The Warrior Artist Podcast [21] Rachel Doolin – The final product is less important than the journey of getting there

Irish visual artist Rachel Doolin chats to Éadaoin Glynn about the challenge of taking the leap to become a professional artist, how materials inspire her, her slow research-based, collaborative approach and why she likes writing grant applications.

About Rachel Doolin

Rachel graduated with a BA in Fine Art from the Crawford College of Art & Design and has received many awards, grants and residencies. Rachel’s multidisciplinary approach merges art, experimentation, and ecology.  She collaborates with artists, NGOs,  community and professional organisations to create meaningful artworks in response to social and environmental issues.

Art College

Rachel went to art college shortly after becoming a mother “I just thought, I really have to do this and it’s now or never thing” and she enjoyed exploring all the different departments. “I just wanted to absorb as much skills that I could, while I was in art college.”

Artic Research

After art college Rachel went on a self-directed residency to Svalbard, located halfway between Norway and the North Pole.  Rachel discovered that it had a long history of resource extraction including whaling, hunting of polar bears and mining.

Svalbard Seed Bank

It’s also where the Svalbard seed bank is located, the back-up for the world’s seeds.   The UN estimates that we have lost 75% of genetic diversity in crops since the 20th century.  Unable to visit the seed bank, Rachel documented the outside with photographs and took sound recordings from an air vent.

The sound of the glacier

Rachel was struck by “the acoustic ecology of the places that we were going to… if you think of ..a place where there’s no other human beings and there’s no cars .., there’s nothing but wildlife and the glaciers that you’re faced with. I had never heard a glacier before. I was just blown away by the sounds that it makes. It’s constantly speaking, it’s grumbling, it’s crumbling, it’s creaking.” The sound the ice makes is it “releasing millions of years of gas out of it. And that’s making this popping sound. So it’s and crackling. And it’s so loud. It’s like this orchestra of ice that is making the sound.” On her return to Ireland, Rachel starting trying to create a sound piece using her recordings and sound recordings of ice from other sources.

Seed Research

Rachel began researching seeds “and what was happening with seeds and biodiversity in Ireland.” When she visited Madeleine McKeever’s home, the owner of Brown Envelope Seeds in West Cork, she learnt about the connection between seeds and stories. “Madeleine would tell me a story connected with that seed… I just thought..seeds have these sort of profound stories. They’re like these sort of miniature libraries that can tell us so much.”

Inspiration for Heirloom exhibition

Rachel continued to gather information and stories about seeds until she became “overwhelmed with information..  I had to find a way to be able to put that into an exhibition that could maybe be translated and other people could maybe see a little bit of what I was seeing or understanding or experiencing at the time”.

Irish Seedsavers

Rachel became a ‘sort of’ artist in residence with Irish Seed Savers, Ireland’s only public seed bank which curates over six hundred non commercially available varieties of seeds.  Rachel spent time with them “seed packing or planting or digging manure”.  Their commitment and passion inspired her.  She learned what their connection with seeds is about: “it’s food, it’s, spiritual, it’s biodiversity.”

Seed Cloud

Inspired by the stories connected with seeds from the people she met, Rachel decided to carry out a series of interviews. These recorded interviews became Seed Cloud, now available on her website and also part of her exhibition.

One of the people she interviewed was Will Bonsall, ” an organic farmer, an activist and ..CEO of a scatter seed project based in Maine, USA and .. also featured in the documentary Seed, the Untold Story.” He told Rachel “the real seed banks are actually in the people’s gardens. They’re in the gardens of people and that’s where they need to be. ..[to maintain] biodiversity and keeping things alive, not in a seed bank.”

Seedarium

Part of her Heirloom exhibition, was Seedarium, a wooden sculptural installation with a collection of donated seeds displayed encased in resin.

Inspired by these interviews, Rachel decided to “create a space which ultimately would, exhibit or present seeds in, in this sort of almost temple like space where, you could come and view the seeds.” Rachel didn’t want to curate and choose seeds for this installation.  She decided to invite people to contribute and to choose what seeds were important to them. “I didn’t want to limit anybody or exclude anybody..or that it would have to be heirloom seeds specifically or open pollinated seeds.”

