Art in the Right Place: Sinead Smyth
Having returned to her native Inishowen and taken her craft full-time, the painter is finally at home with putting her colourful life on canvas
Sinead Smyth was born in Carndonagh, Inishowen, in 1972 and lives there now. Despite the best efforts of the place at times, she has always belonged there, although it hasn’t always been her home. She has always painted, at an early age finding the materials for herself and finding inspiration in the landscape that addressed the often turbulent emotions swirling within her.
She paints the beauty of Inishowen, but her work goes deep beyond the mere picturesque. Her colours mutate, and her brushstrokes shift from a thick and stabbing application to a delicate, gentle touch, so her best work has a metaphysical quality that is rooted in the land but always veers to the spirit.
She has exhibited throughout Europe. Her work is in the collection of Belfast City Council and in private collections in Ireland, England, France, and Greece. Smyth recently made the decision to become a full-time artist. It was a decision at which she was always going to arrive, but one that took her many years, on a life journey that took her away from Carndonagh and back again.
When did you know you had to come back to Inishowen?
Sinead: I was living outside Heidelberg in Germany. My son, Darragh, was three and soon to be four. We arrived at the end of summer 1999 and saw in the New Year 2000 there. I was 27. My partner couldn't find work in Germany and I was working all the hours I could get. I could speak some German but he had none. It's difficult to try and live and work in another country where you don't speak the language.
We’d moved there from Belfast to escape the rat race. We were both working for charities in Belfast and were passionate but we worked evenings and weekends as well as the regular week-day hours, and we struggled to spend any quality time with our child. I began to wonder why you would have a child to farm it out and pay for someone else to raise it. I wanted to teach my child the skills I had, to present him with a world full of opportunities and encourage him to explore, ask questions, to have fun and enjoy his life.
So we sold our house, bought a VW camper, and went travelling. The idea was to settle in Italy. I had set up a job in a small hill-fort town called Macerata, teaching English and it sounded idyllic. We set off from Belfast, hoping for some adventures on the way to Italy, but never made it. Our van broke down several times and we managed to get as far as Heidelberg on thin air and a pair of nylon tights around the fan belt.
Within a week we had somewhere to stay, a Kinderhaus space for the boy and the offer of teaching work for me. We were running low on money so decided to stay and see what happened. We had a few good friends there who had kids too, so it was enjoyable but again, I was away from 6.30 in the morning to 10 at night.
After several months, I'd had enough. I was exhausted. I felt we didn't have to struggle like this. The moment of realisation came while waiting for a tram at 7am from Heidelberg to Mannheim to an English lesson to German businessmen before the working day began. I was standing there, tired, emotional, waiting for the tram with the smell of pretzels and a fresh city morning. I think it was the blue sky and the buildings being all around me that made me feel caged. I closed my eyes and saw the sea coming in, at home in Inishowen. That evening I announced we would be going home.
What brought you back to Carndonagh?
Several reasons. I’d left when I was 17. It was too small for me. I never felt I belonged. I felt an outsider all my childhood. For a number of years I lived in Belfast, working with communities of different traditions. Through that, I realised the importance of community identity, that this is something that goes beyond the label of a religion or race, that community is family that look out for each other and encourage each other. Of course, there will always be individuals who feel safer to label and isolate anyone who is different, but the community as a whole is usually open and supportive.
I wanted to raise my boy in a place where he could become part of a small, caring community. Where he could walk to school and I wouldn't worry if he was ok all the time. Where people would know him and who his folks were, look out for him. I also knew that my parents were getting older and needed extra support and I wanted to be there to help them. I felt the need, at that time in my life, to be an active part of my family and community again.
Listening for Thunder
It took a few years before people accepted me again; I guess they were waiting to see if I was going to stay. It was a good decision to come home. Inishowen is full of wonderfully creative people and Carndonagh is a very special town. The people are incredibly supportive and very generous with their time and energy.
What is it about the place that holds you and makes you want to capture it in your paintings?
The light in Inishowen is unique. It is constantly changing and there is a magic about the place. There's an energy in the land and the surrounding coast. It is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and I've travelled quite a bit.
