At Home: The Artist's Home
Today we visit Esther O'Kelly at home in Belfast. Originally from Wexford, Esther is a visual artist and a founding member of Vault Artist Studios, a community of over a hundred practitioners working across a range of disciplines.
Who lives in your home?
I live with my husband Paul and our two children.
How would you describe your home?
Our home is a charming Belfast semi, built in the 1930’s. It was tired and care worn when we bought it, over the years we have tried to restore it with integrity. We see it as mutually beneficial relationship, we look after the house and the house looks after us.
Has your home changed as life has had to change over the last year?
The lines between work and home have blurred during the pandemic. Boundaries have collapsed and the house has taken on multiple functions. Our home on a daily basis has a revolving carousel of duties, a place of work, rest, play, a classroom, a studio, a boardroom, a library. Every inch of the house needs to have a reason and pay its way, If any space or object has lost meaning, we’ve had to retire or reimagine it.
Can you tell us a little about your work?
I make paintings that respond to the landscape, they are a living atlas that encodes time, space and experience. A non-linear journey in a series of dreamlike states that ebb and flow. They are multiple moments fixed into one image; emotional triggers into the past, layered with voices and stories, childhood laughs, larks and loves that move in and out of memory.
These paintings celebrate the stories that make us Irish and the Ireland that makes our stories. They are an invitation for people to return to their own memories.
Do you paint at home or do you have a studio?
I’m a founding member of Vault Artist Studios, now a community of 106 multi-disciplinary practitioners. My space is a former classroom overlooking the Belfast hills. It is spacious and full of natural light, perfect for painting.
There is an air of devilment at Vault, an intoxicating atmosphere of fun and creativity. Being around a community of people doing what they love is inspiring. Their passion is contagious.
What inspires you?
All the things that makes us laugh and cry; early morning light, music, bravery, rule breaking and impractical clothing.
I try to read as much as I can and I listen to podcasts while I work. I’m enjoying the work of Manchán Magan who writes about what the Irish language tells us about who we are. He explores the lyricism, mystery and oddities of the Irish language, and the layers of ancient knowledge encoded within. I love that people spend time doing work like this, I find it endlessly fascinating and am so grateful for it.
My recent listening– ‘Fire Draw Near’ podcast by musician Ian Lynch (Lankum)–is a delicious rummage through the forgotten strange wilderness of the Irish music tradition. This show makes me miss live music in small spaces, sitting shoulder to shoulder on a bench.
Can you tell us who made the pieces in the photos?
The art we own is mostly by Irish artists. It informs us about ourselves and where we have been, it has the ability to energise us, make us remember, inspire us, and provide comfort.
By choosing to live with art, we are investing in the handmade which has often taken a career to make, this brings a palpable energy and is a privilege to have. When we love a piece enough to have it in our home, the connection can evoke powerful emotions. Art has become more important during lockdown because of its absence from the real world and our inability to access it.
The pieces pictured are by; Alana Barton, Jonathan Brennan, Clare Molloy, John Baucher, Alison Fitzgerald, Gavin Lavelle, Superfolk, Anna Donovan and Trish Belford.
Do you display your own art at home? Are there pieces you keep or are they always on their way to a new home?
The process of creating is very intense and I quite often live with them a long time before I decide that they are ‘done’. I usually have at least 3 pieces of my own work hanging at home at any one time. One particular hotspot is above the kitchen table which generates lots of family debate.
A painting has the ability to change the dynamic of a space, they have their own energy. One of the reasons I hang my work at home is to see them outside of a studio context, this helps me view them as independent pieces, free from the chaos of the studio. This is a final step toward resolving the work which helps me decide if they are ready for viewing.
It must feel great when someone buys a piece of your work, do you ever feel sad to say goodbye? You must put so much of yourself into each piece.
My family will tell you that I still squeal with excitement every time a collector invests in a piece. It’s the best feeling and confirms that the time spent in my studio, looking and exploring has meaning.
My paintings are an extension of me, they are my experience made visible. In the process of making, the connection is intense and can last a long time, but once they are finished I feel ready to move on and the paintings become independent. I’m never sorry to see a painting leave, a sale means that I get to paint more.
What is your favourite bit of your home?
We love our garden or the 'good room’ as we prefer to call it. It’s about this time of year that we start to open up the back doors and pour ourselves back into it. Paul is the gardener, he has worked hard each year to cultivate a beautiful space for our kids to play and for us to grow food. This year has been weird and time has felt very elastic, the garden feels like an area where we have some control. When you plant things, and wait for them to grow, you get a clearer concept of time.
We are lucky to have plenty of birdlife in our garden, this provides hours of watching. Our garden is a lovely reminder that all around us, nature carries on, oblivious to the worlds terrible problem.
Is there anything you’d like to change?
We are in the process of building a Tigín (small house) in our garden, this was brought on by a longing for a bolthole that can accommodate our every creative whim and a childhood obsession with forts. My husband is a designer and a home studio will also support his practice, a place of seclusion somewhere to sit and think.
It will be finished in a few weeks then we can spend the summer cultivating the route down the garden path. The journey from the house to this quiet space will be just as important as the room itself, a walk where the memory of domestic chores will dissipate, similar to the feeling I get turning the key in my Studio at Vault.
Where can people see more of your art?
I also work with the following Irish Galleries and Dealers