Reinventing the empty column of Place Offaly

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An outdoor exhibition of collage artwork by 5th and 6th year art students from St Brendan’s Community School has recently launched at the Birr Theater & Arts Centre. The artwork responds creatively to Emmet Square Birr’s Cumberland Pillar (empty column).

The exhibition was part of a larger event with the Irish launch of the publication “Empty Columns are a Place to Dream” by Ric Kasini Kadour. The reimagining of the empty column by the 5th and 6th year art students was facilitated by their art teacher Yvonne Claffey, visual artist Caroline Conway and collagist Una Gildea.

The creative approach taken was inspired by the 2021 exhibition in Emmet Square as part of Birr Vintage Week & Arts Festival. Led by Ric Kasini Kadour, New Orleans and with support from the Birr Historical Society, 18 collage artists from around the world researched, discussed, and responded to the Cumberland Pillar, its history, and contemporary issues of place, context and past, culminating in an open-air gallery.

At the launch of the exhibition on Friday 25 March, Amanda Pedlow, Offaly Heritage Manager and Creative Ireland Co-ordinator, said: “The Creative Ireland team at Offaly County Council really felt that the Empty project Columns encompassed the essence of the program, reimagining the column, a key architectural feature at the heart of Birr town, through such a creative and inclusive art project that connects locally and internationally.

“Empty Columns are a Dream Place – How to Use Monuments for Good and Evil” is one of the spectacular vernacular scheduled events taking place between the towns of Birr, Tullamore and Lough Boora Parklands. Spectacular Vernacular is a series of events, workshops, performances and outdoor events that focus on developing new creative networks and opportunities for Offaly artists and communities. He is part of In the Open | Faoin Spéir, an Arts Council funded program developed in response to the COVID-19 crisis and the emergence of the pandemic in the second half of 2021 and into 2022 with a variety of outdoor arts events taking place in public spaces across Ireland.
Arts Officer Sally O’Leary said, “The importance and success of a project such as ‘Empty Columns is a Dream Place’ within Spectacular Vernacular cannot be overemphasized. The aim of this curated programme, which takes place in the streets and bogs of Offaly, has been to encourage new artistic ground for our community to discover through collaborative projects. The theme of the program being to celebrate local stories, customs, creativity and community curiosity, exploring the rich heritage of the Midlands in a contemporary way. As such, ‘Empty Columns Are a Place to Dream’ was of great value to the entire program.
A hybrid in-person and virtual panel also took place with Irish collage artists Una Gildea (Dublin) and Anthony D Kelly (Mayo), alongside Laois Historian in Residence 2019-2020 Regina Dunne who published in 2021 “Opening a Window on the Past” a global reflection on the lives of two Laois women; Helen Maybury Roe (1895-1988) and Lucy Franks (1878-1964). Helen Maybury Roe was a medieval historian, from Mountrath, Co Laois and her mother, Anne Lambert Shields, came from Birr, from a family of renowned engravers and publishers.

American curator Ric Kasini Kadour and author of “Empty Columns are a Place to Dream” joined the panel virtually, as did collage artist Marta Janik, from Dom Kultury (Cultural Center), Warsaw, Poland.

Artist Caroline Conway said: “This project has placed Birr at the center of an evolving international artistic relationship, but has also deepened the scope of the community. Integrating the voices and ideas of Birr’s youth into a local and international arena has connected them physically and socially to the city’s built fabric and encouraged them to see the meaning of Empty Column architecture in a new light. . By the third day of the exhibition, the Artivive app had been viewed over 1,000 times, demonstrating the accessibility of the medium and the engagement of the local community.

The exhibition was designed to be mobile and after its launch at the Birr Theater & Arts Center it was moved to Emmet Square and then to the courtyard of Birr Castle Estate. For better viewing, simply download the Artivive app on your phone, open it, and point to the artwork to see it come to life. The publication ‘Empty Columns are a Place to Dream’ by curator and artist Ric Kasini Kadour is on sale at the Birr Theater & Arts Centre, Birr Castle Demesne and will be available online at the Offaly History Bookstore – offalyhistory.com.

Emma Nee Haslam, Director of Birr Theater & Arts Center said: “Having enjoyed the Empty Columns project at Birr last year, we spent some time with Caroline Conway exploring how to develop it further and in particular the open to young people in the region. As always, the Art Department at St Brendan’s Community School was wide open to this opportunity and we are very proud to be able to make this project possible. As a delivery partner for In The Open/Faoin Spéir, this is a great opportunity for us to contribute to the contemporary art scene, not just in Birr, but in the wider region. Bringing students together to engage with professional Irish and international artists is highly beneficial to their artistic and personal development and wellbeing and we look forward to more such projects in the months to come.”

As part of the Vernacular Outdoor Spectacular | Faoin Spéir and over the next few weeks an exciting array of work at Tullamore will include showcase exhibitions with Breda Mayock’s ‘Crowned – Exploring Black Hair Culture’ at Tullamore Library and Diana Bamimeke’s textual intervention at Tullamore Bridge Center. Tullamore Station will host a captivating mural by one of Ireland’s leading street artists and activists, Joe Caslin.

“Empty Columns Are a Place to Dream” was funded by the Birr Theater & Arts Center and is part of the Spectacular Vernacular – Making the Ordinary, Extraordinary, In the Open/Faoin Spéir program funded by the Arts Council and County Council of Offally. Website: InTheOpenOffaly.ie. Facebook.com/InTheOpenOffaly

In the open air | Faoin Spéir Offaly is funded by the Arts Council of Ireland and is a collaborative partnership led by Offaly County Council’s Arts Office with Birr Theater and Arts Center and Birr Festivals Collective. The aim is to develop an exciting and innovative program of outdoor events held in Birr, Lough Boora, in conjunction with the Sculpture Park and Tullamore, ahead of the opening of the town’s new arts center the next year. In the open air | Faoin Spéir aims to generate a sustained and curated program of multidisciplinary and inclusive arts activities in public or open spaces in cities and communities across Ireland until April 2022.

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