Music and Memory
- Scottish painter Janet Pierce, whose new show is inspired
songs that remind her of home, talks to Aidan Dunne of The Irish Times.
Janet Pierce calls her new exhibition Ceanalas.
'It's a term from Scots Gaelic that translates as a yearning for the songs and memories of home,' she explains. Though exactly where that home might be is hard to pin down in her case for, as she puts it: 'I've had a lot of displacement in my life.'
Her watercolours and acrylics certainly evoke the landscape. They are rapt, romantic evocations of huge cloudy skies, misty mountains and vast shorelines. But they describe, she maintains, 'a landscape of the imagination'. Most obviously, home for Pierce is the Scotland of her childhood. She was born in Edinburgh and recalls the happiness of summer holidays in the Hebrides. She met her first husband, an architect, while she was at art college and, immediately after graduation, they married and emigrated to the US. They settled in Pennsylvania, where two of her three children were born. First-hand contact with the work of artists such as Helen Frankenthaler excited her. 'They say painting is a boy's game. Well I'd never felt that, because in Scotland there is an established tradition of strong women painters - everybody just knew that Elizabeth Blackadder was the best painter, and that was that. But Frankenthaler was doing these huge, muscular paintings. It was extremely encouraging to see it. It gave me a boost.' After four years they moved back across the Atlantic. not to Scotland, though, but to Enniskillen in watery Fermanagh. 'You know what they say,' she says by way of Illustration. 'Half of Fermanagh Is under water and the other half is trying to be.' The big skies and watery light of the county became a valuable element in her painterly vocabulary but although she was there for a decade 'it never felt like home'.
She and her husband were divorced. There were now three children, aged between six and I I years old. 'It was very difficult on a practical level.'
She moved back to Edinburgh and got a job with the Scottish Arts Council. 'I continued to paint as well, so it was all fairly frantic.'
Indeed, she energetically pursued a painting career that could be regarded as a full time occupation in itself.
After four years she moved again. She had met another painter, Felim Egan, and they settled in Dublin. 'Dublin is the nicest place I have ever lived,' she says unequivocally. 'Partly because the Irish are so supportive of creative endeavour. I don't mean just in a high profile way like the culture of success in the States. There's something in the Irish psyche that responds to people who are willing to put themselves on the line whether by writing or singing or painting. They respect it.'
So Dublin is home, and feels like home. But the paintings are not about that home.
They were triggered by her happening to hear Donegal sean-nós singer, Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill: 'When I heard her I was completely transfixed. I cried. She is a beautiful singer. The songs can be incredibly sad and you can see why. There has been a lot of grief in that part of the world. And when you hear them, they tap into the grief in your own life. I mean the sadnesses that come inevitably with living. It struck me as well that watercolour is like unaccompanied singing. You cannot hide anything. Every mark is there on the paper.'
Ní Dhomhnaill's singing also brought her back to her childhood, not surprisingly, perhaps, given the strong affinities between Donegal and western Scotland. 'They say that Glasgow is the capital of Donegal, not Dublin or Belfast.'
12 OM 2 by Janet Pierce
Mixed Media / Gold Leaf 70 x 61cms © 2007 ©
Cursai Ealaine, the RTE arts programme, arranged a meeting between the two
artists earlier, this year. They met at Pierce's exhibition at Belfast's
Ormeau Baths Gallery, and they travelled on to shoot more film on Níi
Dhomhnaill's home turf, Gweedore in Donegal.
'I knew the west of Ireland well,' Pierce recalls,
'and I'd been to Donegal, but not to Gweedore.
And once I went there, I knew why the music touched me so directly.
I felt as though I was coming home. It just brought me right back to Scotland.'
Or, more specifically perhaps, to the Hebridean world of her childhood, a place coloured by memory. In the end, though, this homeland has no precise geographic location, it is more a personal centre of gravity.
'I suppose you could say it is an imaginary landscape that lies somewhere between Donegal and the west of Scotland. That's what feels right, and it's something that everyone has to find within themselves.'
Paradoxically, perhaps, she is more at ease with the Irish landscape, particularly the west, than with that of her native Scotland.
'I love the moodiness of the west of Ireland, and there is a softness to the Irish landscape that you don't really find in Scotland, which tends to be grander and harsher. I think it's a feminine quality.'
When she's painting she instinctively finds herself focusing on skies, shores, mountains, and has often wondered why.
' I think part of the reason is that I used to go climbing with my father when I was a child, but really I think it's because it's something permanent amidst change and displacement. It's something that most people need in their lives, a sense of constancy. And now that religious belief has declined, a lot of people turn to nature to provide that extra dimension to existence, to fill the soul.'
That is pretty much what her work is about, as well: the shaft of light that breaks through masses of cloud, the landscape as a metaphor for life's struggles, its setbacks and joys.
'I try to get those extraordinary moments. Grey beach, grey sky, four on a winter's afternoon. Then the evening sun comes through and suddenly everything is liquid gold.'
As she says, with a mischievous grin, 'I am an unashamed romantic.' Aidan Dunne The Irish Times 1998 ©