I spent my childhood in the woods, by the rivers, and walking over the fields with my dad. I would play for hours in ancient woodland and relished knowing the small places, by a stream, under a tree, or the bend in a particular river where we would catch trout if we were lucky and eels if we weren't. I remember the feeling I got sitting or walking in specific places as a child. I always felt part of the landscape and felt more at home outside than inside with people. I was a quiet child and felt like an observer when I was around people, almost like I wasn't really there, but in the woods or by the river I was real.
Sometimes I paint outside, on site, and sometimes from drawings or photographs. Other times I paint from memory. I am driven to share how I see the world from here. My world is quite small. I don't often read newspapers or watch TV. I listen to the radio sometimes but I find the news disturbing, full of suffering, prejudice, and hate and I often feel overwhelmed by it. I hope my paintings inspire others, give them a small window where they can connect with something special - a memory, a feeling or emotion, a sense of well-being.
What would you say is the essence of your work?
Painting is a form of communication for me. I guess I hope my work will gently remind viewers about something that has meaning and connect with them in a personal way. I sometimes give short descriptions about my work. I know everyone will see and read something different in a painting. I just wish to communicate something about how I felt or my line of thinking about the piece, not to curb their own imaginations in any way.
I would encourage people to create their own title for a painting that connects with them. Everyone's story is different, yet there are common threads that can run through our lives which allow us to understand or empathise with others and their perspectives.
How do you feel about your new exhibition, Small is Beautiful?
The exhibition is about looking at the small things, small landscapes forgotten and lost, from memory or childhood... like a place you have once been or a place that used to mean something to you but you can't quite remember.
It’s about small beginnings, abstract sections of ground, the feeling of being part of something bigger – something elemental – that you can't quite put your finger on. I don't want to give too much away; I would like people to come and see the show. It's a narrative in a way, I suppose.
The exhibition is informed by EF Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, which is a collection of essays and a study of economics 'as if people mattered'. There are a lot of ideas in this book and I've used his writing as a form of inspiration, a starting point if you will for this exhibition. Sometimes I've wandered off to produce a piece that may seem unconnected to the title but they all have their beginnings here.
I've also included some older works which I feel are relevant to the overall feel of this exhibition. For me, part of the exhibition is the reactions of the people viewing the work, how they connect and link with the work and each other during the show, how they share their responses or opinions or not.
I'm excited about this exhibition. It's been interesting developing the concepts behind some of the new works and a challenge.
Sail, Sea and Sky
How is life as a full-time artist? Do you struggle to balance the creative work with the administration and marketing and all the work an agent might do?
Good. Busy. Strange at times...almost dreamlike. And yes, it is a struggle at times. I couldn't do this without the support of my husband and my kids. I always felt I saw things in a different way, experienced life in a more sensory way. Like most people, I've had people who discouraged me from being me, to sit quiet and stay 'in the box', in a 'who do you think you are' kind of way, but thankfully, I've also had massive encouragement and support from my family and my friends for which I am exceptionally grateful. I know some very grounded and caring people, some of whom have offered me help in areas like marketing and the like.
Are you happy you made the decision?
Yes. It was an 'if I don't do it now...' moment. I'll be 44 this year... young to some, old to many more. I think that the work I'm producing now took all that time to brew... I've been many different things – teacher, environmentalist, community artist – but the experiences I've gathered have informed and formed me into a unique artist with a lot to share. Now I need to put it on canvas or in arrangements and installations.
I’ve had a number of commissions, too. My most recent has just been sent to Italy, a small representation of Fanad lighthouse in Co Donegal. I worked in oil on linen backed board which I prepared myself. It incorporated elements of treasured moments in time, using small collected and gathered watch cogs and 18th century gold hands. I also used a powdered pigment of golden florescan, which came from London in the 1920s, mixed with linseed oil, which gives a wonder liquid gold effect. I enjoy experimenting with materials.
Remains of the Day
How do you see things developing in the future?
I really don't know other than I will soon be looking for gallery representation in Belfast and Dublin. I feel that I owe something to the people who have been so supportive of me, to those who have bought pieces of my work. I want them to know that it will be of value, that their faith in me and their patronage has not gone to waste.
I'm developing a studio/gallery with my husband, in an old cottage beside our home. I'm looking forward to using a larger space, where people can visit, somewhere I can focus on my work and share it from.
Small is Beautiful opens on Monday, September 5 at 6.00pm in the Waterside Theatre's Cascade Gallery, Derry~Londonderry. The exhibition runs to September 28. For more information visit www.sineadsmyth.net.