Inishowen-born artist Mary Toland says her latest collection of work is based on the idea of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.
Mary’s ‘Custodians’ exhibition is a series of portraits of people she knows. Her paintings are on display at Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Centre until October 29.
From Clonmany, Mary concedes that Donegal is probably best-known for its wild landscapes, but she says she has always been more taken by its people.
“It is the people that are the heart of Donegal for me. People fascinate me.”
“I have always been interested in portraiture and here and there have included portraits in my artwork.”
“The exhibition is based on the idea of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I used the theme ‘Custodians’ to give value to their endeavours.”
She explains how the process typically works before a face is committed to canvas.
“None of these portraits have been commissioned; on the contrary I have asked the people if I could paint them. I know all of them and am familiar with their features and expressions.”
“I use photographs to begin with and then adapt the composition to suit my purpose.”
MOVED AWAY DURING ‘TROUBLES’
RETIRED schoolteacher Mary, who now lives in Gortahork, left her native Clonmany almost fifty years ago. She reveals how the raging conflict across the border in the North at the time was a big factor in her decision to move away from Inishowen with her new family.
“I married Dermot Toland in 1973 and we had our first child. The ‘Troubles’ were a determining factor in us leaving Inishowen.”
“We did not want to leave Donegal however, so we moved to Arranmore and lived there for four years and had a small craftwork business. We then moved to Gortahork and I started teaching in Dungloe.”
Mary has continued to visit Clonmany throughout her life and recalls how her parents once ran successful businesses in the village.
“My parents were Peter and Margaret Comiskey. My father had a grocery shop and pub, Comiskey’s. My mother, as an only child, inherited her parents’ pub, The Square Bar.”
She says her mother, who had left school at National School age, was determined that her daughters, including Mary, would get “the full value of an education”.
“Not many girls had that opportunity when I was young,” Mary says.
“It is only now with age that I can fully appreciate the opportunity we were given. To be ‘allowed’ to pursue an art education was a risky endeavour in those days. We did not know anyone who had done it.”
“I am forever grateful to them for their generosity. It spurred me on to succeed and qualifying as a teacher gave them and me some security.”
Though she has lived away for a long time, Mary retains a “strong connection” to Inishowen.
“My strong connection to Inishowen comes with my sense of identity. My brother and extended family still live there. I can ‘feel’ a sense of connection to my ancestors there. My maternal grandmother inspires me, I still have some of her fabric and a quilt she made.”
“Sewing and outworking for Derry factories was a strong tradition in Clonmany. I work also in fabric and know that that interest comes from her.”
‘FREE TO EXPLORE MY CREATIVITY’
Mary explains how her work could be described as “realistic” but not photographic.
“I endeavour to distil the essence of the subject. I suppose you could say that I use artistic licence. In a way I am trying to document a slice of life here in the 20th and 21st centuries. Life is fleeting and I try to catch moments that inspire me.”
Mary has been drawing and painting for almost as long as she can remember.
“We did not have art as a subject in school. I spent a lot of time gazing out the window in school and was often accused of ‘staring’. I suppose you could say that I was always a visual learner and did my thinking with pencil in hand.”
“In secondary school [Convent of Mercy Carndonagh] I knew that I wanted to give this ‘art thing’ a go, fully expecting not to succeed. I was accepted into the Crawford School of Art in Cork on presentation of a ‘portfolio’. Believe it or not, I did not know what the word portfolio meant and had to look it up in a dictionary.”
“I spent three years in Cork and loved it. I graduated with teaching qualifications and eventually got a job teaching art in the Rosses Community School in Dungloe. I loved that experience too. I always said that I learned as much from the pupils as they did from me.”
“I spent 29 years teaching but continued to paint when I got the time. I am now retired and free to explore my creativity fully,” she said, adding that Donegal art teachers are “second to none”.
With her Letterkenny exhibition set to run for another six weeks or so, Mary says there is nothing to beat viewing art in-person.
“I have visited many of the great museums and art galleries and I know from standing in front of great art how different that experience is from looking at a digital image. That stillness and sense of deep contemplation that art can inspire cannot be reproduced. It is a visceral thing.”
“I will never forget seeing an actual page out of the Book of Kells after teaching about it from a book. The difference is indescribable. Mark Rothko’s paintings just blew me away! Jackson Pollock, I did not fully understand until I stood in front of one of his paintings in New York. It just danced across the wall.”
“Picasso’s early works likewise were a complete surprise. I love medieval art also and Rembrandt’s portraits make me feel humble. I am in awe of all these artists who can communicate through the centuries.”