For Dublin's Artists, Life Under Lockdown Presents More Uncertainty

Film artist Michael Dignam was fresh off the plane from London when lockdown hit. He arrived on St Patrick’s Day, and is staying with his girlfriend on Camden Street. He hasn’t yet made it back home to Tallaght.

“It’s actually worked out pretty well for me so far. I got commissioned to do two new pieces of work.”

One of the commissions is a follow-up to a show he had two years ago, called Suburban Cookie Collector. That project documented his years growing up in Tallaght, and was shown in the Rúa Red Gallery.

His other commission is a piece documenting his experience since he got back, “filming all the boarded-up pubs and whatnot, and the empty building sites”, he says. This one is being funded by the Arts Council’s Crisis Response Fund, for artists whose work was hit by the pandemic.

Mostly, it’s been nice to find the time, Dignam says. “Most artists have a part-time job to finance their life and their art practice. Covid enables me, among others, to go full-time as an artist.”

The empty streets and building sites make for a “weird eeriness” around the city, which is pretty unique, he says.

Most of the footage for his city-centre project is filmed now, and he’s hoping the work will be out in a few months.

“It’s like a dystopian film. It’s sad, but it’s beautiful at the same time.”

In April, the Arts Council and Department of Culture brought in a package of schemes to support the arts community. This includes a €1 million fund – with awards of up to €3,000 – for new work during the pandemic.

Though it has helped some, like Dignam, others have said the package is out of touch and not enough to get by on. Among these is the group #ARTS_BLACKOUT.

The group’s petition for artists to boycott the package called it “wholly inadequate to the scale of the crisis in our sector and disconnected from the reality of artists’ living and working conditions”.

Studio Art

Shane Keeling, known as “badman” by his peers, is a multi-disciplinary artist and graduate of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). He usually specialises in making large-scale ceramic sculptures.

Since lockdown, his portraiture work is getting commissioned more, since a lot of people are doing up their homes, he says.

He’s also focused on refining his practice, rather than preparing for exhibitions. “My work has really benefited from that”, he says. He usually has to work a part-time job in a bar.

Keeling says that the government has provided adequate support since the lockdown began. He has been offered the opportunity to mentor two primary-school workshops over Zoom in recent months.

He also applied for the Arts Council’s Crisis Response award. He didn’t get it, but as an artist, you need to be used to working on a limited budget anyway, he says.

There’s a downside, too. All of his exhibitions are either cancelled or postponed, which means he’ll be out of pocket. His studio is also outside of his five kilometre limit, so he can’t produce large-scale works.

“I can’t get my ceramic works fired, which has put a hold on some of my commissions. It’s been difficult having to correspond with the people who have commissioned me and hope they’re understanding,” he says. Thankfully, he says, a lot of them have been.

Getting supplies and equipment is proving difficult too, “but it’s made me more resourceful,” he says. “That will aid me for the future and potentially change my style, hopefully for the better.”

When making two-dimensional work, he usually uses ready-made canvases. Now, he’s been fishing in skips for scrap wood and anything at all he can paint on.

“I’m getting new results working with these materials I probably wouldn’t have been working with otherwise.”

In the long-term smaller gallery spaces and studios are likely to close, he says, but artists are becoming more resourceful.

He’s seen a good few displaying their work on the DART for example. “My peers are becoming more adaptable to where they show work. Maybe this just forced their hand a little.”

A Period Of Uncertainty

Artist Laura Fitzgerald is based in Dublin’s Fire Station Studios, where she works in video, text and drawing.

“When all my shows became uncertain, I started doing things that I’d put off for ages,” she says.

“I bought a sewing machine in Lidl. A friend of mine from NCAD is very good at sewing. She offered to give me WhatsApp video tutorials,” she says. Right now, her homework is making bunting.

Fitzgerald is keeping to a strict routine during the pandemic in order to maintain focus. She runs and meditates daily to keep herself from “drifting”.

“Artists are always self-motivated to do work. It’s reinforced that sense of giving yourself a timetable and structure in the day,” she says.