“I just basically put a call out through Irish Seed Savers Network. .. they were also invited to contribute words along with those seeds. And all I asked was that maybe that there was some sort of a connection ..to that seed in some way.” She received more than 90 seeds and no two contributions were exactly the same.

Rachel permanently preserved the seeds in bioresin.

“Because seeds are a living thing and they’re continuously leaving out air… we say the seeds are breathing. So you get little air bubbles ..they just look like they’re submerged in their own little world.”

Rachel collaborated with Woodskin, an Italian architectural design company to create the wooden structure based on her measurement and map of the individual resin pieces.

Rachel wanted to be able to take the structure apart for storage and travelling. Rachel intentionally didn’t want artificial lighting and allowed natural daylight to go through the outer layer of the structure and illuminate the seeds encased in resin.

Oscillithic

Rachel is currently working on Oscillithic, a collaboration with sound artist Anne Marie Deacy, based on research with Solstice Arts Centre and Dowth, Co. Meath.

Dowth Hall

In July 2018,  during  renovations of the Dowth Hall house and terraced gardens, archaeologists discovered that it had been constructed directly over a 5,500 year-old megalithic passage tomb. Two small passage tombs near the back of the house were unearthed while to the front of the house the largest henge ever discovered in Ireland was unearthed. Archaeologist Clíodhna Ní Lionáin says it is the most important megalithic find in Ireland in the past 50 years.

Quartz

Rachel finds inspiration from materials.  This current project takes inspiration from quartz as a technological artefact and a potent elemental archetype that offers a tangible connection to our ancestral heritage. ‘The archaeologist Clíodhna Ní Lionáin was giving us a tour of the site at Dowth. She had told us that the quartz ..found at these sites isn’t.. naturally part of the geology of these landscapes…They were stone that has been intentionally, carried by our ancestors to these sites…if you think of Newgrange is completely clad in white quartz.”

Rachel started researching the material and she discovered that “something like 40, 000 tons of quartz has been discovered in Neolithic sites. And they say that of that 40, 000 tons it’s traveled a minimum of 25 kilometres from the site that it’s collected…I just thought that was really interesting for, a variety of reasons.  If you think of Neolithic as being, the beginning of settlement and farming, but also the beginning of mining and moving earth, and I suppose when we think now.. we as humans, move earth twice as much as natural forces move Earth on a daily basis.”

Triboluminescence

Rachel discovered that quartz has a special quality called triboluminescence. “If you take two pieces of quartz and you rub them together..it’s fracturing inside and.. it creates an orange glow…. I actually tested this out and it worked…I took quartz and I went underneath my jumper and I got a really dark space and I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed and lo and behold this orange circle started to glow out of the stones…if you, imagine, in a world without light.. the sun and the moon are essentially ..your gods.And then suddenly these stones emit this light, almost like if it’s a soul”

Rachel wondered why were these stones brought there and what did they mean? “There’s also theories around that there was a trade in quartz and that it was a currency.” It has been found in many ancient sites world wide.
Sí in modern Irish language refers to both the megalithic mounds and the spirits believed to be connected to ancient burial sites. White quartz stones, known as ‘Clocha Geala’ or ‘Shining Stones’ have featured prominently at many of these ancient sites. The theory is that quartz was used in religious ceremonies and astronomical observations.

Oscillator of sound

Anne Marie Deacy, sound artist and also based in the Sculpture Factory told Rachel how quartz conducts sound.  “She had this big lump of rose quartz on her desk..[she told her that] from a perspective of sound, quartz is an oscillator.  When you apply a voltage it oscillates at a regular frequency.” Rachel learned that quartz is used in clocks, to create radios.

“The material that was part of the material culture of our ancestors is actually so embedded in our current contemporary material culture. It’s in our phones, it’s in our solar panels, it’s a communication, it’s in fibre optics.”

Anne Marie agreed to collaborate with Rachel on this project.  They returned to the site at Dowth and carried out a sonic excavation.  “Anne Marie composed a piece, which was presented as a sound sculpture…she had used particular hardware to be able to sound the table and then the table was filled with the quartz stone.” They used quartz which Rachel collected from Glendalough, which is theorised to be the original origin of the quartz on the site.  Both Rachel and Anne Marie continue to collaborate on this project.

