Eithne Jordan is an Irish artist who has worked for over four decades, producing work that hums with understated intensity and poise.
She divides her time between France and Ireland, having also lived and worked in Germany. She has exhibited widely in Europe, and is a member of Aosdana and the RHA. Her work is in major public and private collections in Ireland, Europe and the U.S.
In conversation with Beth for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Eithne talks about the complexity and nuance of being an artist and a mother, and how, though moving around a lot in her life, she has always ensured she has a studio space. She says: “The discipline and routine of going in to your workspace every day is fifty percent of being an artist.”
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 motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
EITHNE: My earliest memories as a kid are of sitting at the kitchen table drawing as my mother painted. She went to art college, and painted all her life, but she would never have called herself an professional artist. There was a very macho environment in the art college when she went. She used to say there was an attitude towards the women students that they had gone there to find husbands. She painted at the kitchen table, but then had to clear everything away at the end of the day.
Because of her, I was always painting and drawing. I was good at it – and you know when you’re a kid you kind of get labelled with what you’re good at? It was always assumed I would be an artist, and I have to credit both my parents for always encouraging me.
So it came naturally. But I was very aware that the big pitfall for women was getting married and having kids, like my mother did. The women who started out as artists didn’t continue once they were mothers.
So the idea of becoming a mother was very conflicted for me, and when I became pregnant I had a huge fear that I wouldn’t be an artist any more. I was determined that wouldn’t happen to me, and as a result I never gave myself time off to relax and be an earth mother for a while when my son was very little. There were few enough women artist role models at that time, and the ones that did exist didn’t have kids. This was in the eighties.
I think the greatest lesson I learned was how to adapt. You learn to work where and when you can. And the experience of motherhood would not only shape my work process, but also become an inspiration and a rich subject for my paintings in that period of my life.
As an artist you have to have an ego – but women tend to be bad at self belief. We feel guilty about being egotistical. But, to be an artist you need a kind of arrogance. There has to be a drive there, a sense that you are doing something meaningful, that your work is important, worthwhile.
There are some people who are very talented but don’t continue, maybe because they don’t have this arrogance.
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.’
I’ve always had a studio. For me it is totally fundamental to have a space where you work and where you don’t do anything else. I’ve moved around a lot, but I always made sure that I had that. The discipline and routine of going in to your workspace every day is fifty percent of being an artist. Sometimes I’ll go in to the studio and not do much – but just the fact of being there means there is a possibility that something might spark.
When I left art college I went to London where I got in with a bunch of other artists and we set up a large shared studio. A lot of people find it very hard to go it alone straight out of college. I was very aware that I didn’t want to work in isolation – I wanted to be in an atmosphere of other people doing the same thing. That has been a big part of my life, working alongside other artists. When I moved back to Dublin from London I was involved in setting up the first co-operative studio space in Dublin at the time. I’ve been working in my own space for years and years now, but when you’re starting out a collective is a great way to help you be more professional about your work.
I’ve always lived the balancing act. In the eighties I wanted to get out of Ireland and had applied for a scholarship to work in Berlin. I got it, and then when I realised I was pregnant there was this big question about if I should change all my plans. But in the end myself and my partner went to Berlin with our baby, Timmy. We took over a warehouse with artists that we met, and we were living there too. There were no creature comforts, and it was freezing in the winter, but my son was like the studio mascot. Family life just became absorbed into the working situation. We muddled along. Timmy’s home was his pram and the studio – he was this little nomadic creature and we just took him everywhere with us. The thing about Berlin was it was cheap and easy to access really good childcare. When he was old enough he went to kindergarten.
When myself and his dad broke up I came back to Ireland and I remember so well the difficulty of trying to make it work as a single mother in Dublin. I managed to afford to pay a childminder to collect my son from school a couple of days a week so I’d have a longer work day. It was such a tight balancing act to get those hours, and then the school would, without warning, announce that there was a half day or something and the whole arrangement would fall apart. I remember how totally incensed I would feel at the school’s assumption that they could do that because of course there’d be a woman at home. I despaired of the way that Irish society is structured for women and children.
Then I bought a house in the South of France, it was a place where I’d go to work for a few months of the year. But after a period I realized I could live there in a house that has a studio and my son could go to the school in the village – I could have a normal life with my child if I left Ireland. These kinds of considerations have shaped my life.
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?
It’s very important; but I’m not very good at managing it myself. The ideal situation for me is to be with a good gallery who does that for you, and then I’m very happy to pay them the fifty percent. But at the moment I’m in a situation where I don’t have a gallery so I’ve replaced it by doing projects with museums and curators, and by working with non-gallery agents who have an online presence and do individual projects. Also by selling directly to my collectors. It’s important to collaborate and bounce ideas off other people, to work with curators, galleries, and other artists, – that’s the way I get projects moving. One of my philosophies is to always work with people I like and communicate well with. So yes, that all demands time and effort, and nothing much will happen without it. It’s hard at the moment with Covid, of course, as all the normal ways of meeting and networking are not there – also galleries are closing down, the art world is changing, and I don’t know what it’s going to look like in the aftermath.
So yes, showing your work is important. It’s very hard to work in a vacuum. You can do it for a while, but you need the sense that your work is out there, in conversation with people. Aside from making a living.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt. 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 think all artists go through self doubt. That’s where the arrogance is very important, to keep you going!
For me, when I’m feeling the work is crap, I have to just work through it. I just doggedly go into the studio and produce work and hope it will spark. It’s an unpleasant thing to have to go through, but I’ve gone through it many times. Often it will happen after a big exhibition, when you go back into the studio and find that you are empty. Or you’ll take your work off on a tangent and then find that it was a false lead, a false road, and you have to drop it and just go back to square one.
Sometimes a change of environment can help. I’ve done a lot of residencies – it can be very good to go to work in an unfamiliar space and without the distraction of all that stuff that Sylvia Plath talked about.
You have to have faith in what you do. Sometimes you can be working away and think it’s worthless, but later when you look back you realise that it was important to do that work; that it was leading to something.
Just keep showing up.