Cork based artist Orla O’Byrne explores overlooked histories of sites and artefacts. She works across a variety of media and techniques such as drawing, photography and sculpture. Orla rebelled against going to art college after school, travelled and lived abroad, before having children children, setting up a bakery business and eventually went to art college aged 35. She has an MA in Art & Process and a BA in Fine Art from The Crawford College of Art and Design. She is a member of the board of directors of the Backwater Artists where her studio is based. Some of her awards include The Lavit Gallery Student of the Year and the CIT Registrar’s Prize.
Deciding not to go to Art College
“There was a weight of expectation..I think I was being just a bit rebellious..there was an expectation that I would go to art college and I just decided I wouldn’t.
Life was getting really interesting at that stage. I moved to Amsterdam and I lived there for three years. While I was there, I was being an artist, but I was also being a chambermaid and working in pubs.. but in my heart, doing art, being very interested in art, living with an artist, but probably not making great career strides, but really ticking off a lot of life experience.”
Even though she rebelled against going to art college, Orla always had an art practice.
“I’d always been making art. I always tried to have a studio wherever I was”
“I didn’t actually end up going to the Crawford until I was 35…there was a big circuitous route and there were other points along that journey too, that they were like my little pockets of education on the way. ”
Orla works in a broad range of techniques and media but her primary love is drawing.
“I’ve always stayed open to different materials, and sometimes my work is just about material. But I was drawing and drawing and drawing. This is the beauty of drawing, is that it’s portable and immediate.”
Range of media
“Through a variety of techniques and media, I make tangible things in response to the abstract narratives that surround us.
I work from a place of deep affinity with my materials. Drawings are made in charcoal dust and chalk. I take imprints, cast glass and plaster objects and work with analogue photographic processes. This visual vocabulary is in keeping with my fascinations: trace, erasure and the passing of time. I push ideas through various material permutations as a way of revealing layered and more nuanced versions of our given history. ”
Orla’s graduate show exhibition included casts of an Eleanor Coade sculpture she discovered in Cork.
“Eleanor Coade was an extraordinary woman who was born in Exeter in 1733. She pioneered the development of a highly durable type of artificial stone called Lithodipyra or Coade Stone and ran a business so successful that her products were used by all of the most eminent Georgian architects. Famous Coade Stone pieces include the lion on Westminster Bridge and sculptures at the gates of Kensington Palace. More than 650 Coade Stone sculptures are still in existence today. At various times throughout her life Eleanor Coade took on business partners but she always remained firmly in control of her company. She never married and in later life she was a philanthropist, helping women who found themselves in difficult circumstances. Considering the enormous contribution Eleanor Coade and her Lithodipyra made to the architecture of her day, writings on this subject are sparse. Being neither pottery nor stone and being frequently mistaken for actual stone, examples of Coade stone mostly slip under the radar as they continue to last not just in Britain and Ireland, but throughout the world.”
Orla discovered a sculpture of a group of figures that she thought might be in Cork from a list of known Coade stones in the back of a book and she decided to make an unauthorised casting. “The world of casting is full of subterfuge, of sneakiness. The thing is about my casting is my sort of maverick casting. ”
Orla describes the materials she brings with her to allow her to take opportune castings. “I have a hot water bottle. And wrapped and then wrapped around that are sheets of very soft plasticine and they’re kept soft because the hot water bottle is hot. And then there’s cling film around that to make sure that nothing is damaged or anything. And then that is with me in a bag or something. And then sometimes I might have like a high vis jacket or a ladder or whatever I needed. I have a van so I look like the part.”
She continues the process back in her studio. “I very carefully put it into a box and put it gently on the seat next to me in the van and drive back to my studio. I have wooden boxes that the plasticine fits into. I seal all the edges so the wet plaster won’t dribble through. I bring that back to my studio, put it in the wooden box, mix up my plaster, pour my plaster in and then wait and then get to peel off. In the process of taking the plasticine off, it destroys it. All you have left is whatever you’ve managed to make underneath.”
Orla is interested in capturing the essence of the fleeting moment of contact
“You only have a fleeting moment and it could be just you might just get a little tiny impression, but those things are actually very precious.”
“I recreate that process again and again with plasticine”, casting from the most recent cast.
It becomes less distinct because I’m pressing and I’m not doing a perfect cast all the time. it’s getting less and less distinct ..coming into existence and going out of existence.”