Before the pandemic, Fitzgerald worked part-time in a pub in Kilmainham. “It was a great way to expel a different kind of energy,” she says, and studio practice can be pretty solitary.

She found it very hard to focus for the first while, which she says other artists feel too.

A lot of Fitzgerald’s work often looks at day-to-day life, with a lot of absurdity and humour.

She finds it ironic that one of her recent exhibitions featured three beehive huts, with meditations playing inside about “the world ending, or about the world becoming a different place”, she says.

Artists live in a lot of uncertainty already she says, “so this is the world catching up”, with them.

“For a lot of people their earnings are down. The crisis has really brought to life that artists are often living in a very precarious place financially,” she says.

One by one, her upcoming exhibition venues came forward and said they had to postpone her shows. She also teaches every summer in an art school with mostly American students. All of that is cancelled now too.

The Fire Station Studios houses about nine artists, and everyone stayed. “Straight away everyone’s shows got cancelled and postponed,” she says.

“I was booked up for the year. I remember saying before Covid happened that I couldn’t take on any more shows because I couldn’t physically get them done.”

Bit by bit, the venues came back, and rescheduled three of her shows for September, she says.

“Now that I know they’re there, I’m working away.”

Acting and Music

Matthew Malone is just back from a bike ride. Before that, he was swimming in the sea.

The actor is hard-focused on keeping fit during the pandemic, so he can be ready for whatever work comes next. He’s done some television work, but his great love is the theatre, and often it can be pretty close-quartered.

“I miss collaborating. I miss working with others. At the end of the day, you’re always working towards an audience,” he says.

The last job he had was in the production of “Faultline” with production group ANU looking at the social history of the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland.

In a parallel universe, Malone says he should be in rehearsals for his debut at a popular Dublin theatre right now.

Matthew Malone in Faultline. Photo by Pat Redmond

“Like any role you audition for, you fall in love with it. Hopefully that job is postponed and not cancelled, but who knows what postponement looks like now,” he says.

“This has confirmed to me that acting is the thing I want to be doing. I just have to miss it,” he says.

Before the pandemic, acting was Malone’s main source of income. He’s since returned to teaching English and maths grinds to secondary school students.

“I wish the government was providing more support like other countries. I think they could be committing to more funding,” he says.

“The commitment to art and culture continuing to be made just isn’t there. They’re going to be left quoting Yeats for a long time if they don’t let us make art.”

Many of his artist friends have also had trouble getting the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment because their work is so irregular at the best of times.

One of the supports from the government’s 3 April support package was the Ireland Performs initiative, which aims to move performances online in partnership with Culture Ireland and Facebook.

“I can see the intention is good there, but it simply doesn’t reflect the process of how art tends to be made,” says Malone.

Musicians, Too

Cormac Moore has been a bass player and full-time musician for about 20 years. For most of that he was part of the Late Late Show’s house band, and before that in the house band for Tubridy Tonight. The band was originally called the Camembert Quartet.

Television work would take up nine months of the year, and the rest of the time he plays weddings and events.

“I lost all my work in my diary from the 7th of March. My opinion is we’d be lucky to be back working this year at all to be honest,” he says.

Though the Late Late Show has had performers in studio, socially distancing, there’s no point having a house band if there’s no audience, says Moore.

He’s focusing on home-schooling his kids at the moment. The rest of the time, he’s making promotional videos for bands he manages and for another quartet he plays in.

“This week’s one is Spandau Ballet’s “Gold”, done as a Latin bossanova,” he says, laughing.

Moore’s wife is still working, and the Covid payment is keeping them afloat right now, but he reckons musicians like him will be some of the last to return to work.

“Live music is going to be devastated, but when it does come back people are really going to want it.” He says he’s staying optimistic.

“When we’re opened up, if people can go out and enjoy live music they will appreciate it more than ever because it’s been gone. Once that happens, I’d be happy enough.”

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Zuzia Whelan: Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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