Irish-Newfoundland journey

Tara Bradbury
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Artists explore the plant links between two cultures

In Irish mythology, the god of medicine was said to be DianCécht. His son, Miach, was also a healer and, after he was able to heal a king who had lost his right hand in combat, caused his father to become jealous. DianCécht killed his son, feeling he was a better healer, and buried him.

Emma Bourke is one of the Irish artists taking part in “The Ireland Newfoundland Trail; A Journey of Plants and People” — a joint project involving artists from Ireland and Newfoundland to explore the role plants played in linking the two cultures. — Photos by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

From Miach’s grave, explains Irish artist Emma Bourke, 365 herbs and plants grew, each one corresponding to a different part of the body and presenting a cure for various ailments.

“There’s believed to be 365 joints and sinews in the body,” Bourke explains. “Miach’s sister, Airmid, was cataloging (the herbs and plants), and their father came along and mixed it all up, so to this day, we don’t know the virtues of all the plants.”

Local artist Margaret Walsh Best has long had an interest in studying Irish plants, specifically those that made their way to Newfoundland as another element to Irish settlement here. Immigrants wanted to re-create a home that was similar to the one they had left behind, and while some seeds and plants arrived here having been lovingly folded into pieces of fabric, others came by accident, in the hems of pants or on the soles of boots, in mattresses, packing material or ships’ ballast.

Walsh Best, a painter, has been depicting these plants, which include buttercups, foxgloves and nettles, for quite some time, and recently put together an art exhibit featuring artists from both sides of the pond to explore the plants’ path.

“The Ireland Newfoundland Trail: A Journey of Plants and People” features artists from the Southern Shore and across Ireland, including Bourke, who is exhibiting a number of glass pieces.

Having recently completed a master’s degree in glass, Bourke specializes in flamework, and is exhibiting a number of pieces in the show. Among them are a free blown and hot-sculpted glass pod, flameworked blue bell and snow drop, and tiny hemlock flowers, encased in 365 miniature glass bottles.

Hemlock, she says, is common in Ireland, growing on the side of the road, though it’s highly poisonous.

“Something like eight petals will kill you,” she says. “In modern times it’s used as a sedative, but it was most famously used as an execution method by the Greeks. Socrates famously took it. You get paralyzed from the feet up and you die because your respiratory organs fail and you don’t get oxygen to your heart and lungs, You’re completely aware while your body is shutting down, so you can reflect on your sins.

“What I’m really interested in is a lot of the mythologies and I made 365 of these jars with hemlock in them. I made each petal separately and assembled each head separately.”

On each tiny jar, Bourke has put a label with a word associated with hemlock: words relating to Socrates, Shakespeare, murder and the various ailments said to have been cured by the plant, including asthma and rabies.

Arlene Shawcross is another artist from Ireland exhibiting her work in the show. Inspired by her love of roses (and her maiden name, Rose), Shawcross used delicate hand stitching and free-machine embroidery to create intricate, delicate laces.

Her work is often created on a soluble plastic — she draws her own designs on the plastic, stitches them, then dissolves the plastic to create a softer, free-flowing piece, incorporating hand-dyed textiles like silk, viscose velvet and taffeta.

Walsh Best has paired each Irish artist with their local counterpart: Bourke is paired with Nicola Hawkins’ detailed and colourful stained glass and copper foil panels, while Shawcross is paired with Stephanie Barry’s hand embroidery on digital photo transfer. In many cases, the paired works complement each other; in others, they serve as lovely contrasts. When it comes to jewelry, for example, Walsh Best has juxtaposed Irish artist Sabrina Meyns’ incredibly delicate pieces made of handmade paper, seeds and precious metals with Don Beaubier’s solid and substantial silver pieces with precious stones.

Other local artists participating in the show are Frances Ennis, Maxine Ennis, Ray Fennelly, Bonnie Johnstone, Peter Sobol and Walsh Best, who is exhibiting a large, softly-executed watercolour of buttercups.

“The Ireland Newfoundland Trail: A Journey of Plants and People” exhibited in Ireland last year. It’s running at the Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Council Gallery at 59 Duckworth St. until Oct. 19.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Council Gallery

Geographic location: Ireland, Newfoundland, Southern Shore

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