Writing about art
“I’ve discovered recently enough that I really like writing about my work.” Orla wrote her MA paper in a journalistic style. “it was just like a compulsion. I was having this experience with a material and I just wanted to express it and words kept popping into my head and that’s never really happened because I’m a maker and I am visual. But recently I’ve realised that I like talking about my work, which I never thought I did. And I like writing better.”
Crawford Art Gallery
Orla’s ongoing MA research programme is to document the hidden areas of the Crawford Art Gallery. The gallery has received a grant and will shortly close for redevelopment so many of these areas will disappear.
“It was the Cork School of Art right up until 1979. Cork is a small town, so there are lots of people around who were students in that building. There are these many, many overlapping things between the place I was studying and that building.” Many locals don’t differentiate between the Crawford School of Art and the Crawford Gallery.
Orla asked Dr. Michael Waldron, Crawford Gallery curator about a proposal for a residency to allow her to document behind the scenes before the building changes. Orla realised she potentially could be a risk for the Gallery as they are “custodians of all this amazing art.. they can’t just have people like me wandering around… with my reputation for taking illicit plaster casts of things.”
On the cusp of change
Orla believes in importance of documentation to preserve a record of the old building
“Above ground, the gallery is on the cusp of change. The two-year, multi-million euro Capital Redevelopment Project means that all 3,000 works of art in their collection will need to be moved off-site. Before that happens, everything must be accounted for. A serious archiving project is currently underway. When objects of unknown provenance are discovered in the building and cannot be matched to existing records, they are labelled ’Found in Collection’.
There has been another change in the past when it changed from being the school of art to being the art gallery…I want to be here just before it changes because we often forget when something new happens..The new thing obliterates the memory of the old thing. You go into a room and you think, where was the door? I remember how this used to be.
Orla met former students, who attended The Crawford School of Art when it was located in Emmet Place. “During my conversations with these people, I have asked for memories of the building itself. Through their recollections, I have begun to build a mental map of the space as it was when it housed the School of Art. This map (or ‘reconstruction’) of the building is based on subjective memories and impressions of how the space functioned in the late 1970s. I am particularly interested in 1979, the year the School of Art decamped to Sharman Crawford Street. It was a moment of dramatic change and caused an important shift in the way the building functioned.
The timing of this project is significant. As the building is made ready for the upcoming renovation, it will be necessary to move things around internally in a way that hasn’t happened in many years, for example, the entire collection will need to be moved out and into storage. This disruption will provide more opportunities than usual to come face to face with residues of the building’s past lives.
Every time there’s a redevelopment, it’s a sort of a payoff, you lose something. I’m interested in looking at the thing that we’re saying goodbye to.”
Stories within a building
Orla is interested in the physical material signs of the stories contained within a building.
At the heart of my work, there is often a deep interest in the history of certain objects or places and a desire to tell an alternate story, an ‘other’ history. There is often some detail hidden within the provenance of an historic object which, once revealed, can bring it new life and meaning.
Think of generations of plumbing which have left behind layers of antique pipes with no function, or the remnants of a doorway, now blocked up, which tells of a previous route through the [Crawford] building.”
Orla took a photograph of a window pole in the staff room. “It’s for opening the window, it’s brass and it’s ancient and it just lives in the staff room in the corner. And they use it, just have been using it for ages to open and close the window. It’s created this found drawing in the corner with these lovely scratches. You can read it as a series of days or a series of moments or a series of window openings.”
“When I was on my residency, they showed me some of the former teaching rooms in the building when it was an art school. I was using them to locate myself in the building because a lot of their partitions have changed and rooms are different now. By looking up, I was able to look at the photographs and look at the beams because things up high don’t really change as much as they do on the ground.
To get my bearings, I compare my photographs to the historic ones on display in the gallery, trying to match sepia-toned images of old teaching rooms full of art students to the spaces I’ve been standing in. One room just won’t make sense until I try flipping the image on my phone camera. Bingo. The ancient print was made in reverse.”
Orla asked to see negatives to verify her theory and the curatorial team gave her access to old glass slides. She since thinks her theory was wrong but it led her to a new discovery.
Old glass slides
“They were the old original collection of glass teaching slides that they used to teach the art students and the architecture students in the college…This was like opening the door to this amazing thing. They’re these beautiful little three inch square sort of magic lantern slides. There are dates on them and lovely old handwriting and dates like 1890 and 1910.”
