Dunlavin is an art lover’s paradise
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF HAD A BALL WHEN HE DROPPED INTO DUNLAVIN ON THE OPENING NIGHT OF THE FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS, WHERE PAINTINGS WERE ON SHOW THROUGHOUT THE VILLAGE FOR THE ANNUAL CULTURAL EXTRAVAGANZA
AH yes, the arts. Dry and snobby arts. Remote and elitist arts. Critics with airs. Collectors with notions. Not in Dunlavin, not on your nellie. In Dunlavin, the arts fill the village once a year with laughter and excitement and occasional flashes of wonder. In Dunlavin the arts are fun. Some of the fun is serious fun. Some of the fun is hilarious fun. But everything on the agenda for the weekend of the arts festival is included to offer some measure of enjoyment. No stuffed shirts.
The 37th staging of the annual Dunlavin Festival of the Arts took place over three days from Friday to Sunday, with something for everyone, from set dancing to circus acts, choirs to crafts. And at the heart of the arts programme was an art which has been occupying human minds and hands since the cave dwellers first attempted some interior decoration – painting. Dunlavin boasts
a magnificently maintained Market House, a triumph of fine grey stone brightened by the dazzling white framed window on the ground floor and the gleaming gilt numbers above on the clock. On Friday evening, for the opening of the festival, the building was thronged with art lovers – for everyone in Dunlavin is an art lover come festival time.
They were treated to a selection of paintings (as chosen by the committee from submissions made by invited artists), to a glass or two of wine, and to some nicely browned sausages. Tucked into a corner, a chamber string duo comprising Dorly O’Sullivan on cello and Phil Callery on fiddle radiated soothing class with their music. Overseeing the smooth running of the occasion was festival coordinator Laura Andrews who pointed to the strong local representation in the works.
The home team included Shay O’Byrne, whose Lacken snowscape soon had a red sticker indicating an early sale, and wood carver Norman Styles, of Grangecon. The word was that contributors had been instructed to keep their prices reasonable, even if this kept down the size of the works exhibited. ‘Reasonable’ in this context ranged from a touch under €300 to a smidge over €2,000, levels reflecting the fact that all the contributors are practitioners of some stature.
Subject matter covered the lot from horses and flowers and portraits to abstract squares and all-too-realistic old tractors. And the works on show were not all paintings, as Norman Styles contributed three of his exquisite wood carvings of birds. Dapper in blazer and tie, he described himself as a retired horticulturist and revealed some of the tricks of his trade.
‘The timber has to be five years cut before I use it,’ he said. He has a shed load of wood at his home in Grangecon, much of it collected during rambles in the local demesne or Rathsallagh. Other pieces maybe created from driftwood washed up on the Wexford coast or 50,000 year old yew excavated from some bog in Kerry.
The artists are not kept on any sort of pedestal in Dunlavin, with Shay O’Byrne’s wife Margaret helping with the catering: ‘He’s on the way,’ she promised when your reporter looked to have a word with her husband. The great man eventually sauntered in, happily basking in the honour recently bestowed on him by the Royal Hibernian Academy, which awarded him a prize for one of his Wicklow landscapes. And he let slip that he is due to be featured shortly in the ‘Sunday Times’.
A Dublin native, Shay moved to the county back in the 1990s to work at Turlough Hill for the ESB, staying put with Margaret after retiring from the power company. He declared himself a big fan of the arts festival over many years: ‘It has been a great platform for local talent to show their work. Twenty-five years ago it had a similar format – it’s just that it has grown and there is a greater interest.’ His sentiments were echoed by Norman Styles: ‘The arts festival is great for Dunlavin, great for up and coming artists, and it brings a buzz to the town.’
Among the crowd admiring the exhibits was Mary Deering, adding a touch of glamour to the gathering with her brightly coloured blue and pink wrap. Mary one of few present who could truthfully claim to have been present at the first of the 37 festivals. She recalled that the initiative came from the energetic brain of a lady called Gloria Clyne, an American woman who worked as a producer with RTE. Gloria took part in a Mayor of Dunlavin contest and devised the festival as her contribution.
