The main aim of the project was to create a body of personalized photographic works that related directly to the lives and homes of the long-term residents at St. Brendan’s Nursing Home; essentially bringing the ‘outside in’ from within a 15 mile radius, the distance or locale from which the residents are from.
The project aimed to have the work directly influenced and informed by the participation of the residents engaging with the artist.
Another aspect of the overall aim was to create and install images that made the participants’ new residence more home-like and less institutional.
For artist Ceara Conway, who has worked on a number of public art commissions, 15 Miles was an opportunity to create a new body of photographic work over a long duration in which the participants would essentially be directing the themes of the work but in which the artist’s ideas and capabilities would feature strongly and be an integral part of the work:
‘Over the past 12 years, I have been exploring the results and outcomes of various levels of authorship and engagement. This wasn’t my first time working with older people so I was prepared for the variation of engagement of approaches that were needed. I was also aware that each individual understood and appreciated the project on a different level. In some respects this often means that you feel like you are running a project whose meaning or concept changes depending on whom you are talking to, but I have learnt that is the nature of this work.‘
Galway County Council Public Arts Office invited a number of artists who were on the Galway County Artists Panel to attend a site viewing at St Brendan’s. The brief stated that the hospital wished for an engagement process to take place with the residents and that the work was open to all mediums. The artists were invited to submit a proposal for the board to consider and four artists were commissioned to produce work at St. Brendan’s.
The staff invited a group of residents to participate on 15 Miles whom they felt were best suited to the level of understanding needed for the engagement process and who also might enjoy it the most.
The initial phase of this commission entailed a period of one-to-one engagement between the artist and each participating resident. Through conversations, residents spoke about poignant places – their homes and locales – and what happened in these specific places throughout their lives. With their permission and direction (for example, homemade maps), the artist went out on the ground and spent up to a year photographing their homes and the locations that they directed her to.
The work that was produced became two distinct categories. The first category was photographs that were obviously more personal and for the private use and enjoyment of the residents; for example, their homesteads and friends.
The second category was a collection of photographs from locations the artist was directed to and which the artist took in response to images the residents described. For example, Larry Lee remembered that when his son was born he saw several magpies in the sky. Larry Lee passed away during the project, as did several other participants, which prompted the artist to choose an image related to him and his quote that ”Life is delicate” (slideshow image 3): ‘I knew that both myself and the staff and residents would connect his quote with his and other people’s passing.’
Throughout the process, the artist showed the residents smaller hard copy images that she was taking and engaged with the residents on these memories and recollections of specific places. Some stories and memories expanded after they saw these images: ‘Each individual that I engaged with had such individual full and rich lives. Some reiterated sentiments and personal philosophies that I felt were worth sharing with everyone. For example, when Micheal Ward told me he used to walk all over the country on his own with his cows, I was curious as to whether he ever felt lonely and so I asked him, and he replied, ”Lonely, I never knew what loneliness was.” It really touched me, because I can’t say that I or a great number of our current society know this level of ease with deep solitude.’ (Slideshow image 4)
During the year, residents also had a portrait day where they could have their portrait taken in a professional setting (slideshow image 5).
The physical work was produced in three ways:
Residents received hardback books containing a collection of photographs that related specifically to them (slideshow image 6). These books also featured illustrated sentences quoted by them, images of their homes and of their friends whom the artist met while in their local communities, and their portraits.
A large collection of images printed up to A1 on Perspex were installed throughout the nursing home (slideshow image 2); several of these images had text which included quotes from the residents.
Residents also received unframed copies of their portraits and smaller copies of all the images taken.
‘Aesthetic choices that I made included choosing images to install that did not necessarily have traditional or predictable compositions. Some of the images I chose had a melancholy mood, others were very abstract and very much inspired by the fantastical as well as the concrete memories that the residents had. I wanted the freedom to portray all kinds of atmospheres and feelings and not just happy ones. I also knew that the residents were receiving a collection of images of their homes, portraits and friends, so in this sense I felt all the boxes were being ticked in regards to everyone’s ”needs” for different types of images to be seen, including mine.‘
One aspect of the original proposal that wasn’t produced in the end was a large-scale projection on the outside walls of the hospital as a public event. Two factors ruled against the projection: most of the residents would not have been able to view the work and it would have taken up a large chunk of the budget. It was felt that funding would be better allocated to something tangible that the residents could hold or own.