“a magic lantern is the first projector. Originally there would be a candle in it. It looks like a big box with a lens on the front and there’s a place for a light underneath. You put the slide upside down and you could get quite a big image from it. It was really popular at the turn of the century magic lantern shows.”
Stories hidden in the slides
Orla has so far examined five of the 23 boxes of glass slides to clean and digitise. “I’ve only looked at a portion of them and I think that in there, there are so many stories. It’s like a rich, rich, exciting project that I can’t wait to crack.”
Orla describes the process of examining the slides. [They] “feel cold and are heavier in the hand than you’d expect. Each one has to be cleaned before it’s placed on the scanner bed. Black marks of a particular shape appear on my dust cloth. A flock of dust birds.”
“There’s the occasional anomalous [slide]. There’s a man on a rooftop who, by his stance, doesn’t seem like he’s a stranger to the photographer. There is something reciprocal in his look. There’s another where a hatted figure seems to materialise out of the grey sand in a nondescript little bay.
One of the things that is really amazing about them is that they haven’t been used for a long time and they are in some sort of order. They’re in these old wooden boxes and they’re probably in the order that they went back in the box after the last lecture. .. As I was pulling them out, I thought there’s something about the order of these that also tells the story…
I am intrigued by the hidden logic of the slides’ order in the box. Are they still in the order in which they were last used? I imagine the ancient lid being closed one day, at the end of a final outing to the lecture theatre.”
“There are lots of scratches and those scratches all happened at certain times..like [a] layered history embedded in them as objects as well.
There are initials on the slides, and I’m interested in that. I have an old prospectus of the college from the 1950s and I’ve been trying to match the initials.. It would be great to get to the nub of a story [and find out who he was]”
At the time Orla was feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of documenting the entire Crawford building while doing her MA.
“Slide after slide. What am I looking at? What am I looking for? My mind goes to the larger project. I’ve been inwardly miserable about my Crawford residency. I’ve been overwhelmed, blinded by trying to look at it in its entirety. A site like this extends beyond its stony footprint and encompasses a whole buzzing network of matter and non-matter. It has layered histories and interesting thresholds between public and private realms. It has its own set of internal repeating cycles.
I find that whenever I’m in the building, everything I thought I was going to do has a troubling tendency to slip away from me. How does one engage with a public building in a personal way anyway? Do I place a listening hand on one of its crumbling plaster walls and sigh? Do I document its many generations of amputated plumbing? Am I carrying out a sort of survey? ”
Bay of Biscay Sunset Slide
Orla found a slide of a sunset in the same box as the man is standing on the roof. “It’s an interesting box but it was mostly cathedrals.” Orla thinks these slides were for the architecture students.
“There’s lots of pictures of columns and the interiors of all these cathedrals…I was looking through them, and I was starting to fade a little bit…I’m just looking at cathedral after cathedral after cathedral, and they’re starting to all look a bit the same.. I’m cleaning them, but what else am I doing?
“Then I pulled out this one slide, and I knew before I looked really closely at it or held it up to the light, that it was different because it didn’t have any architecture or lines on it. It was just a very fuzzy one. I held it up to the light, and it was just a picture of a sunset. The most deeply romantic looking thing..It seems to have like a little column of smoke as well, which might be coming from a boat.” The writing at the bottom of the slide read ‘Sunset Bay of Biscay, 1891’.”
Orla wondered why this slide was in the box, whether it was part of a lecture.
“What is this? Because it’s cathedral, cathedral, sunset, cathedral, cathedral.” “I pull out the next cold slide and look at it. It is different to the others. Even before holding it up to the light I can see that no geometric, manmade shapes are visible. There is writing on the edge. Pale ink on the black gummed paper border.
“The glass is severely scratched. I give it the gentlest wipe with the dust cloth and then hold it up towards the window. As its label suggests, it is an image of a sun setting at sea. It is so beautiful that I hold my breath.
Dark, choppy waters take up the bottom third of the image and fade out toward the horizon line. In the scratched sky are wispy clouds and possibly smoke. In the middle third there is the vivid sun, burning out all the surrounding clouds on its way down. With my arm outstretched, I gaze for a bit as the sunshine illuminates the slide. A thought flashes across my mind: It’s the same sun.”
“I don’t want to look at the image for too long. I never want to get used to it.
When I pulled out that slide, it helped me to focus down on one little thing…This is one moment in all these moments. I can just focus on this and I want to draw this.
