Art Beat - Sharon Kelly

'Art was a channel to another realm'

Michael Kelly, like the majority of Irishmen of his generation, was forced by the necessity to find employment to travel to England. A builder by trade, he found work in Wiltshire where he married and reared a family of two daughters and one son. His wife was a nurse, a well paid occupation that carried the family through the years of her husband’s unemployment and latterly his ill health.

Sharon, the middle child, was born in 1960. She recalls being deeply happy at primary school where the curriculum placed an emphasis on creativity. Such playfulness with materials was anathema in the state comprehensive education system where art was considered non-academic and a less than serious subject. Kelly, an A stream student, concentrated on history and German with the intention of taking a place in a Welsh university.

Sharon Kelly’s organic gravitation towards an art career occurred through a series of personal circumstances rather than a direct choice. From evening classes in ceramics via life drawing classes, she applied for a place on the foundation course at the college in Swindon. For her, art was a channel to another realm. It is also a process through which one continually learns to be oneself. Like a salmon seeking its origins in genetic headwaters, she crossed the Irish Sea in 1983 to attend the University of Ulster in Belfast which had accepted her without reservation.

By the time she arrived at college, Kelly was a committed figurative drawer who referred to her own body, family relationships and personal events as her subjects. The spacious studios provided during the MA Fine Art course encouraged her drawing to grow in form and scale.

She would begin a work by drawing a figure directly onto the wall. This would then extend beyond the two-dimensional plane onto the surface of a large sheet of paper and down to the floor. Her work became sculptural in its occupation of space – an installation rather than a wall-supported, framed piece of art.

The impact of monumental scale became a liberating force through which such a primal and ephemeral medium as charcoal could be invested with weight and gravitas. Kelly’s college works reflect her seriousness as a student of life: one for whom flippancy and male stereotyping of women must be refuted.

When her father, who Kelly had always respected as an artist in his own right, became terminally ill with pulmonary emphysema she celebrated his life through various works. As his breathing became more laboured Kelly recorded the sound of a fading life-force and when he required the assistance of breathing aids she recorded these too as a video piece entitled, Drawing Breath.

A year later, in 1995, she commenced a series of drawings celebrating his skill as a craftsman. Charcoal drawings of her father’s work-wise hands entitled, 'Father – uimhur a tri', and 'Father – uimhir a ceathar, a cuig', made in 1995 and measuring 158cm x 210cm, are monoliths of profound love, compassion and reverence. She also made charcoal drawings of his toil-worn tools. 'Hand', an installation, brought together drawing and the sound of a voice counting in Irish with the sound of her father’s breathing slowed down.

Audio as an emotional response to procreation had taken on a significance with the birth of her second daughter, Aoife, in 1993. Here in this infant was a joyous expression of life through crying and suckling. Aoife’s arrival was in stark contrast to that of Paddy, born in 1990, who lived for hours only, and the silence of still-born twins a year later. Kelly recorded the sound of her child breastfeeding as an accompaniment to drawings of her daughter’s tiny hands as they reached out from the blackness of a prenatal void.

As evidenced in such dark drawings as 'Woman No 1' of a bereaved mother giving breast to a visible yet nonexistent baby and 'Woman No 6' of a similarly grieving mother holding in her empty hands her departed, the experience of infant death affected Kelly most profoundly. Her drawings are emotional responses to loss and a catharsis through which another realm of human experience may be attained. The death of her father in 2000 provoked a more intense response.

A fellowship at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Co Mayo from October to December 2000 gave Kelly the space and time to travel through grief via a series of drawings of her father’s suit. These sombre, acutely focused examinations of a material that once clothed a vital human being found a resonance in Mayo’s melancholy landscape. Whereas in previous drawings she had been exploring and analysing human relationships through an introspective vision she now, for the first time, began to focus beyond on a horizon – symbol of externalised vision and hope.

Notions of community loss, shared histories and renewal drew her into the story of the demolition in 2001 of the Jubilee Hospital in Belfast. For many this maternity hospital was a psychic and physical landmark. For Kelly it was the place where baby Paddy had died. She had to revisit it for the last time and did so through drawings and photographs of a part-demolished interior. She deployed the digital medium of video to record its tearing down by the claws of hydraulic arms.

A two year process of research and documentation ensued during which time she interviewed staff and past patients. Her personal memorial to the Jubilee is a drawing of an empty infant’s cot – symbol of expectancy and, for many, of loss. The making of this highly detailed pencil drawing was recorded with video. By super-imposing Polaroid images of baby Paddy onto the drawing Kelly invested the work with a metaphor for community bereavement. The Tears of Things, an exhibition/installation of the Jubilee project was shown at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast in 2004.

Kelly’s relentless portrayal of loss and associated emotions has now pivoted towards her sexuality, fertility and mortality through a series of self-mocking life drawings that examine herself in mid-life. She has, with serious intent, portrayed two stages of her womanhood from virgin to mother and faces the oncoming third which she may, if recent evidence is anything to go by, do so with irony and caustic wit.

In mid-life Kelly has accumulated a full and loaded pencil box of technical skills and media with which to express a gamut of emotions. She now anticipates another project that will be a sustained investment of time and commitment. Her art is that of one who is influenced directly by life and not by art. Kelly rejects an art that refers only to its own practice and history and continues to defer to the magic of drawing – the most quintessential human activity after death and procreation.

Peter Haining

Further Reading
Dialogues: Women Artists from Ireland (2005) by Katy Deepwell.
Artist Profile: Sharon Kelly (2004), a CD-Rom produced by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
The Tears of Things (2004), catalogue Ormeau Baths Gallery.
Thinking Long (1996) by Liam Kelly.