This is a multifaceted public art project using an array of materials and methods with a primary focus on interactions and stories. The project outline is based around four main themes which all interlink:
- The focus on the history of the Sacred Heart Home and its existing site offered the staff, visitors and service users an opportunity to pay homage to those who suffered on this site throughout history.
- A compilation of stories surrounding the old Irish dancehalls through photographs provided by Duffy’s Photography Collection was a starting point for conversations and memories.
- The symbolism of the crane bird and its associations with memorials, longevity, ritual dance and dignity as seen in Japan were adopted to complement the turbulent history of the Home.
- How art plays a major role in preserving the Home’s identity: With this, I had a strong desire to showcase the importance of the existing weekly art workshops in the Sacred Heart Home, which are run by resident artist Tom Meskell. After conversations with Tom, I became acutely aware that art played an important role not only in documenting the Home’s history, but also as a therapeutic outlet in a safe social setting, specifically for people with dementia.
The first week of the project was spent walking the corridors meeting and greeting the people of the Sacred Heart and finding my bearings. Taking into account that I am a local in Castlebar, having served many of these people in a nearby shop over the years, this process allowed me the time to define my new role.
With the construction of the new wing building offering a fresh start, there were concerns that many of the paintings hanging in the corridors from decades gone might be disposed of. It was my intention to immediately photograph and document as many paintings as possible.
With the constant support of Tom Meskell, and the staff from the different units, I began interacting with the short-stay users who are primarily in rehabilitation after strokes. The starting point for our interactions was old photographs I acquired from Gerry Duffy (of Duffy’s Photography Collection) who happened to work in the new wing building and is also my father. These old photographs are a rare documentation of the old dancehalls around the Castlebar/ Mayo area and the people who attended them. I listened, and observed how other people became involved in the conversations. Whatever direction the conversations took they always seem to find their way back to dancehalls and dancing.
I used the bedside as a space of interaction as most people bounced off each other in the open wards. In some cases there were less people involved, sometimes it was me and one other person. The wonderful staff often chipped in as well. They were like the extended family or friends of the residents. With staff, visitors, family and residents, it was a community that truly functioned effectively.
In time, I began to introduce a recording device to the conversations. I started to meet people in the Day Centre, and soon after residents in the long-stay units. The group conversations varied in size and we gathered in a small room, preventing the background noises from distracting the flow. Some people talked more predominantly, while others were happy to simply listen. A recurring topic was the comparison of today’s youth with when the service users were young. One woman spoke about how ‘she doesn’t see too many young people’, while another said that ‘young people tend to not come to the Sacred Heart’. So, at this point we introduced the schools to the conversations.
The students of St Louis NC Kiltimagh came into the Day Centre and played music, while other students helped the service users make origami paper crane birds. Their hands rubbed off each other’s as they made their creations. The crane birds were a symbol of humility, and longevity, as well as an icebreaker in the exchanges. This intergenerational project was a joy to watch as the service users told the students stories from years gone by. As dance was a big part of all our stories, I designed dance steps floor stickers to enhance the conversations. The dance steps were then peppered across the corridors of the Home, teaching basic steps in jive, waltz and foxtrot.
Throughout the course of my time, I used the Sacred Heart art room as my studio space. Here, resident artist Tom Meskell was a constant support to all the participating artists, from induction to offering guidance to general information. While withdrawing to this space, I became fascinated with the recurrence of the drawn circle in the work of the residents. I’d like to state that the following project included circles that had no correlation with the ‘Clock Test’ which was commonly associated with dementia and stroke. Instead, the project offered a challenge for service users to link and complete a circle without stimulating the feeling of failure in the drawing. At this point, I designed wallpaper with colourful circles. Set inside the circle-like memory bubbles were photographs of residents from the old unit of St John’s.
The circle was to become a common feature in relation to dementia, but so too were hands. Hands and regaining the use of hands after stroke became a beautiful alternative to telling stories for those who had lost their speech. I began to take photographs of the hands of service users, staff, and visitors with the premise that ‘all hands tell a story’.