I made a little print of the slide and I just gave myself permission to forget about everything else… I made a print of it about a foot by a foot on the computer in college. I brought it back to my studio. I thought, I don’t want to look at it anymore. Because you know the way you become habituated to something if you look at it too much and I just never want to get used to it. I just wanted to always have it fresh. I quickly covered it and then I just uncovered a bit at a time in sections. I had a huge Fabriano 150cm wide paper. I rolled that out and I cut it to a square and I sectioned that off as well. I just started drawing the slide in sections. I started with the sky and I drew that. I drew in all the scratches as well, because to me, I’m drawing the object. The scratches are part of it, they’re also part of the history and the story and the layered time that’s in that object. I drew it section by section ..I left all the lines from the sectioning because they are part of the story too.
It’s odd that it’s in the box at all. Did it form some part of a lecture on architecture, slotting in between the timeless things: drawings of ionic columns and gothic church interiors?
There was a moment of clarity when I held the slide up to the sun to look at the picture of the sun. I see the same sun. It’s the same thing. It’s just day after day, it moves, we move, it moves. The cyclical nature of everything suddenly gave me an in.
In all those slides of cathedrals that I was getting a little bit bored of looking at it, I went back and looked at them all and [I thought] It’s a day. I’m looking at a day as well as looking at a cathedral. I’m looking at the slant of that light that only happened on that one day, that one time”
“I felt a lot more liberated. That drawing really helped as well. I did huge drawings of that slide. I felt lighter and I felt like I didn’t want to go back [to the Crawford] all heavy. I got myself some disposable cameras and I went back to the Crawford. I didn’t make a plan with the curator or anything.. I just walked in.. I didn’t have a Lanyard. I went in just like everybody else, and I walked through the building. Just before I got to the inside of the building, I stood on the steps and I just turned around and I thought, oh, it was a lovely sun with some clouds. I just looked up at the sky. I pointed my camera up and took a little click and thought, , that’s my timestamp for today. That’s today now. Then I went in and then I took photographs of the light that comes in all those windows. The turret there is not going to change. The light that comes in the windows from those turret windows in the Crawford, this sort of lovely roundy shape that they just come in every day and they sweep through the turret and then they go and then the next day they come in and they do the same thing…I’ve got them on one particular day and that day is gone.”
Orla was awarded the Valerie Gleason development Bursary in 2020 to go to the north of Italy to research marble quarries. Deferred due to the pandemic, she travelled during 2021. “I had made contact with a school in the mountains that teaches carving, and I told them that I was interested in meeting people who would teach carving’. It was a German school based in Italy and Orla didn’t speak any German.
“Everybody was more experienced than I was. Some were professional and some were sort of people who were retired..I was living in a house with a retired Lufthansa pilot and a sculptor”
Peeling the skin off the stone
It was Orla’s first time working with stone.
“I love throwing myself into situations where I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.”
It was interesting to get involved in a new material but challenging to be “in this foreign land and then being confronted with this thing, which I had not given much consideration to before, being handed a pointy chisel and told to just take the skin off this stone.
We weren’t using commercially cut blocks of marble. We were going down to a riverbed and we were gathering these big lumps of marble. The river near that town is directly underneath a marble quarry which has been running since 1520. These lumps of marble that you find in the dried out river, were actually waste matter that’s been washed down from the quarry…a piece of waste matter that they’ve discarded that’s rolled down the mountain could have been there for 300 years. It could have been one of Michelangelo’s discarded bits. [I] tried to pick out lovely white ones.. with no flaws ..but they all have cracks in them.
Those stones, they’ve been tumbling around in the water and in the river for a long time, they’ve developed this sort of crust around them on the outside, so they don’t look like lumps of shiny marble. They look really dusty and porous. Before you start working in the marble, you’ve got to get rid of that porous outer shell.”
There was a physicality to working with stone. “I’m sensitive to things, and it felt sort of violent. It was like there was a violence to the process. You had to hit hard, and if you weren’t hitting hard enough, you had to hit harder. I really struggled with that[ but eventually]..I succeeded in removing the skin. It took me two days. It doesn’t take people two days normally, but it took me two days to get it completely peeled… I was looking at this thing that now had little pock marks and bumps all over it, but it was starting to be shiny. It has a crystalline structure [and] it glints a little in the sun, it’s starting to look a bit more beautiful. But there was a crack in it. So then I called Sven [the teacher] over and he said, you need to get rid of that. He bashes it and this big chunk came out of it.
