Dublin woman draws parallels between farming and artistry

Having developed an interest in painting animals while working on a project in Stradbally, Co. Laois, artist Mary Burke has gone on to showcase one of her large-scale farming inspired works at the recent Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) exhibition in Dublin.

The painting ‘Milking at Knockainey’ depicts Limerick farmer John McNamara’s milking parlor and is one of 26 paintings that made up her ‘At Home On The Farm’ exhibition at Limerick City Gallery of Art in 2021.

Known primarily as an urban or suburban artist who works in oil pastels which she describes as “refined crayons” Mary, who is from Goatstown on Dublin’s southside, became interested in farming life when she was asked by Laois Arts Office to take part in a project in Stradbally.

While the work there in 2015 focused on the residents of local houses, one was on a farm and sparked an interest in Mary in farming.

“I’m from the suburbs and wouldn’t have had direct contact with the land but my ancestors farmed in Tipperary, Waterford and Cork,” said Mary.

When the Limerick City Gallery of Art invited her to work in the county she suggested that she focus on farms. In 2019 she visited five farms across Limerick and worked on the highly detailed paintings during lockdown.

Mary is enthusiastic about all the farms she visited in Limerick, from Dan Browne’s barn and traditional farm buildings in Thomastown, to June Danaher’s pedigree Limousine suckler calves in Shangolden and David Ryan’s lakeside farm at Lough Gur, abutting a 15th century castle.

The highly successful Limerick exhibition depicted the facets of the various farms that were most important to the individual farmers or that made a particular visual impact on her. These included McNamara’s cattle, milking parlor and green pasture.

“In truth, I just wanted to capture the essence of their farms. There has been a tendency in the past to romanticise the Irish landscape,” said Mary.

“I wanted to avoid that. These are working farms that are functional and lived in. I wanted to convey a sense of the industrial farm infrastructure against the natural landscape.”

While the 100cm x 150cm milking parlor painting from this year’s RHA exhibition is still for sale, another of her large scale works from the Limerick exhibition depicting old tires on Dan Brown’s farm in Killmallock, which featured in the 2021 RHA exhibition, sold. It went back to Limerick.

‘Both farmers and artists often work very hard for very little reward’

Delighted to have had her work included in the RHA exhibition, Mary is currently working on a project tracing the places in which her grandmother lived. Mary said she would like to return to farming themes in the future.

“I was very struck by the sheer passion that farmers have and the sense of pride in and care for their animals,” she said.

“We hear a lot about greenhouse gases and all that side of things and I’m not saying that’s not important, but there is a whole other side we don’t think about.

“There is such a commitment among farmers that is similar to that found among artists. Both farmers and artists often work very hard for very little reward. Farming is hard work and farmers wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it.

“That passion was something I could identify with. There was a real sense of energy among the farmers I talked to and that surprised me more than anything,” said Mary.

“There is so much variety on farms. It’s an industry; it’s food production. It was very interesting to see that side of things. The farmers were very generous with their time and in allowing me access.”

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