Aoife Cawley is a printmaker and textile artist from Ireland. She is a current fourth year student of Contemporary Art Practice at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. Cawley’s work is concerned with people and stories from mythological, hagiographical, folkloric and historical contexts.  The work typically features bright neon colours to draw attention to these stories of the past, but also to reimagine them in a contemporary context. Cawley is deeply fascinated with the lives of early Irish Christian saints and the miracles attributed to them. These miracles are more on the supernatural side and, more often than not, include encounters with sea serpents and water beasts.

Hi Aoife! Can you tell us how you arrived at the theme of your work?
My work in general is very much focused on Irish folklore, history, myth and legend. I was brought up with these stories. I also come from a place important to folklore and history. At the time I took it for granted but after growing older and moving away, I gravitated back to it and started to revisit all these elements. I became very invested in St. Brigid, one of Ireland’s three patron saints, who had set up her monastery in Kildare (where I am from). This led me to research the time period when Ireland was known as “The Land of Saints and Scholars” and the plethora of saints that came from that era. The fantastical and miraculous stories associated with them contained incredible symbolism and imagery that naturally fed into my work.

Which artists inspire you? Are there non-artistic influences such as literature or music that impact your work?
I am very interested in the arts and crafts movements of Ireland, Glasgow, and Edinburgh and take a lot of inspiration from them in regards to the content and mediums they used. All of these movements were motivated by the work of the Medieval times, i.e illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, tapestries, icons, etc. But to name a few artists, Harry Clarke, Phoebe Anna Traquair, Dún Emer Industries, Jessie M. King, William Wilson, and of course Hieronymus Bosch!

What emotions or reactions do you hope viewers experience when they see your artwork?
Storytelling is a huge part of Irish culture and I use my practice as a way to tell these stories. I hope that people find humour in my work. I find all these fantastical stories from folklore and the lives of saints so funny and hope to share that with the viewer. My work is heavily inspired by illuminated manuscripts which often feature comical figures in the margins. I think that these things highlight the humanity of these people rather than the serious, strict, religious people we believe that they were.

What element of the show’s theme did you connect with the most? How did that connection manifest artistically?
The particular print I have on display in MulticulturAlba illustrates the meeting of Irish saint Colmcille (known as St. Columba in Scotland) and the legendary Loch Ness monster. The story goes that St. Colmcille was going around Loch Ness converting the Picts to Christianity. While on his mission, he comes across a burial taking place and he asks the people what happened to the man. They explain that he was attacked while out on Loch Ness by a water beast, and Colmcille said to the Picts that he would go and sort that out. He told one of his monks to swim out into the water and fetch him a boat so he could search for the creature. But Nessie was lurking waiting to pounce! When she sprung up from the water, Colmcille shouted at her to stop in the name of God and made the sign of the cross at her. It was as if she was pulled back into the water by ropes, she retreated and wasn’t spotted again for years due to her fear of Colmcille. This account comes from 565AD from the Life of Colmcille by Adomnán

Colmcille was important in both Irish culture (being one of our patron saints along with Patrick and Brigid) and in Scottish culture. He is accredited with spreading Christianity throughout Scotland while he lived in his monastery on the island of Iona. When I first moved to Scotland, I really resonated with the saint’s connection to back home in Ireland and to my newfound home in Scotland.

What do you do to keep motivated and interested in your work?
Folklore and mythology is a deep well to fall down. There is so much to uncover and sift through that I am not sure I could ever get uninterested in it. There are fantastic folklore collections I can delve into and discover new things about my said subject. If I am focusing on a print about one saint, for example, you think you know everything you possibly could about them until you find a story from a specific locality where the saint is venerated differently because of a story you’ve never heard before. You cross over from Ireland to Scotland and there’s a completely different legend of the same saint over here. I think having this fountain of myth and legend helps me to stay motivated and inspired. I can reinterpret and reimagine the many stories over and over again in my work.

Are there any upcoming events or additional information you would like the audience to know?
I am a current fourth year student at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Our degree show is opening on the 24th of May and I would encourage you all to take the trip up and see all the incredible work our year have been doing. I will display my series of ‘”‘illuminated manuscript’”‘ pages based all around early Christian Irish saints.

See Aoife’s work at our first Open Call of the year, MulticulturAlba, running at Six Foot Gallery until Thursday 14th March 2023. You can also find them on Instagram: @aoifecawleyart

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