Last Summer I found out that the artist, and my favourite first year NCAD tutor, James O’Nolan, died at 65. He was a gentle and funny man with sparkly eyes and the moment I first saw him I knew we were going to get on. Hearing that he had died, so young and so suddenly, held my heart in a tight painful grasp for many days.
I hadn’t seen him in over ten years and the grief I felt unsettled me in a surprising way. It was because he, in his unique and seemingly ego-less way of being, reflected me back to myself. He reflected the best parts of me back to myself. He saw and spoke to my courage and my talent and my curiosity and my heart. I felt like with his death, I was losing something of myself.
He spoke to you like you were already an artist. Even when you were flapping about not knowing what you were doing for all of first year like I did. I never felt intimidated or nervous around him, and he never minded my many and lengthy absences.
I chose sculpture for the rest of my degree and sometimes used to bring my notebooks from the Fine Art building across ‘red square’ to show James what I was doing. He used to let me into his office and look through them and talked to me about my ideas, like we were equals. He never questioned my visits. He let me rob paper that was meant for the first years. In a space where everything can feel unknown and insecure as you take the first steps into being an artist, James was a steadfast, solid anchor. My life outside of college was chaotic. James was unknowingly a non-judgemental balm. Unknowingly a ‘safe space’, in the form of a person.
NCAD was a contained chaos where you could lose control a little and still be safe, where you could ask the strangest questions of yourself and others in the making of your art and not be told you were wrong or incompetent or crazy. I felt a freeness there that I have only felt again when I lived in Berlin. I suppose when you are free to be fully ourselves, you are then free to create. A sense of non-judgemental acceptance at a time when adulthood is beginning and when you need it the most, when everything feels like a risk. It was a second home.
I learnt as much about art sitting under the veil of smoke in the student’s union and later ‘the box’, sometimes drunk, sometimes not, listening to the third and fourth years talking, as I did in tutorials. In second year I listened to a discussion between fourth year artists Conan Wynne and Gary Farrelly about their thesis’ and I was reassured by their self-assurance and casual attitude towards what was then, a nearly impossible feat to complete. I watched Gary drawing obsessively on scraps of paper and handing them out to us as gifts in the canteen, and by being so blatantly accepting of being an artist, he gave me a taste of life without imposter syndrome, without self-doubt. It’s okay to do your weird things, even if a million other people are doing weird things too, better weird things.
We helped each other do our weird things. I descended a pair of cast hands holding an egg down the outside of the Fine Art building and a crowd gathered and clapped when it landed safely. Pure, in the moment, joy. I threw ice-cream at a wall in the basement and filmed it and some Vis-com students saw it and asked me to help them with a project they were working on, because they were struck, not by the ice-cream, but by the note I wrote explaining the mess to the cleaners. I became a clown and made personal ad videos and didn’t mind it risking anything because there were no real world stakes yet. We did site specific things, my favourite, transforming the routine everyday from something to something else. In second year we made a frightening and sharp metal hut with dangerous dangling bits of metal on the inside as part of a project to enable us to learn how to use the various machines and appliances in the metal workshop. We left it outside, down some steps, beside the ‘teapot’, and as ghastly and ghoulish as it looked, it also blended in beautifully with the red brick. The last time I checked it was still there, completely rusted, as if it had always been there. I wrote a poem about chips and cheese falling out of love and printed it out huge and got it laminated and asked Vincenzo’s chipper if I could hang it in their shop and they didn’t question it. I turned my entire house in an installation and invited my tutors to get into my bed to watch a video.
To be surrounded by a community of artists is such a massively special thing. I only realise now what a privilege it was as I type everyday in isolation. To share your heart and for that to be okay. To be understood before you explain. To connect in a wordless way. This is your work. This is your heart. This is who you are, always expressing. What a privilege to be able to share who you are everyday. Of course it might be shit but it is your work and it is valid. The tutors were subtle and unsubtle but they were always honest and always respected your intentions.
It was normal to see a pile of something with a note on it saying ‘not rubbish’. In sculpture, a dishcloth or a broken clock could have as much if not more value as a drill or any other expensive tool.
In second year I decided to make an enormous steel mobile studio which I was going to attach to a bicycle. One of the sculpture technicians, Brendan, cast his eye over the huge skeleton frame I had managed to get together in the two weeks I had to complete the whole thing. He told me that everything takes three times as long as you first thought. This piece of wisdom stays with me with regards every single project I undertake. It will always take three times as long as you think.
In third year I spent months making a giant light-up heart made out of steel and mesh wire and cooked chips. Because the heart was too big for my studio, I had to move into the ‘atrium’, which felt like being in a huge conservatory, with a big flowerbed full of plants in the middle. People used to visit me everyday as I painstakingly glued each individual chip on. I exhibited the giant heart and put it back in the atrium, not sure what to do with it now. Chips kept falling off it. Eventually it got thrown out by the likely exasperated cleaners. It took a few people to carry it so they must have made a group decision on it. I looked everywhere for it, until my friend Damo told me he had seen a trail of chips leading to a skip. We followed the trail and there it was in its final resting place, under some concrete slabs.
Sometimes the drinking and the drugging was too much and the art came second or third. There were Friday morning crits where I hadn’t slept and had to lean on a pillar to stay upright, dragging myself back to a couch in the student’s union afterwards. Sometimes people behaved badly. Sometimes its population was not safe, but I always felt safe there.
Sometimes there were days full of fear, like when the college was under threat of being moved to the UCD campus. A silent ‘funeral’ procession was held in the corridors outside the room where a director’s meeting was being held, led by Frank Wasser, I think. Luckily, the move didn’t happen and NCAD remains in its nearly threehundred year old home, the same cobblestones, the same ‘teapot’ in red square from its days as a distillery.
There were essays and theses and stuff that felt like it was dragging you away from the thinking and the making. But it was a place of warmth, of freedom, of exploration. And of love, so much love and support from each other, for each other; from tutors to the attendants to the technicians to the cleaners to the canteen workers. Love and warmth and a freedom to exist.
I graduated from NCAD with a degree in Fine Art in 2008. Without the community, my self-belief as a visual artist floundered after graduating. The cold, expensive, lonely studios. The overwhelming fear of failure, the imposter syndome. But mainly, the lack of conviction in myself as an artist. I was too scared. After college I did set design for theatre, then I did an MA in Journalism, then Psychotherapy. I’ve just finished writing my first novel, about the background chaos of first year that James O’Nolan was unknowingly an anchor for. And I believe in my book, and myself, and my ability to create. I think this is in large part because of what NCAD gave me when I was 20 years old. I don’t think I would have this conviction in myself as a writer without it. And I also think this is in large part because of James O’Nolan’s little smile when I arrived uninvited again at his office door, his wry comments about whatever he saw in my notebook, the time he gave so generously, knowing that he steadfastedly, unconditionally, believed in me.
I wish he could know the impact he had on me, still now, over ten years later. I wish he could have seen my huge, light-up chip heart, a celebration of love. A celebration of the open hearted, and of the vulnerable. I wish he knew what it meant to me to watch him flick through my notebooks.