Ulster Society of Women Artists

Lisburn's Island Arts Centre hosts annual mixed media exhibition

Three generations of Ulster women artists spanning half a century of art history are represented in the Ulster Society of Women Artists 57th annual exhibition, at the Island Arts Centre. It’s a feather in the cap for the Lisburn arts venue, where the exhibition is being staged for the first time.

It includes renowned artists who have exhibited throughout Ireland and abroad such as Phyllis Arnold, Barbara Ellison, Sandra Maze and Deirdre Hiscocks, among others. There is space too for notable rising talent such as ceramic artist Andrea McCullough but as much satisfaction lies in discovering the work of relatively unknown recent arts graduates.

Ulster’s women artists have come a long way in the last 60 years. Back in 1957, no arts society in Northern Ireland would accept women. Those were also the unenlightened days, lest we forget, when advertisers targeted women as domestic servants, more or less.


Gladys McCabe (MBE), who had already exhibited in England as early as 1949, took the bull by the horns and invited ten of the best known women artists of the day to join her in founding the USWA. The first exhibition took place in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in 1958, and has been held every year since, in art galleries and other venues including Stormont, the Ulster Hall and the Waterfront.

Now 94-years-old and residing in a nursing home, McCabe – whose pictures today sell for upwards of £10,000 – would no doubt be delighted at the overall quality of art on display at the Island Arts Centre. She must also take pride in the inclusiveness of the USWA, whose members include retired architects, solicitors, teachers, art teachers and farmers – professional, semi-professional and amateur artists, with many award winners in the ranks.

There are 90 exhibits in total, the majority of which are paintings. Oil, acrylic, pen and wash, alcohol ink, watercolors, graphite and mixed media pieces offer the art student or the just plain curious a broad insight into multiple painting techniques.

There is some nice three-dimensional art too. Yvonne Williams’ machine-embroidered ‘Hedgerow 3’ is particularly eye-catching, with its beautifully merging silver, greens and violets, and there are striking ceramic lace lidded jars by Andrea McCullough.

Two pieces by Trish Rogers crafted from bog oak and spalted beech will appeal to nautical types and those appreciative of abstract art alike. The temptation to touch these black and chestnut-colored works, hewn from Quercus thousands of years old, is strong.

There is logic to the flow of the exhibition, with pictures arranged thematically and stylistically as far as possible. The first gallery room – to the left on entering the Island Arts Centre – exhibits art inspired by landscape and nature. The second gallery room is dedicated to still life paintings, portraiture and modernist expressions.

On the whole, the technically most proficient work is exhibited in the first gallery. A triptych of sea-inspired pictures are immediately note-worthy: Pat Callaghan’s brooding ‘Ahead of the Storm’, Edith Mclelland’s quasi-photographic watercolor ‘Wild Water’, and Sandra Maze’s hazy oil painting ‘Birds Blown About The Sky’ are all powerfully evocative of days on wind-whipped beaches and the drama of the rugged Northern Irish coastline.


Many of the pictures record the Mournes – a perennial favorite – the Antrim Glens or Island Magge, as in Deirdre Sprott’s alluring ‘Cottage at Drumgurland’. Some of the best paintings, however, evoke time as much as place. Catherine Flood’s punningly titled ‘From Pillar to Post’ – a bright red post box set in gray stone – evokes an Ulster of bygone days.

The gray fug and wet mist of two striking Pat Leckey watercolors, ‘Winter Mourne Country’ and ‘February County Down’, stir memories long embedded. Likewise, Majury Lyn’s ‘Walking in Down’ will resonate with anyone who has ever scuffed through autumn leaves on a forest path.

Flowers are well represented: Sylvia Newell’s acrylic ‘Poppies’, Kate Bedell’s wind-buffeted sunflower ‘And Juliet is the Sun’ and Helen Condy’s room-warming ‘Himalayan Poppies’ are all exceptional. So too, Deirdre Hiscock’s two watercolors, ‘Scarlet Poppies and Centaurae’ and ‘Helleborus Pirouette’, so lifelike you feel you could pick them. Also worth lingering over is Helen Condy’s ‘The Bee’, whose subject hovers in the midst of a feast of lilac flowers.

Two pictures stand out for their geography: Sandra Maze’s ‘Colors of Naples’ and Joan Kenning’s ‘Boules’, which captures French village men at their favorite pastime. Both pictures hark back to the late 19th century when many Irish women artists traveled abroad to France and Italy in response to their barring from professional arts schools in Ireland. Many of the most modern Irish painters in that epoch were, ironically, women.

The second gallery is where the more modern styles of paintings and visual art are exhibited. Some of the paintings, particularly those of animals, are a little disappointing in the context of the exhibition as a whole.

That said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and much depends on the surroundings in which a painting is hung. Sinead Farry’s acrylic picture of an angel entitled ‘Night’ may not inspire long meditation, but it is possible to imagine it working very well in more sympathetic lighting.

Several other paintings call the attention: Doris Houston’s fascinating ‘Deeper Detail’ and her simpler, vibrantly colored ‘Land Locked Homestead’ seem painted by a different hand. Shirley Barlow McDonald’s mixed media 'The Many Faces of a Face’ and the more simplistic, almost hackneyed ‘Political Dimentia’ by Dorothy Conway are both thought provoking in very different ways.

Most of the pieces in the exhibition are pleasing to the eye and all are for sale at competitive prices. To walk away with just one, however, would be to provoke a serious dilemma. 

Kate Rocks’ ‘The Children of Lir’, with its majestic swan-children of Irish legend, or Collette Daly’s atmospheric ‘Funfair’ might be keepers for some. Janice Lightowler’s magnificent graphite picture ‘Friday at St. George’s Market’ has already been snapped up.

This exhibition is recommended for buyers, students and anybody else with an interest, casual or otherwise, in the visual arts.

The 57th annual Ulster Society of Women Artists exhibition runs at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn until October 24.