Tom’s mentoring encouraged me to consider the issue of consent, privacy and wellbeing in the work, and solidified my thinking in using hands, audio, footsteps and paper as chosen mediums for eventually installations. Tom challenged me in this process, listening to my concerns and allowing space to overcome obstacles, and became a defining factor in this residency being a success. It was inspiring to watch him working alongside the residents and service users on a weekly basis.
By this time, I began making a series of flipbooks to document the process of art in the Sacred Heart Home. There are six flipbooks in the series, cataloguing the paintings made throughout the decades; the hands of the people involved; the old dancehall days; the family photographs from the old unit; and images from the workshops. The flapping of the books demonstrates a progression of sorts, a journey, reminiscent of the motions of the crane bird while doing its mating dance. This concept of a flipbook translates my understanding of dementia and stroke. The motion and use of the hands creating a moving image that is not necessarily a full story as much as moment in time, a memory. It is a memory or a story that is neither true nor untrue, but a feeling that offers a shared experience, a reason to be in the presence of another.
Towards the end of my time on the residency, I began to see dementia as a circle drawn by the service user in the art room. The line starts at one point, it journeys around and finishes at the same point. A new circle is drawn. Is this a symbol of our own journey, or our memories?
I began to see the hands as symbol for stroke as they try to regain the use of their hand. We greet someone with a handshake, and we bid farewell to him or her with a handshake. When we spoke of dance while sitting around the table, we danced with our hands. The hand holds the stories of a lifetime with lines intersecting over rough or soft skin. Hands speak of journeys and memories that cannot be spoken in words.
‘Dance Steps’ is a collaboration with local dance instructor and Gaelgór Daithí Ó Gallchobhair, and sees a series of dance steps peppered across the floors of the Sacred Heart Home. This light-hearted artwork is intended to carry joy and laugher through corridors. The aim of this work is to encourage visitors, service users and staff alike to learn and engage with each other whilst reflecting on the old dancehalls. The Foxtrot and Waltz are the most prominent dance steps on display.
‘Flipbox Dance Stories’ are created by using handmade flipboxes. Each flipbox explores dancehall stories where 24 still images merge together to form a film while using a manual handle to activate it.
‘1000 Cranes, 1 Wish’ (Part 1) is an artwork made by the wonderful students of St Louis CS, Kiltimagh and the service users of the Day Centre, Sacred Heart Home. This project was initiated by teacher Aideen Ueno, in collaboration with The New Wing Art Project, as part of the Inter- generational programme. The Origami Crane Birds contain personal memories of the students, and messages to loved ones.
‘1000 Cranes, 1 Wish’ (Part 2) is an artwork made by the 125 enthusiastic TY students of St Josephs’ Secondary School, Castlebar, under the guidance of Ms. Ruth Fannelly and Ms. Anne Geary. This phase of the project explores the history of the Sacred Heart Home. The artwork is a memorial to those who lived and died in the ‘workhouses’ during the Great Famine. The Origami Crane Birds contain personal memories of the students, and messages to their Grandparents and loved ones. It is said that by making 1000 origami cranes you receive one wish.
‘Hands tell a story’ is a series of enlarged photos on vinyl. As you grow old, your hands contain stories and possess the character of your life’s work. Some hands are strong, thick and rough, unmistakable signs of hard labour, while others are soft, elegant and delicate having endured other tasks and memories.
‘The Ould Dancehall Stories’ is a series of audio conversations recording the residents’ stories of the dancehall days. The headsets are sporadically dotted around the Home for visitors to listen to. The chapters include ‘Dance the night away’, ‘Finding Love’, ‘Devilment in Tooreen’, ‘Pontoon is on fire’, ‘Ladies Choice’ and ‘End of an Era’.
