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Tributes to artist May ‘who made it all look so easy’

May 16th, 2023 9:00 AM

Tributes to artist May ‘who made it all look so easy’ Image
Brian Lalor and Leda May at the opening of the Ballydehob Arts Museum in 2019. (Photos: Sarah Canty)

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FRIENDS from all over West Cork recently gathered to pay tribute to one of Ireland’s most revered ceramicists at the Blue House Gallery in Schull.

‘We are in the room with several masterpieces of her work,’ said esteemed visual artist Maud Cotter at the retrospective opening event.

Leda May arrived in Ballydehob in 1969 just as one might imagine a venerated artist of an iconic era in the West Cork artists’ movement should – from the UK in a converted van in search of a life close to nature and in commune with other creatives.

An Insects and Salamander plate on display at Blue House Gallery in Schull. (Photos: Sarah Canty)


She and her partner set up studios and set about making their earthenware and co-founded the Cork Craftsman’s Guild in 1974.

‘Leda always came across as welcoming. Very giving and generous in her advice to us would-be potters,’ said Etain Hickey and Jim Turner of Rossmore Pottery in Clonakilty.

Eventually her partner returned to the UK and May forged her own life, her own artistic sensibility, and a home for her four children Jessica, Thérése, Óísin and Gita, in Ballydehob.

‘She was softly spoken with a naughty sense of humour,’ reminisces shopkeeper Joanne Cassidy. ‘She loved food and cooking. Loved her time in India, the culture, the religions, the colour, the clothes, the art. She wore beautiful, unusual ethnic jewellery.’

‘She was so many things,’ remembers painter and teacher Carin MacCana, ‘charming, cutting, naive, infuriating, endearing, exasperating, beautiful and at times secretive.’

In the documentary film The Elephant and the Dandelion, directed by Martin Daly in 2015, May described how much she loved living here. 

‘I like the feeling that people acknowledge and recognise you and know what they know about you. I feel a part of the community like everyone else.’ 

The film was centred on May’s highly collectible painted porcelain plates and bowls on which she would often depict animals interacting with objects of nature.

‘Her pallet of glazes and decoration remained for many years that of sombre colours and fluid brushwork on earthenware,’ recalled friend and fellow artist Brian Lalor. ‘Only later did her pallet lighten when she moved to porcelain where she perfected her mastery of abstract brushwork on blue and white ware.’

Painting on porcelain is possibly the most difficult thing a ceramicist could choose to do. ‘Her porcelain plates and bowls were painted with a great control and rigour that many artists don’t have,’ said Cotter. ‘Her work is so fluent and masterful that she made it look easy, which it isn’t. It’s extremely difficult.’

MacCana remembers a student asking if she could teach them how to paint like Leda May. 

‘I’m sorry,’ replied MacCana, ‘I can’t do that. It’s impossible. She just has that in her hand and in her heart and in her head.’

May passed away in February. Her work, including early examples of drawings, stoneware, and stained glass can be viewed until May 17th at Blue House Gallery in Schull, open daily from 11am to 5pm.

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