I was so pleased about what I made in the end because it was a pure expression of what I was feeling. He bashed out that flaw. I was looking at this lump of marble and it looked like a big, soft squidgy thing. It was sort of all soft and it had this dent in it. And I put the base of my palm into the dent and it fit perfectly. I just thought, that is weirdly nice and familiar and cool in the inside and it sort of fits me somehow. Then I looked down and I put my other hand on the thing. And the first thing that occurred to me is, this is like my other job. I run a bakery as well.”
Link between carving marble and kneading dough
“I had spent many, many years training bakers and baking bread.. I was standing there wearing an apron with my hand on this big squidgy looking thing and feeling finally a little bit relaxed and comfortable. I thought, oh, maybe it’s to do with bread. I thought [if] I started to work the marble a little bit to make it even more exaggerated in its curves at the places where if it was a lump of dough, it would kind of squidge down.”Orla decided to carve out the rest of my palm, “just the parts that would stick in and my fingertips. I got a bucket of mud and clay and made a wet, dark slip and put my hands in it and then impressed them onto the marble…I let it dry and I used those marks to chip around to show where the fingers would be, the fingertips and the palms…it really started to work and I worked away on it…I had my own hands as reference point..I found out that inside my stone, it was a little bit darker than the outside. It was kind of a darker grey, [which] made the indentations look even more pressed in.”
Touch and connection
“Then another thing started happening. People came over and put their hands into it. I would see the difference between their hands and my hands, and everybody would comment on it. I have quite big hands. And people would come along and they wouldn’t even reach where my fingertips were. That created a lot of discussion about the differences between our hands…I actually thought afterwards that [during] COVID, there was no touching and we need to touch. This was the first time people had been together for a couple of years. There was something so great about having this piece there that we were putting our hands in, it was like touching. Suddenly we were able to touch again. It had all these multi functions, that piece of stone.”
Being Colour Blind
Orla’s work is predominantly black and white. “My relationship with colour is a bit funny. I think colour is sort of a responsibility because colour has a huge effect on people. I’m colour blind as well, the red green sort of colour blindness.”
Orla currently spends one day a week writing grant proposals. Her work is project based. She gets an idea and she looks for funding to support her travel and the work.
“Rejection makes me a little bit sad every single time..it’s weird how much there is of it.”
Orla stores her large works in her bakery business. “We have a storage container. I split it with the bakery. It’s like bakery equipment and massive chalky monoliths.”
“Having that studio has been the single most wonderful thing in my life because it takes me away from home”
“I have different areas. It might not be clear to anybody else who went in, but there’s a drawing area and there’s a sculptural area… I try to keep them a little bit separate. ..
I usually am working on more than one thing at a time… It just seems to be the way I work. It’s as if different days have different feelings…As long as there’s no time pressure, I can choose that it feels like a drawing day, or it feels more like I’d like to do something mundane, which could be just like ..today is more of a day where I’m going to listen to a podcast and just mix up plaster. I like to have a few different things on the go because you’re not magic all the time.”
Working and thinking time
“I just work all day long and I don’t stop.” Orla fluctuates between studio work and her thinking time. “I need to walk to get myself into this frame of mind where ideas are flowing… I say I’m going to my studio, bye. And then I get into the van and drive to the woods and do that for an hour and then go to my studio.”
Dr. Michael Waldron, Crawford Gallery curator told her “be always very sure that you really mean what you’re saying when you talk about your work”. Orla has taken this on board when she’s writing or speaking about her work. “I ask myself, do I really mean that? Or did I hear someone else say that about my work? And I’ve decided to adopt that because it sounds cleverer or am I getting drawn into how someone else perceives the work? I think it’s a beautiful bit of advice is to just check in with yourself, do I really mean that?”
Orla’s advice for emerging artists is “remember that you can always ask people things. The art community is chock full of generous people who are so delighted if you ask them stuff..don’t be shy about asking things because you’ll meet happy, smiling faces.”
Orla is part of the F Project group, in Chapel Hill School of Art, Macroom with an upcoming exhibition about how we perceive light.
She has also started making drawings of some of the old slides from the Crawford Archive.
See more of Orla’s work:
Photo credit: Orla O’Byrne, Jed Niezgoda, Backwater Arists Studio