‘ With­out fam­ily, we are all lost at sea’

Cork artist Chloe Early on how motherhood led her to a refugee camp in Greece

The Irish Times Magazine - - NURTURE PROJECT -

was think­ing about the Mediter­ranean sea and how one place can have such dif­fer­ent as­so­ci­a­tions de­pend­ing on who you are and where you are stand­ing. A place of leisure, es­capism and beauty to most Euro­peans and yet a place of fear, dan­ger and pos­si­ble death to many of the refugees try­ing to cross the sea to reach Europe,” says artist Chloe Early, speak­ing about a new print she’s work­ing on to raise money for the Nur­ture Project, a non- profit that sends mid­wives and sup­port for moth­ers to cri­sis zones.

Since grad­u­at­ing from NCAD in 2003, Early’s artis­tic star has sky­rock­eted. Work­ing in oils on alu­minium, her colour- sat­u­rated, dream- like paint­ings have ac­crued a list of sell- out shows in Dublin, Lon­don, Los An­ge­les and New York and celebrity pa­tron­age from heavy­weights such as U2 and Ali­cia Keys.

Early lives and works in Lon­don now with her hus­band, Conor Har­ring­ton, a fel­low artist who is also from Cork. Har­ring­ton is suc­cess­ful in his own right, thanks to his punchy oil paint­ings and street mu­rals which have been out­selling Banksy and break­ing sales records at auc­tion houses. A rare twofold suc­cess in the art world, the cou­ple, who Early as­sures me, “are very low key and hardly get a glimpse of the party scene in Lon­don”, wel­comed their first son, Séa­mas in 2014.

Séa­mas’s ar­rival was a joy­ous oc­ca­sion, but motherhood has been a steep learn­ing curve for Early, “The whole no­tion of hav­ing any time now is so ab­stract – you have to carve it all up so finely as a fam­ily unit to try get that il­lu­sive bal­ance. I went home a lot to Cork to stay with mum and Conor’s fam­ily when Séa­mas was very young, es­pe­cially when Conor was away with work, which I found re­ally hard to deal with, but even­tu­ally, we got into the swing of it.”

Af­ter 14 months at home, she first dipped her toes back into work for three days a week and loved be­ing back at the stu­dio and the buzz of east Lon­don, but felt guilty about leav­ing her baby be­hind, she re­calls. “That’s the thing with mother- hood, it takes you to places of ex­tremes – love and guilt, joy and de­spair. It chal­lenges the breadth of our phys­i­cal and emo­tional be­ings.”

When Early was on ma­ter­nity leave she re­calls, “it was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the non- stop back­drop of main­stream and so­cial me­dia cov­er­age of the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis”.

One re­lief agency, the Nur­ture Project, which pro­vides health­care, mid­wives and tech­ni­cal lac­ta­tion and nu­tri­tion sup­port to breast­feed­ing moth­ers in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, kept pop­ping up on her so­cial feed. “I was breast­feed­ing Séa­mas at the time and kept think­ing, for those of us lucky enough to be do­ing this in the com­fort of our own homes, it is one thing, but for those brave women try­ing to feed their ba­bies, raise their chil­dren and build a life in peace whilst flee­ing wars, I can­not imag­ine their strength.”

She con­tacted the Nur­ture Project and ended up in a refugee camp in Thes­sa­loniki last year where she en­coun­tered thou­sands of dis­placed moth­ers, “who were just like me, hold­ing a small baby in their arms, yet they were so alone and in limbo”.

One mother who par­tic­u­larly stood out dur­ing her stay at the camp was called Hi­jrah. “Orig­i­nally from Iraq, she was in her late 20s I’d guess and was study­ing to be a doc­tor be­fore the war broke out. Af­ter her hus­band went miss­ing, pre­sumed dead from a bomb­ing, she paid smug­glers to help her and her kids es­cape to Europe. She wrapped her preg­nant self and her three chil­dren to­gether with a rope for their boat jour­ney from Tur­key to Greece as she be­lieved if they died on the jour­ney, it would be bet­ter if they all died to­gether than be­ing sep­a­rated. That rope ended up sav­ing her, as the boat did top­ple at one point and none of them could swim. An­other preg­nant refugee who was also on the same boat, gave birth dur­ing the cross­ing, and gave Hi­jrah her new- born to mind too as she feared she would not sur­vive the pas­sage,” re­counts Early.

For­tu­nately, all of the women and chil­dren made it to Thes­sa­loniki, but Early was deeply af­fected by their sto­ries, “I can­not un­know and un­hear the things she told me and de­spite the depths of de­spair her story reached, the de­vo­tion she dis­played to­wards her kids amazed and in­spired me.”

When Early got back to the stu­dio in Brick Lane, where she works in one wing and Conor in the other, “an old lifebuoy ring which I picked up in a mar­ket some­where caught my eye. Here was this cir­cle of life, lit­er­ally, and a sym­bol of the dan­ger of death at sea. It be­came the fo­cal point of my paint­ing, Com­pass, in which I’ve tried to rep­re­sent the all- en­com­pass­ing love and de­vo­tion that go into a mother’s re­la­tion-

Chloe Early with her print, ‘ Com­pass’, in the back­ground. The work will raise money for a char­ity which helps refugee moth­ers.

ship with her child. As fam­i­lies, we are each other’s com­pass, our north, south, east and west.”

Com­pass is just the be­gin­ning of the next jour­ney for Early, “It’s a pre­lude to my next show, which fo­cuses on motherhood, child­hood, fam­i­lies and that in­fi­nite re­la­tion­ship. I’m go­ing back to work full time in Septem­ber and Conor is go­ing to step into the pri­mary par­ent role for a while. I’m hop­ing to have enough work ready to do a solo ex­hibit next year in Lon­don.”

Are there more ba­bies on the hori­zon for Early and Har­ring­ton or a move to the States per­haps? “Conor would prob­a­bly like to live in the US but it’s not on the cards right now. Lon­don is a man­age­able dis­tance be­tween work, my dad [ who lives in Lon­don] and go­ing home to our fam­i­lies in Cork. Right now, I need to fo­cus on the show and cre­ate some art first. Go­ing to Greece has made me re­alise just how lucky I am with the set- up and fam­ily I have. With­out fam­ily, we are all lost at sea.”

Lim­ited edi­tion screen prints of Com­pass, ( 840 mm by 700 mm, £ 350 each), of which 50 per cent of prof­its raised will be do­nated to the Nur­ture Project, are avail­able to buy now at chloeearly. com

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