Born in Cambridge, England and a graduate of Goldsmiths College in London, Rachel Parry made her way in the 1970s to the most southerly tip of Ireland to settle on the Beara Peninsula. Rachel often works with found objects and natural materials that are imbued with meaning of their own – meaning which is delicately amplified and simultaneously made strange by incorporation into sculptural form.
In conversation with Beth for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Rachel brings this same intuition and keen insight to examine the roll of art in her life, and of life in her art.
In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivated people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
RACHEL: “There are so many answers I could give to this question, and they all would be different and they all would be equally truthful. A thought I had is that there’s a difference between the impulse and the road. The impulse to create; and the road of living a life where you keep doing the work.
The impulse is a human quality I think. I think of the earliest cave paintings. In his book Underworld, Robert McFarlane talks of paintings of dancing figures made more than 2,000 years ago in a cave called Kollhellaren on the tip of the island Moskenes off the western coast of Norway. The people would have had to make the most arduous journeys in terribly difficult conditions in order to make those paintings. They worked in pitch black caves by the light of burning branches – the floor was covered in the traces of old burned torches. The compulsion to make that art was stronger than the significant obstacles.
Or I think of children: that impulse to create is just there in them. I was always making things. Making dens, collecting old pieces of broken pottery and fossils and laying them out in complicated patterns on the lid of the septic tank in the garden, drawing. I very clearly remember being five or six years old and doing pictures of girls with yellow hair for days on end. I can clearly remember what it felt like, that doing these pictures was somehow going to open up an understanding, produce an ‘AHA!’ moment. It was a laying out of something that was inside me.
These days I sometimes think it is a bit like casting out a net woven from all the strands of my life with a kind of unfocused prayer of intention, then paying attention, noticing what lands, taking a really good look and then thanking and honouring it through making something that I can offer back.
It is as if something has been given to me to hold for a while which is not mine and has nothing to do with me, like a butterfly alighting on my hand. The slightest grab or push and it will escape.
“…a total absorption in the process which brings a great feeling of relief“
“Then there’s the road. I think of this in terms of a good addiction. I need to give the work a hundred percent of my attention which means putting myself aside. During the making process there are constantly decisions that have to be taken about the work but alongside that is a total absorption in the process which brings a great feeling of relief. Time stops. My washing machine brain turns itself off which is magical. It feels healthy, vital and I want to keep doing it even when I haven’t a clue what or why I am doing it.
There’s a third element as well, and that is other people’s creative work – it has helped me so much. Those paintings in the cave, the writing about them, music, poetry; so many extraordinary wonderful things have been made which all help me so much to find a life that makes sense. It’s for this reason that I think part of the deal is to make the work public. The hope is that I might make something that is valuable to someone else, when other people’s work has made so much difference to my own life.
“…there was an expectation in my family that I should ‘be good’ at something“
“I could also say, in answer to what started me on this road: there was an expectation in my family that I should ‘be good’ at something; and a lot of tension around at home which probably contributed to both my brother ( who is also a maker ) and I being dyslexic. I was not ‘good’ at much except art and acting and running fast – times where I wasn’t feeling conscious of other people expectations. I failed many more exams than I passed. My brother went away to boarding school and I was quite isolated. At the same time, I had many privilages: access to materials – clay, paint, paper, a garden full of interesting stuff to dig up, art classes. There were paintings on the walls, and art books around me in the house.
All of this contributed. Asking why I am an artist is asking why I am me.
In this section we ask artists to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
“Meeting Cormac is also part of the road; that’s when art became a kind of love letter. It was the first time I’d had a relationship with someone who liked making stuff, and he already had this house in West Cork and we were able to live there together. We had no money at all and we made everything we could–clothes pegs, painted rugs on the floor, printed material for curtains and dug a garden – which is still a very important part of our lives. It was more than simply necessity– it was an act of love to make everything, and to make everything as beautifully as we could; to nest.
We weren’t making fine art at that stage, and there was an incredible equality in our relationship. Being in a marriage of two artists has been part of the balancing act for me. He was the first to start taking his fine art work seriously and making a studio etc.
Our daughter was very young, and I was determined not to give up any of the juggling. I had huge ideals. I wanted to live a life in which every aspect had been considered and applied with integrity: grow all my own veg, make my own clothes, teach my own child, change the world for the better, support my friends and family well. Concern for people seems to take up a huge amount of time and space and energy.
It surprises me now but it wasn’t till my forties I started to recognise gendered attitudes and expectations of myself that I’d picked up along the way but mostly in my childhood. My mother was an artist but she under-rated herself entirely and would only pursue her own work when my father gave her permission. Perhaps Cormac’s increasing public recognition and my then invisibility helped in some way to wake me up. At that stage I got very feisty and angry, and difficult to live with probably! I think those were our relationship lean years. But I became determined to have equal space.
“I remember working in the early years in my hut listening to the sound of my daughter’s breathing”
“My aunt Jo died and left me some money. She was the black sheep of our family. Our family was very good at never talking about anything. Aunt Jo was unmarried and had a baby who died – it was never ever spoken of. She had been to Art College and was a picture restorer. She was very special to me. When she left me some money I chose to decide it was mine and mine only, and I used it to build the little wooden hut that I ultimately worked in for most of my artistic life. Using her money to build a space to work felt like the ideal way to honour her.
