Artist Interview with Margaret Fitzgibbon
To start off, could you tell us your inspirations for creating “Still life”?
The context behind the creation of this work spans several years. Actually how it emerged says a lot about how I
practice as an artist; often allowing things to grow and evolve organically so its worth telling the back story to
Early in 2017 I approached the local Women’s Refuge where I live in Dublin to introduce myself and ask whether
they would be interested in me delivering a series of drawing workshops with the women who were using the
services there (free of charge). After several interviews with the management we agreed that I could come into the
large comunual kitchen once a week over a 10 week period to work with those women who were currently in
residence and who would sign up for individual classes as they wished. I stipulated that only adult women could
attend as I wanted this to be personal time, set aside as dedicated quiet time for the women’s own development.
To accommodate this, I suggested that I go into the Refuge during those times when the children were either
out at school or in bed.
This is not the first time I have worked with women’s groups as I am interested in exploring the female experience
of the world and its structures. However there was another, broader context to my approaching the Refuge.
Since 2016 I am the Artist in Residence (actually the only one in Dublin) in Cathal Brugha Military Barracks
that happens to back directly onto the back garden of Rathmines Women’s Refuge. In collaboration with the
barracks I secured annual funding from Dublin City Council to facilitate the residency and curate a range of
art projects both individual and collaborative. In conversation with the Colonel I discovered that the barracks
already had a relationship with the Refuge e.g. helping out with various physical tasks and inviting the women and
children into the barracks for an annual Christmas meal. This relationship intrigued me and I determined to follow
it up and bring these often unheard women’s voices into the heart of the predominantly male barracks, in
a creative way.
From the outset I had the title ‘Still Life’ in my mind, because it suggested to me that firstly, there was life
after abuse – implying that women should not be defined by the abuse they had suffered but rather as survivors
with new possibilities and a different life ahead. Secondly, I wanted to revisit the ‘still life’ genre with its
long traditional strategy of focusing on the intimate and domestic realm and the human connection to
the everyday, the domestic, family and home and reframe it in a feminised context. With its focus
on objective realism this art technique steers away from more overtly emotionally charged or self expressive
painting genres and this was crucial to my aims of the workshops. I was not interested in approaching the
workshops as art therapy but instead wanted to create an environment where I could immerse myself in the world
of the women unobstrusively, to observe and listen to the women while getting to know them through leading
them in practical, knowledge-based workshops. Also I believe in the transformational power of art through offering
challenging opportunities, encouraging self-esteem through learning new artistic techniques and introducing
an exciting range of stimulus: research; materials and paper that would lead to the creation of individual art works.
My plan was to set up a new still life each week with objects representative of individual domestic spaces e.g Living
Room; Kitchen; Bedroom; Bathroom; Dining Room. We explored the textures and surfaces of a range of
different kinds of paper. We experimented with a variety of media such as: pastels, oil and chalk, water-coloured
pencils and Indian ink. We got inspired by studying images from a range of artists across time who worked in
the genre. By introducing colour with the women’s workshops I hoped to create a stark contrast between
their work and my new series of black and white drawings, which were based on my real-life research in situ
with the women and members of staff and additional reading.
My drawings were done over a period of three months after the workshops were completed. The idea of
transferring the women’s drawings to high quality digital prints on paper came about for two main reasons. Firstly
many of the women wanted to keep their original artwork and secondly to organise and keep an aesthetic
unity in the work I decided to keep the size and quality of the surface unified for maximum impact.
What initially drew you to submit work for this exhibition?
Crucially the title of the exhibition ‘Shelter Domestics’ is what drew me to submitting a new iteration of
‘Still Life’. The opportunity to be part of a critical show that was looking for artists who had an interest in
the subject of the Domestic and in particular the area of Domestic Abuse was really important for me as there
are not that many art opportunities dealing with this theme. During Covid-19 lockdown there was sadly
constant reports of a worldwide resurgence of Domestic Violence and I was looking for a way to contribute to this
artistically. Also the fact that the exhibition originated in another country – outside Europe was attractive and that it was a group show so my work would be seen in a broader context, alongside other international artists interested and exploring similar concerns. I always had the intention to revisit the drawings and in the back of my mind animation of some kind was always an option that fitted the underlying conceptual basis to the work.
Could you describe the creative process behind your storyboard Still Life, featured in Shelter Domestics?
‘Still life’s’ first iteration was a collaborative, large-scale, drawing sculptural installation, comprising of my 37 black and white drawings and a selection of 37 of the women’s colour still life drawings created on the workshops and
transferred onto digital prints, and a series of white plaster sculptural objects and some of the domestic objects
that feature in the women’s drawings. For issues of equanmity, all drawings have the same dimensions 22 x 25
cms. However for ‘Shelter Domestics’ I created a new iteration of my series of drawings, transferring them into a
moving slide show format, referencing the early black and white, silent movie era. Movement is a crucial aspect of this iteration of Still life and allows the viewer a storyboard presentation that is closer in form to my original inspiration from silent movies with their inter-titles. Movement also suggests the interior of the domestic scenes as we move through the house from exterior to interior views, from kitchen to living and dining room and from
downstairs to upstairs, which from my research is a fundamental experience of Domestic Abuse that appears to
permeate every inch of everyday home life.
