Wendy Miles describes her 12-month project creating a sculpture trail through the grounds of An Sanctoir, Ballydehob in West Cork. The trail opens for Saturday, June 14 and Sunday, June 15
I recently read with interest an article in The Visual Artists Ireland News sheet, titled ‘Has the artist been paid?’. After completing the innovative four-year BA in Visual Art course delivered by DIT on Sherkin Island, I found this question particularly relevant. How is one to achieve paid employment in the field of visual art? During my first year after graduation I submitted my work to many exhibitions both local and national. After three major exhibitions, which generated a lot of interest in my work and yet ended up costing me money, I found myself penniless and on the dole. I decided to tackle the concept of exhibition from a different perspective, getting my work out into the public domain, engaging with the landscape in a dynamic way.
I approached Sam Simpson, the local TUS supervisor, and discovered that the scheme could employ me for a 12-month period if I found a placement with a community group that was not profit based. Sam asked how I would like to use the skills I had learnt on the Sherkin Island course. I replied that I would like to make a sculpture walk in the natural mountain landscape of West Cork. I soon discovered the perfect site.
An Sanctoir, a charity and natural healing centre with 20 acres of natural habitat/nature reserve, was open to such a project. They had wanted to make a nature walk through their grounds, and we quickly established that the sculpture trail would be an excellent method of creating both the route and the trail. A meeting was held on site between Sam Simpson of TUS, Dan Gray of the An Sanctoir trustees, Carola, secretary of the charity and myself, the artist.
We established a rough route, just less than a mile long, which I would clear into a walk, which would then become the exhibition space for my artwork. The route would be kept open and continue as a nature trail and public walk.
Creating the path through the undergrowth would be an art piece in itself; I had never made a path before, and here I was confronted with dense and hostile combatants: blackthorn thickets, sinky bogland and impenetrable bramble tangles. I use found objects and natural materials in my work, which is usually outside, embedded in the landscape. The indigenous West Cork landscape would be my canvas, and what better way to understand it than working with it, carving out the route with my own hands.
TUS provided me with a basic tool kit of strimmer, spade, wheelbarrow, loppers, secateurs, and small handsaw, plus waterproof jacket and trousers and several pairs of work gloves. I started by walking the route many times, hacking through brambles and undergrowth, marking the way with my footprints, noting obstacles, environments, and sites for the emerging art work. I found the boggy lake was, right up until October, home to many dragonflies. I discovered the ‘rock of the fine view’, a 360 degree panorama of rolling farmland, where some unknown creature ate acorns every evening, leaving the discarded husks for me to find each morning. I heard the flapping and quacking of wild ducks landing on the lake every night at dusk, my time-to-go-home sound.
Creating the nearly one mile long path took a long time, filling eight months of the twelve-month project. I became fitter, stronger and started enjoying all weathers, but also, I became quietly aware, a part of the landscape I was working with.
I wasted a lot of time applying for grants and funding, before realising that it was more appropriate to accomplish this project without outside funding. This had become an outsider art project in more ways than one.
I decided to call the exhibition ‘Sanctuary’, to represent the energies of An Sanctoir as well as the nature reserve in which I was working. I harvested green willows, brown hazels and red dogwood branches for weaving nests and structures. Wood piles previously collected of gorse branches, willow and blackthorn sticks became ready-made resources. Ideas which had formed, as I cleared the route seemed to know their site and belong there before I’d begun to make them. The sculptures grew, not in an intellectual way but rather innately, from the hands-on interaction with place and materials.
On a more serious note, a pile of burnt rocks found on site form part of a Memorial to the Unknown Civilian, remembering those to whom sanctuary was denied. This particular piece is an interactive installation, and viewers are invited to complete the piece by offering their own found object, feather, flower or rock, from the land to lay at the Memorial over the opening weekend on June 14 and 15, acknowledging those to whom sanctuary was denied.
I began to realise that the viewer had a different role in this exhibition, adding their footsteps on the path, actively imprinting the trail into the landscape, as other footsteps marked out years ago through these woods and across these fields — an old style way of marking the landscape.
But also what audience? An active, participating, walking audience, immersed in, experiencing the wild West Cork landscape, far from both tarmac and gallery space.
The trail opens for Saturday, June 14 and Sunday, June 15, 12 noon until 6pm, and costs €5, (12 to 16 years half price, children go free.) The cover charge covers costs of materials, and surplus will be donated to the An Sanctoir charity. All are welcome, wellies or waterproof footwear is advised, An Sanctoir is first left turn, one kilometre from Ballydehob on the N71 main Bantry road.