I remember working in the early years in my hut listening to the sound of my daughter’s breathing. I had rigged up a baby listener all the way from the house to the hut. At that stage I only really could work after she had gone to sleep for the night.
“I do recognise, though, that I am using my privilege to create work of value“
“Privilege is a very difficult thing to talk about, but I wonder if it would be useful for your readers to hear about my current studio. I’ve only had it for two years, and I have it because I inherited money when my parents died. I almost don’t want people to read that because there’s so much shame tied up with the privilege of being well resourced. The inequality of it.
In my ideal world everyone would have the space and time to be creative. I guess I would want to say to anyone who is struggling – working dog-tired in the middle of the night at the kitchen table –“plates dropped” all over the floor – that it’s not their fault if it feels like a battle.
It’s something I’m painfully aware of during this Covid 19 time, the privilege of living in a beautiful place with clean air and everything we need. So I have complicated feelings about my new studio. I can sit here and tell you, without squirming, that I am a professional artist. My art sells for professional artist prices, and nearly everything that I make, does sell. But I work very slowly – I only make one or two pieces a year. So I haven’t built this studio with money I earned with art. I do recognise, though, that I am using my privilege to create work of value and I am immensely grateful that I can do it. This studio is like having a palace at the end of my life. It’s so wonderful I can hardly believe, every morning, that it’s mine.
“Into the studio every morning whether or not I feel like it“
“I have a routine. Into the studio every morning whether or not I feel like it. My work isn’t just confined to the evenings now; I can use all of my day. But it all depends on the weather because gardening is very important to me and we aim every year to grow all our own veg. In the last few weeks the weather has been amazing and Cormac and I have both been in the garden more than our studios. But if it’s not a busy time in the garden, I’ll be in the studio by ten thirty, break for lunch, and then back to the studio. I might stop for a tea break in the afternoon, but mostly I’ll just stay in the studio ‘til six. We share the cooking, so every second day I’ll cook. I don’t work in the evening any more, I’ve found as I get older that I don’t have the concentration to work at the end of the day. But during the day I find it very easy to spend long chunks of time focusing on my work.
“I love using the material as metaphor“
“I use a lot of stuff made by plants, animals, birds in my work (sometimes even dead birds or animals themselves). My dad was a zoologist, and for me natural objects hold great fascination. Often I find things around here washed up on beaches or on walks, and people post me things they know I’ll be interested in. I’ve used two barn owls that my brother posted me from England – one was road kill, another died on his doorstep, probably hit by a car. I love using the material as metaphor. I love the recycling aspect and that most of my materials don’t poison the planet.
In my new studio I have a most wonderful storage space with a chest freezer to keep things that I find – or bats that people might post me! That’s one of the ways I’ve made the new studio my own – because of the store room the studio space is beautifully uncluttered.
I also order things on the internet: I just recently bought a techtite –it’s a bi-product of a meteorite strike. Gases from the impact re-enter space and form into matter, hard black glassy space-ship-like rocks which then fall back to earth. Cormac gave me one years ago when we were courting, that he found in the dessert, and I wanted another like it but bigger for a piece I’m making.
I also use more traditional sculpture materials and these too I can easily order online or get in the local hardware shop.
BEING IN THE WORLD
Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
Rachel spoke on this subject already in the book Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process. So we quote her here: ‘Taking the finished work out of the studio is always tricky. As well as the worry that I haven’t really been able to do it justice, there is the problem of moving and sharing stuff which is often very delicate and fragile. But it has to happen. It has to be offered up. That’s the deal — and if it lands in a net cast out by someone somewhere just for an instant then it will have fulfilled its purpose.’
In conversation with Beth for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, she added:
“I don’t put enough effort into putting my work out in the world. I think I’m lazy about it. I spent three years making an installation for a show in the West Cork Arts Centre a few years ago. It’s a piece that’s deeply connected to India. At the time of the show I said I’m really going to show this in India, and after the show I did contact a number of galleries in India but never heard back. People said, Oh you should talk to the Indian Ambassador – but in the end I just put the whole thing aside. The piece is in my storeroom now. I’d love to know how to put myself out a bit more. I need to do a workshop or something.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?
“I am able to feel relaxed now, about being an artist. I don’t have any sense of being a sham anymore, like I did in the beginning years working in my little wooden hut. One thing that helped that come clear for me was Aidan Dunne saying in the Irish Times that my show was a highlight of the art year; that was a real moment of being acknowledged, it made a big difference. What has also made a big difference is the feedback I get from people who tell me my work means something to them, in the same way that I’ve often wanted to tell other artists.
Another thing that has helped with all the self doubt and other negative feelings over the years is something I call Paired Listening. Myself and another woman make space to talk together every week, half an hour each of talking, half an hour each of very deep listening. We don’t give any advice – we trust that the other person is capable of dealing with whatever they are dealing with. It’s a space where I can rant and rage and cry, and feel acknowledged, and then just get on with it.
I’ve always done the work. I’m so grateful that I have had a life where this has been possible. It was always easy for me to get into the workshop, but in the early years I maybe had trouble defining what I was doing there. Was I just taking some personal space? That is a very natural instinct for a young woman and a mother, to take some personal space. I thought sometimes that maybe that was all I was doing. But it has become very clear to me over the years that the self doubt is only a feeling, and feelings come and go – underneath them is a very deep rootedness in what I do.”