Tell us some more about your transition from sculpture to installation?
Around 2000, after years of working in sculpture, drawing and mixed media I discovered my father’s 1960s,
hand-held camera, projector and cache of home movies in the family attic, I became interested in making
super-8mm film. This new medium introduced me to installation as I began to think of new, spatial and more
immersive ways to communicate that could embrace more senses and I was also influenced by travels to
international art events like Kassel’s “Documenta” and “The Venice Biennial” where installation was becoming
dominant and very inspiring in the range of materials and themes. In 2006–2008 I completed an MFA in
Installation at The National College of Art and Design Dublin.
Being a practitioner of digital and traditional art, what are your thoughts on these mediums?
This is a really interesting question and leads really to the heart of how and why I make art. Generally I’m trying
to find a place for myself in the world and to respond to that which shapes me inside and outside as a woman and
a citizen of a modern global world. What stories, situations and objects can I make to communicate this to
others and share my experiences through artistic methods. Therefore, for me, whether it is digital or traditional
methods is simply a choice of what it is I’m highlighting or trying to convey and I usually know pretty early on
the medium or materials I’m drawn to as the language of the medium is in and of itself that which becomes the
metaphor for the idea.
Online and virtual art exhibitions are becoming the new normal. What do you think this means for
yourself and to artists in general?
I am excited about what new opportunities may now start appearing online. For example, with Shelter
Domestic I conceptually had to rethink the best way a series of 37 static drawings could be viewed in a new
context to immediately engage the online viewer while keeping the artistic virtuosity of the sensuality of the
drawing medium i.e texture and tone. I also feel that maybe galleries, art centres and institutions worldwide now
that they are operating online might be now more open to viewing new artists that are not part of their usual lists.
You have an impressive history of exhibitions. Did any of them stand out to you?
Thank you, in the last 10 years, I have had many site specific installations around Dublin and I always
enjoy this early research of finding a site that has some special resonance. The decision is either through
deliberate research or happy accident. For example, my first year as Artist in Residence in Cathal Brugha Barracks,
Dublin, on my walk around this large, working intact 19th Century British Built barracks I discovered a beautiful small brick walled yard and adjoining triple cells and knew I wanted to put some art there. Having researched the history Of the site I discovered that Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a well known advocate for women’s rights, vegetarianism and Nationalism and the husband of the famous Suffragette Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was held in those cells illigally and shot dead in the yard during the 1916 Irish Rising. So I set about developing a sculptural sound
installation with Hanna’s story at its centre. It was also a fabulous coincidence that Hanna and Francis lived in the
local area. The resulting installation titled “Echoes of Hanna” consisted of a series of eleven hand-made silk
banners hung in the corridor leading to the cells and yard; printed pamphlet booklets (handed out) to accompany
a soundwork that was installed in the yard; three site specific artworks for each of the three cells. In collaboration with Cork Co Council we are in negotiation to bring a new iteration of this installation to a site in Kanturk in Co Cork, the birth place of Hanna, during the celebrations of The Irish War of Independence 2020–2022.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you could share with us?
Recently I was approached by the Arts Officer in Cork County Council to work with the architects
who are designing a new Visitors Centre in a remote part of Ireland. The centre explores the unique
partly inhabited Dursey Island off the coast of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork and joined to the mainland
by the only cable car in Ireland. In 2015 I was commissioned by Cork County Council and I made a Super-8mm on this pretty, archaic cable car (it has since been upgraded). The film moves outside and inside the cable car and is mostly silent highlighting the sensuality of that wild landscape and the embodied experience of travelling across the narrow and treacherous sounds below the Cable Car. There is a sound track and an interview with the long serving Cable Car Operator, Paddy Sheehan (now deceased). The idea is to install the film as a permanent feature in the Visitor’s Centre. I have proposed to curate and design an expanded installation that would aesthetically reflect the interior of the cable car. I also have a marquette in mixed media of the car; its tracking system and pylons in situ to inspire me during filming. There are also a number of poems inspired by the Dursey cable car that I would like to include to enhance the viewer’s experience.
Lastly, if there is anything you’d like to discuss pertaining to art that was not mentioned in the above
questions, please share here.
Increasingly, art has moved into the social and political arena and artists are akin to activists raising issues and exploring those stories and voices of the under represented or marginal. I believe that art with its
emphasis on the senses and materials and memory and by also creating collective immersive experiences makes a unique contribution to raising awareness and starting positive dialogues as well as creating spaces for dreaming and the imagination.