Getting to know Irish artist Jane McCormick, through a marathon 11-month email/Skype conversation caused Deborah Caulfield to reflect on her struggle to define Disability Art, concluding that the artform is perhaps less of a question of ‘what’, than ‘why’ and, crucially, ‘how’.
Jane McCormick is a sculptor with a background in ceramics, making work that, in the past, included large outdoor pieces and multi-media installations. Her most recent work, a three-way collaboration, was a fresh approach that brought yet more new challenges. She made a dance film installation, Still with her daughter Jessie who is a contemporary dancer and choreographer, and curator Cathy Caughlan.
The work was developed by exploring a creative process that allowed for the reality of their limitations (eg Jane’s reduced energy) to be out in the open. Allowing things to be what they were in the moment was an integral part of the project. We talked about what makes us artists and what her DAO blog is doing for her: getting reconnected to her art.
“My hope is to come out of the shadows and to make connections with other artists working in a similar position. Yet the thought of coming out of the shadows is also quite scary. I’d become comfortably miserable in the shadows for quite some while.”
Reluctantly, so somewhat tentatively, I asked Jane to tell me about her pain condition. I didn’t want to intrude or drift into triumph-over-tragedy mode.
“It started in childhood with migraine attacks that would short circuit my brain and knock me out for the day. But, as sickening, painful and inconvenient as this was it did not have a major impact on my life until I was in my 30s. When, after the birth of my children, the attacks began to get more regular and longer lasting. Over a period of 20 years it gradually evolved into one long permanent headache with regular migraine attacks. The later addition of depression and anxiety to my ever-expanding repertoire of illnesses put the tin hat on it. By the time I was diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome in 2008 my life and work had come to a standstill. My studio was emptied and my kiln put in storage. During this period I avoided all conversations that might lead me to explain my non-art making status
Are you still an artist when you are not putting out work? If an artist falls in the forest and no one is around to hear her, is she still an artist?”
Coincidentally, I’ve asked the same question of myself many times. If the answer is ‘yes’ (it is) then the challenges that follow are plenty. We need courage to carry on, even when we’re not ‘putting out work.’ What’s important is having the courage to make changes, find ways to connect, tap into the resources that are out there. We need to push on through … Jane continued:
“It took a lot of false starts and time to pass for me to recalibrate my brain to accommodate the effects of my disability on my work; this is still a work in progress. Receiving the Rehab Arts Award to buy an iPad in 2012 enabled me to enter the world of digital art from the comfort of my bed or sofa. It also led to writing my blog on DAO. Through this a whole new world of exciting and challenging work opened up to me. Up until then I was still trying to find a way back rather than a way forward.
When I first started blogging on DAO I came across Liz Crow’s project, Bedding Out. I was amazed by her ability to make work in the face of such debilitating illness, even to the point of being in a bed in a gallery. Seeing her work woke me up to the possibility of making good work and being disabled.
On bad days, I lie very still in bed or in my sofa nest and wait for the storm to pass. My world gets very small at times, but with the iPad I feel less isolated. When I’m recovering from flare ups I upload images of my work on Facebook and Instagram. And I enjoy following other artists work. It’s like being part of an ever-changing worldwide gallery.”
In January 2016, when we began exchanging emails, Jane was engaged in what she referred to as a procrastination project.
“I’m documenting all the stuff I’ve kept in my studio for years that was to become part of sculptures when I ‘got better’. Now I realise this isn’t going to happen, I’m making a photographic inventory before letting go of it. So far I’ve been mainly moving it from shelf to table to bin and back out again. How can I part with a load of legless Barbies, dead people’s glasses, self-help books that don’t help, broken crockery and holy statues. My treasures.”
I asked her about ‘I Made a Pinch Pot a Day’. This stunningly beautiful piece exuding calm seems to be a rejection of the clichéd narrative of disability as brokenness.
“When I began the pinch pot project I had no expectations that it would ever become a cohesive piece of work that could be exhibited. I was adrift from my former life as a sculptor and thought this one hour daily art practice might be a way of anchoring myself. At the end of the day I could say ‘well things might be shit but at least I made a pinch pot today’.
When the year of making pinch pots had passed and I looked back on the process, it seemed more a monologue of misery than a therapeutic practice. It took a further two years to be well enough to even consider exhibiting the work. That only happened because some friends that were curating a contemporary art exhibition invited me to make an installation of my imperfect pinch pots in an old church hall.”
Change generally means doing things differently. I asked Jane if she had given up perfectionism.
“Perfectionists anonymous. When I was well and making ceramic sculpture, I was always over finishing. I regularly scrapped or re-made work. A kiln disaster, of which there were many, was a tragedy. Any little flaw or crack consigned the work to the bin.
With the pinch pot project I set new parameters for myself, in an attempt to shake off this disabling habit. By not using water or tools, the process was less messy, so I could make a pot lying down in bed or on the sofa. To test my new found anti-perfectionism I included all the cracked and broken pots (of which there were many) in the finished installation.”
Jane grew up in Cavan, in the Republic of Ireland, where she now lives, having spent much of her adult life in England and Dublin. I remark to her that Cavan seems to be a really happening place, artistically.
“The reason it looks like there’s a lot happening is because the old Town Hall has been taken over as an interdisciplinary space for Artists, Curators and Theatre Makers.
Due to the recession a lot of artists have moved back home and many of them are involved in the Town Hall project. A lot of new and exciting collaborative work is being made there…Every 3 months there is a meet and greet, show-and-tell session where artists can present work in progress to their peer group. There was nothing like this happening when I was younger so it’s really exciting to be in contact with this whole new generation of artists.
Though I can’t immerse myself fully in the Townhall Cavan project it’s nice to be on the edge of it and have the support to get involved when I can”
This got me thinking about the need to feel fully part of something, a community or a group, while not being able to contribute as much as others. If being disabled means facing myriad barriers – attitudinal, structural, physical – then strategies and solutions need to be devised and provided in order to minimise or remove said barriers and, as Jane iterated, finding a way of not being isolated. Personal assistance, for example. However, fatigue is an impairment-based barrier that can be hard to overcome.
“Earlier this year I had an idea for the 1916 centenary immersive theatre event at Townhall Cavan. I made a series of images for putting into the huge front windows. I tried to put them up myself, but after half an hour I was done, I had no energy left. Luckily my husband was there. He is one of the curators involved in Town Hall and is a good facilitator. With many rest periods and cups of tea we got it done eventually. But nonetheless, it really was too much for me.
Assistance from others looks good on paper, but it can also bring additional stresses.
For me to actually get something from idea to finish involves so many people and I have to be mentally well to cope with that. If I’m not feeling well, then I’m thinking, ach! I can’t be asking these people to do this.
So how are things now?
“It has taken me years to find a way of working that is sustainable, given that periods of inaction are a normal part of my life now. My practice is now half iPad and half making. On a good day I might get an hour of making broken into 15 min portions with rest periods.
This method has helped to liberate me from my old perfectionist ways. It gives me the space to consider the piece I’m working on. Less is often more when it comes to assemblage work; it either works or it doesn’t.”