‘Welcome Video’ was introduced to improve the experience of visitors to the Sacred Heart Home as they are informed on what the hospital has to offer. Local Gaelgór Daithí Ó Gallchobhair is our tour guide in the video. He introduces the different people associated with the home from the immensely supportive Nursing Director Carole King to the day centre staff to the Sacred Heart Home choir to the artist in residence to the local priest. Each person is framed and mingled with a series of residents’ paintings in a virtual gallery format.
‘Flipbook Stories’ are a series of handmade pocket-sized flipbooks documenting the various stages of the art project. Each flipbook comes with a handmade box, instructions on how to make an origami crane bird, and an image of the new wing building next to the 1961 image of the ‘County Home’ sourced from the Mayo County Library. There are six books in the series with four of the books on sale and all proceeds go towards the materials of the weekly Sacred Heart Home art workshops. The flipbooks series is a limited edition.
‘The New Wing’ official book publication is available for viewing in the corridors of the Home. It shares the history dating back to the workhouses, and extends to the new wing building encapsulating the different stages of this project. The book can be purchased online via the following link: www.blurb.com/b/9467289-the-new-wing
The residency was informally evaluated through artist discussions and reports towards the middle and end of the residency and through the mentorship of Tom Meskell. Regular meetings were held with Nursing Director Carole King in the latter stages.
The change of Nursing Director in the Home half way through the residency brought a certain amount of challenges to the advancement of the art. However, because of the great support and belief from the new director, who truly embraced the process of art, it allowed for a great experience and strong conclusion to the project.
The residency was unique in how my relationship with an already familiar setting was changed. It allowed me to explore how art in the Home impacted the visitor as well as the resident and staff.
At the centre of everything I did was the resident. Sometimes the conversations became emotional, intimate and intense. The process was at the pace of the resident at all times. This meant that any preconceived ideas, outcomes or expectations I had were quickly brought into check. Patience was something that challenged me greatly. Everything was slow and grounded, and my only job was to listen. When I listened, I learned. The stories may have been fact or fiction, but it wasn’t my place to decide. The stories brought joy, sadness, engagement, and realness in the present moment. I wanted the artworks to honour this. My time was spent with the residents between their routines and daily activities. They made time for me, and they made time for the students who visited. The residents shared a great connectedness to the students through conversations of dance and music. They seemed accepting of life’s losses and content in their own present. I wanted to portray this acceptance and joy of life to the visitors of the Home, by sharing these stories as a reflection of them still very much living, and not as portrait of a place where somebody comes to die.
Consent of residents, family, visitors and staff was always a key concern in this project. It was a challenging aspect of this process with so many residents having dementia. The concluding artworks reflect these concerns, with hands, feet, old paintings and audio becoming the primary form of art. Any flipbooks with images of people are held for use of residents only, and are solely for the purpose of viewing in-situ. The participating schools acknowledged the involvement of students, and permission to use any images was given by those schools. All of this was time-consuming but essential.
The aim was to improve the experience of the service users, the visitors and the staff alike through the process of art. I believe the entrance to the Home, which is the primary location of the artworks, offers a reminder to all entering the building that this is certainly ‘a home’ to some wonderful stories and experiences, whatever the history of the site might be.
Documentation and Dissemination
The end of the residency/ commission coincided with the official launch of the new wing building, which was opened by Minister Michael Ring and attended by a large gathering of the residents and local people of Castlebar in the Sacred Heart Home Church.
Custom House Studios and Gallery in Westport exhibited paintings by the residents (29 August – 22 September 2019), complementing the work produced during the art commission. The Sacred Heart Home resident artist Tom Meskell curated this exhibition titled ‘Ten years on – Art in the Sacred Heart’.
Throughout the residency/commission, photography and collecting old photographs from the families and old units played a key role; these photographs have been compiled in the publication of ‘The New Wing’ which was completed in August 2019. This book is an outcome of the residency/ commission, but is also documentation for the residents and participants of the project.
Sacred Heart Home
St Louis NS, Kiltimagh
St Joseph’s SC, Castlebar
Daithí Ó Gallchobhair