The 2019 edition was formally launched by a man who prefers words to paint. He spoke of how the festival was part of his childhood growing up in Dunlavin during the 1980s. Robert had the audience laughing aloud as he read an open letter addressed to his 13 year old self, a missive which included the oft repeated advice ‘read more books’.
While the speeches were made in the Market Hall, the festival was not a one-venue event – and that is a large part of the chaotic joy of it. A short
THERE REALLY IS NO EXCUSE. EVERYONE IN DUNLAVIN SHOULD HAVE AN ORIGINAL WORK OF ART
step away, the asking prices were strictly three-figure (or even two-figure) in the Old Schoolhouse, prompting festival veteran Margaret Lynott to remark: ‘There is no excuse. Everyone in Dunlavin should have an original work of art.’
The subject matter in the schoolhouse show typically featured views of Ballyknockan and Donard but among the contributors was local Ann Clancy who strayed further afield to exhibit a canal scene, reminiscent of a holiday spent in Venice.
Not quite by coincidence, another Venetian landscape was on show a couple of metres away, this one created in a completely different style by Michael Clancy – Ann’s husband.
She revealed that he paints in the kitchen of their Dunlavin home while she usually sets up her easel in the porch and she commented: ‘Your character comes out in your painting – and Michael is more casual.’
The show in the schoolhouse had 46 different artists listed on the catalogue, most of them regulars, with coordinator Eithne Delaney reckoning that this year’s display has just six newcomers.
Another husband and wife combination on Eithne’s roll was Geraldine and John Fitzpatrick, Dubliners who come from Dundrum.
They have been showing at the schoolhouse in Dunlavin for many years, while their son Derek has graduated from ‘emerging artist’ status to the up-market Market House across the street.
The helpful map listed eight different galleries – some of them in unlikely locations.
Sarah Rogers – another Grangecon resident - offered paintings of Irish cows and Spanish horses on the walls of a room in the garda station, of all places. An arresting show if ever there was one.
‘Where are the heads?’ people wanted to know. Upstairs, over the vegan restaurant, was the answer. The 60-plus heads were black and white portraits snapped on his smartphone by Mark Lawlor. The not-for-sale compendium was part of Mark’s photo obsession, from a man who has 2,219 images posted on Instagram – and counting.
Moving along, there were original postcards in the bakery and paintings from school students in the Lite Door gallery. A group show by Russborough based Cruthú took rapid root in what is usually a window and door business, transformed for the weekend to become a haven of the arts. Cruthú member Michelle Lenihan, a resident of Hollywood, chipped in with some fine views of Blessington.
Next door, back in town after enjoying herself so much last year was French painter Annick Genevois, with some of her humorous seaside creations. The canvasses arrived all the way from Lyons by boat in a wooden crate while Annick herself travelled by plane.
At the end of Stephen Street was the Unhinged Door Gallery, taken over by Kyle Hamilton, formerly of New Jersey but now living happily in West Wicklow. She specialises in fascinating pictures of flies, with a wall of the gallery dedicated to stuff her killer cat dragged in by way of variety – not just dead mice but also a deceased magpie and a lifeless squirrel.
Asked if there is anything to match the Dunlavin Festival of Arts in New Jersey, she referred to an event in the state capital Trenton: ‘But Trenton is a bigger city,’ she conceded. Google suggests that Dunlavin has a population of maybe 720 while Trenton’s is at least 83,000. Dunlavin clearly punches above its weight.
Last stop was another group show across the road staged by Red Line Art, a bunch of friends who meet every Monday all year round in Emo, County Laois. Prominent among them was Dunlavin based Kathleen Owens who declared: ‘I love painting boats and the sea.’
She revealed that she was involved in the first staging of the festival, under direction of the flamboyant Gloria Clyne all those years ago.
Kathleen confirmed that it was invented as part of a fund-raising mayoral contest. As best she could recall, Gloria did not succeed in becoming mayor though she certainly started a powerful and enduring ball rolling.
Shay O’ Byrne.
The work of artist David Rouse.
Eamonn Heffernan and Noreen Joyce with some of the artwork on display during the Dunlavin Arts Festival.