Studio Practice

“My process is very slow..and considered. I have to think through everything..the final product, is.. less important for me, than the journey of getting there.”

Rachel has a disciplined approach to her work, starting early in the morning and often working at weekends and evenings. “I think for me I live creatively, so often my work and my life are just intertwined and that’s just the way it is.”

Collaboration and research
“I’m more of a kind of collaborative project based artist, and because my work is very much informed, by research and place or material, I’m not going into a studio every day or painting or working with clay or sculpting in that respect…A lot of the work happens before creating anything. It’s the research, it’s the going to places, it’s the meeting with people.
It’s then coming up with a plan, a project plan.”

Time Management

“There’s a lot of application writing, a lot of administration..I would have to say that 70% of my time as an artist is spent on a computer because that’s what I have to do.

I have to document my work. I have to edit those images. I have to keep updating my website. , my CVs, my biographies. I have to keep applying for things nonstop – that’s exhibitions, that’s funding, that’s residencies. And about 30% is actually creating artwork.

I wish there was more time spent on creating the artwork, but you just have to do all of these other things as well to be able to sustain a practice.”

Application Writing

“I enjoy application writing.. because also it allows you to get clarity of what you’re doing… It’s like an art form, really. And there’s like almost a formula of how you’re doing it.

You have to really break it down in steps, of what you’re going to do, why you want to do it and what’s the potential of this? what’s the outcome? What’s the anticipated outcomes?

That really makes you sit down and think about those things, and then you go, okay I have my plan now. I need to compartmentalise things as well in a way otherwise I feel like my brain is just off in some chaotic universe!”

On Rejection

“I would, always ask for feedback for an application that you didn’t get and the Arts Council are brilliant for giving feedback. .. But to be honest, it’s ultimately down to the competitive nature of these awards. How I handle rejection is really by not putting all my eggs in one basket.

I might be working on multiple things or applying for multiple things. And generally, you will eventually get one of those things.  For every rejection, you always have a kind of a glimmer of hope that keeps you going. Sometimes being an artist can be a little bit like being an abusive relationship , in terms of, you keep going back for more of this hardship! Ultimately, when you do get the things and the opportunities come your way, they bring you to new opportunities and new things happen.  It is a long journey, but yeah, it’s just sticking with it!”

The challenge of being a professional artist

Rachel struggled with the idea going to art college to be a fine artist and was training to become a secondary school art teacher, thinking she had to be practical.

“I battled with this idea of going into the unknown and the uncertainty of being a professional artist.

I wanted to be in art college because I knew that was a big part of me and creativity was a big part of me, but then I also knew that I had a child and that I, wanted to get a mortgage and all of these things that people don’t think about when they think of an artist.  We’ve got ageing parents and and children and dependents and bills and mortgages and, we also would like healthcare.”

Winning awards early on gave Rachel a huge boost of confidence. “If I hadn’t won those awards, I would probably be not working as a professional artist.  I would have been overcome by the fear of taking that leap.”

Rachel also works in early years arts education with Graffiti theatre company and Helium Arts Organisation.

Advice

Rachel says the best advice she received was from tutor James Hayes, when she was second guessing herself for her final year degree show:

“you just need to go with your gut. Follow your instinct on this and trust  that aesthetic decision. I think you should go with your original plan.”

Rachel also says “Sometimes just don’t take no for an answer, don’t take that as the be all and end all, just push past it.”

Resources and links
Archaeologist Clíodhna Ní Lionáin explains why Dowth is the most important megalithic find in Ireland in the past 50 years on YouTube.
Eco-Poxy resin
Woodskin
Irish Seed Savers 
Madeleine McKeever
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Will Bonsall 
SeedCLOUD 
Anne Marie Deacy 
James.L.Hayes 
Beili Liu 
Katie Paterson
Cal Flynn – Islands of Abandonment 
Solstice Arts Centre
Rachel Doolin on Instagram 
Rachel Doolin website
National Sculpture Factory
Photo credits: Rachel Doolin, Lee Welch, Brian Lougheed, Brian Cregan

 

 

 

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