has become more inclusive of the wider community with competitions for Scottish dancing, art and classical music. Fermanagh Feis – Through the Years makes eloquent use of archive photographs to tell the story of the festival. Brown interviews past competitors and features the performances of schoolchildren as choir members, visual artists, dancers, or solo musicians at the 2012 Feis. The film is a valuable and lasting record of a key cultural event in the life of Enniskillen and the surrounding area.
Brown is a member of the Collage Collective, some 20 – 25 artists, craft workers and writers including Talie Mau, Heather White, Maria Ferguson, Genevieve Jon Designs and the Fermanagh Writers group who sell their art works, pottery, textiles, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, knitwear, and books in a retail outlet in Enniskillen’s Buttermarket. This peaceful oasis in the centre of town was once the site of an actual butter market, established in 1835, where local dairy produce was sold and from where butter was exported to the UK and as far away as the West Indies. The original buildings were redesigned in 1986 by the Enniskillen architect Richard Pierce to include 16 craft units.
Bog Cotton II
When I meet with Michael Brown in the Buttermarket café, he describes how, for all the advantages of this complex, Enniskillen is still a difficult place to sell artefacts because there is a low footfall. 'It takes a real effort to establish something like the Collage Collective and to keep it going but I really enjoy being a jigsaw piece in a bigger picture. If each of our members mans the shop on one or two days a month we can manage to make it work. Nevertheless I feel the Buttermarket is not fully utilised. There could be a weekly farmer’s market here and more could be done to attract tourists in.'
An artist with many strings to his bow, Michael Brown expresses his own creativity through his art and photography. A man with a strong social conscience, he is generous in using his filmmaking skills in the service of the community. Because of his example young people in particular are discovering that they too may use their talents creatively not only for their own satisfaction but for the benefit of others.
Michael recently released his new crowdfunded film exploring the lives of working mules in Nepal, which you can watch on his Vimeo channel. His artwork is on display at Hambly and Hambly Gallery, Dunbar House, outside Ennikillen from 11am-3pm on July 8 and 9. Discover more at www.michaelbrownlandscapes.org.
This article was originally commissioned as part of Creativity Month 2017. To read back on other features you may have missed click here.