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Inspired by island life

June 18th, 2015 7:20 AM

By Southern Star Team

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TESS Leak has been working in West Cork since graduating, with first class honours, from the

Sherkin Island/DIT course in visual art.

Tess feels very privileged to have been chosen as one of the first artists to participate in the course which, being located on an offshore island, is a rather unique degree course.

‘It is certainly unique in Ireland, and probably in most other countries,’ she says, saying it was quite inspirational – unlike with more conventional courses – to be removed from what was ‘happening in the cities’. It enabled the students to fully concentrate on developing their art in their ‘own way’ and also to cement friendships; she has remained in contact with several of the other six students who completed the course in 2009.

Since then, Tess has retained a strong link with Sherkin, and indeed with many of West Cork’s islands.

For a girl who grew up in the UK and had no Irish links, it’s quite an impressive career trajectory.

‘I remember coming here on holidays and I got work with the Perry family of the Glebe restaurant in Baltimore. I ended up spending 13 years there!’

But her love of art, music and poetry, is not unexpected – her own mother, Jan Leak, is a musician. ‘She always encouraged us to make things, like collage, and music,’ she says. After school, Tess did a foundation course in art, but took a very different direction afterwards.

She laughs at the rebellion of abandoning this creative streak, albeit temporarily, for a college course in Psychology and English, before she embarked on her Irish adventure, eventually returning to her first love.

She admits it was the Sherkin art course which made her realise her true vocation. ‘That’s when I realised I was back on track,’ she smiles.

But I comment that her love of language and the questioning element of her work is a good tribute to her earlier college choice – both psychology and English.

Much of her work is based on ‘found’ text – little lines or half-sentences she has lovingly cut from magazines, text books and even old novels. Her mother’s influence is evident once more: she has used an old ‘theatre kit’ from a toy shop where her mum once worked, as props for her large scale ink drawings.

But the pieces she has cut out are all very small and delicately scissorsed from the pages. This appears to be a subconcious homage to some of her other projects – last year Tess was involved in the very popular ‘Museum of Miniature’ exhibition at the Skibbereen Arts Festival.

And this year she sought more contributions – this time from West Cork islanders – as part of the current exhibition on the islands.

The Museum of Miniature: The Islands, in partnership with the West Cork Arts Centre, features contributions from Irish and international island-based artists.

Tess and fellow artist Marie Brett, have curated the islands’ show, having collaborated on the Arts Festival exhibition, when 142 artists ventured forth with their miniture works of art.

A particularly delightful piece of work for the show is the result of workshops which Tess undertook on Sherkin, Bere and Heir islands, when the local people made tiny dolls – some just millimetres in length – to reflect the people of the islands. They used matchsticks, wool, string and other materials, to make people reflective of the local professions (‘There’s a fisherman, for example’) or even individual people – one lady made a tiny replica of her niece, dancing.

Like the Arts for Health programme of which Tess is also a facilitator, the exhibition is helping people to ‘express their creativity’ – something that Tess finds hugely important.

That same creativity was a huge hit in her 2014 exhibition of haiku poems which also culminated in an exhibiton for last year’s Skibbereen Arts Festival. It came about after collaborations with the Sherkin islanders through a number of workshops.

Haikus are Japanese verses, consisting only of 17 syllables, and the islanders took to them like their own fishermen take to water.

So much so, that Tess has incorporated the haiku exercise into many of her other workshops, with the elderly and via the county’s mental health services.

This is the first year of the Art Centre’s Artist in Residency programme, in its brand new Uillinn centre. Tess was one of the first three artists chosen to avail of the state-of-the-art facilities, and revelled in having the luxury of her own art studio, for a full three months.

It worked well – because although the new centre is a lively hub of activity, with exhibition visitors, students and staff all milling about, her own studio is a very relaxing space.

‘I wanted to do it justice,’she said, pointing to her work which graced the large white walls of the studio, just days before she had to vacate the impressive space.

She also enjoyed the comaraderie of the other artists, mentioning how she posed for some of photographer Emma Jervis’ work – in the adjoining studio – while Emma took photos of Tess’ work in return.

Visitors to the building also provided constant feedback for Tess, an indulgence that an artist working alone, for example, doesn’t have.

Of course, it may not be all positive, either. ‘People can come out with some unusual observations, but you have to trust in your own instincts in the end,’ noted Tess.

But the scale of the facility was a great asset: ‘I don’t have my own studio, so it was wonderful, because I was able to do some really big drawings.’

Having moved on from the residency, Tess has no worries about finding her next adventure in art. And her comments probably owe something to her psychology studies: ‘If people are doing what they really love, then work comes from that. I think opportunities are more likely to arise if you are doing what you love, and new things will open up.’

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