The project has recently concluded and it is envisioned that an evaluation will be held between the artist and the Director of St. Brendan’s following the Open Day in 2015.
Throughout the project, the evaluation process was an organic one. During the writing up stage of the contract, the artist specifically requested that there be a nominated point of contact in the hospital. From previous experiences, she had learnt that not having a consistent in-house coordinator to liaise with makes for a poorly run project: ‘St. Brendan’s had a great understanding of the artistic process and have worked with artists before, so this was not an issue for them. It was always easy for me to arrange meetings and the communication was supportive, flexible and honest between all of us. Because I was involved with this project for well over a year it got to the stage where I would just pop in and visit residents or measure walls etc because by then I was known to the staff and residents.’
Ceara keeps a daily journal through which she reviewed and reflected on her work during the project and she also spoke to the residents on an ongoing basis.
The artist wasn’t required to give feedback to Galway County Council Public Arts Office: ‘In my experience the stronger the relationship and support I have with the organisation or community I am working with the less input I need from the Arts Office. At all times with 15 Miles, I was aware that If I needed the support or assistance of the Galway Arts Office that they were available.’
Artist Ceara Conway reflects on the outcomes and challenges of 15 Miles:
I felt that the residents responded positively to the project. Following the installation of the work, I observed them having conversations with the staff and their friends about the images and could sense a feeling of identification and ownership between themselves and the work.
The engagement process was an ongoing and close one with one outcome being that I built friendships and connections with residents over time.
The images that were printed and installed throughout the nursing home look great. However, reflecting on the project as a whole, I feel that perhaps the residents would have preferred more images printed and hung in their rooms. One resident requested several framed images in her room which she received. I feel that I could have allocated more for their private room spaces in addition to the books that they received.
As with all public art commissions, challenges include things such as health and safety regulations which mean the work always needs to be created and produced to specific standards so as to minimize any hazards or accidents. Within a healthcare environment the work has to be able to be cleaned and washed, regulations which are completely understandable and acceptable, but nonetheless do affect the outcome and forms of the work.
One aspect I often find difficult with large public commissions is financially covering the total production costs of the work until I have been paid the final fee. Without large capital funds, it can make this way of working at times fraught with financial anxiety.
With St. Brendan’s residents, I was aware that this was their homes and their living space and that they would be living with the work every day. I saw it as my responsibility to create something that they could hopefully enjoy, relate to and engage with. It’s a balance between producing work that someone will enjoy while also not dumbing down the output or production for what might be considered a non-contemporary arts audience.
The staff and Director were wholly on board each step of the way, open to the artistic process and open to being flexible when the process asked for it.
‘It was a pleasure to be in engaged in this arts project; the process involved was as important as the artistic outcome. We chose to work with an artist who exhibited excellent interpersonal skills and a willingness to spend time with the residents of the unit. This time was greatly valued by the residents who were clearly invigorated after each encounter. As the process of engagement drew to an end these same residents were delighted with the final product. The individuals concerned now proudly show off their portraits and books to all who visit. The memories captured on photograph which are displayed through the unit beautifully enhance the environment and are thought-provoking. It is evident that the artist found inspiration in her encounters with the older people while the experience added to the quality of life of the residents. The benefits of involving the arts in residential care cannot be underestimated.’
– Bernie Austin, Director of Nursing
Documentation and Dissemination
During the project, the work was documented by the artist through photographs and also through audio recordings of the conversations she had with the residents.
Images from 15 Miles can be viewed on the project page of the artist’s website: http://www.cearaconway.com/#!15-miles
For the Bealtaine Festival in May 2015, Director Bernie Austin is organizing an open day to highlight and showcase each Public Art Commission that took place at St. Brendan’s, with the commissioned artists – Ceara Conway, Tommy Hayes, Marielle MacLeman and Eileen Gibbons – present on the day.
The project partners are currently seeking further platforms to showcase and discuss the works and commissions that took place.
St. Brendan’s Nursing Home