The pandemic has prevented American artist Randall Exon from visiting the remote village of Ballycastle on the north Mayo coast, for what would have been his 23rd consecutive year. Winner of the 2004 Thomas Benedict Clarke Prize, an award running since 1883 for the best composition of American figures at the National Academy of Design in New York, the widely traveled painter says Mayo was “beyond all expectations” that he had known before. .
He is referring to his residency fellowship at Ballinglen, the charity, arts foundation, gallery and museum which is now celebrating its 30th year since its inception in 1992.
The brainchild and dream of husband-and-wife team Margo Dolan and the late Peter Maxwell, it was created to bring both established artists and young emerging artists with world-renowned abilities to live and work in the wilderness of North Mayo.
Funded by the Arts Council, Mayo County Council and Creative Ireland, the scheme sees an average of 40 artists settle each year from around 400 applications. The marked difference with Ballinglen from other artist programs is that in addition to warm, well-lit studio spaces, artists receive a cottage where they can bring family and friends for the duration of their residency.
Currently in residence is American artist Roger Chavez, who arrived from Philadelphia with his wife and two children – who once attended the local school while their father captures the whims of the North Mayo sky: “This It’s not just the landscapes, which are dramatic, but it’s the people of Ballycastle, they go hand in hand with the art”.
The foundation, which is a registered charity and does not sell work (rather, it refers inquiries to artist agents and representative galleries) also offers educational courses, of which around 30 operate on an annual basis. Onsite and a great reference resource is the Dolan Maxwell Library, Founder’s Gallery space in New York, alongside a great selection of books donated by the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.
A fortnight ago, actress Michelle Pfeiffer shared her attendance at a lineage painting class led by artist Catherine Kehoe in Ballinglen on Instagram, along with a video of the locality which she describes as “may- to be the most beautiful place on earth”.
The remote village of Mayo, perched on a bog that descends to the remarkable sea stack of Downpatrick Head, has a population of around 300. At its peak each year, the foundation has around 30 people engaged in its day-to-day running, providing local employment and visitors taking art classes – normally twelve at a time – are housed locally.
In response to the success of the residency program, the foundation has built up a body of over 850 contemporary works – in which guest artists donate a work of art. These are shown every year in specially curated exhibitions at the Ballinglen Museum: “It has been a goal for about a decade to have a suitable display and storage area,” says Una Forde, Managing Director of Ballinglen , “and it is a privilege to see how artists produce a body of work in response to a place I love and call home”.
Currently in the museum, Norman Ackroyd, Acid painting. Produced over five decades, the body of 62 works shows Ackroyd’s relationship to the west coast of Ireland and includes watercolors and his signature prints. In tandem are two BBC shorts, in which the artist shows how he works to capture his enigmatic scenes from the west of Ireland.
Household names such as Diana Copperwhite, Tom Climent, Comhghall Casey and Donald Teskey are also part of the impressive contemporary collection, as are works by Dublin-born artist Nuala Clarke.
After finishing at NCAD, Clarke headed to the lights of New York. But in 2007, after her first residency in Ballinglen, she began to return several times a year and eventually decided to move to the North Shores of Mayo where she is now engaged as Curator of Learning at the foundation. “The network of artists here is incredible. I know more artists here than in New York, and the conversations are of high quality. I think it’s because it’s a creative and non-commercial space that the artists in the collective are so open”.
Alongside artist residencies and courses for adults, the foundation also offers around 30 educational courses for children, which take place in the new print studio.
Ballinglen Gallery, another exhibition space, is currently showing a solo exhibition, Signifiers by American printmaker and fellow Ballinglenian Claudia Fico, whose work is held in public and private collections around the world.
Although its location on the Wild Atlantic Way has helped attract visitors to the village of Ballycastle, there is no doubt that the magic of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in this small Mayo village on the edge of Europe’s precipice will continue to attract and fascinate artists from all over the world. . ballinglenartsfoundation.org