Member Profile | Great Work in Marginal Places

Michelle Boyle reflects on her painting practice.

Michelle Boyle, View to the German’s house, 2021, oil on canvas, 1.5 x 2.2 m, on location Lough Ramor, Cavan 2021; image courtesy of the artist. Michelle Boyle, View to the German’s house, 2021, oil on canvas, 1.5 x 2.2 m, on location Lough Ramor, Cavan 2021; image courtesy of the artist.

I describe myself first and foremost as a painter, where the substance of paint informs other processes in my practice as a visual artist. In 2003 I made the decision to leave my career in cultural heritage management to become a fulltime artist. I probably could not have picked a more difficult time with the responsibility of four small children and a move from Dublin to Cavan, which was then described to me as a ‘cultural backwater’. 

But I am reminded of a conversation between Alex Katz and Theo Dorgan in IMMA in 2007, as part of the ‘Alex Katz: New York’ exhibition. The artist said he learned to paint in a field on the outskirts of New York; he travelled there by train over a period of years to look at the same place and paint it continuously. This reinforces for me the belief that a field can teach you how to paint and that great work can be made in marginal places. 

I do occasional studio residencies away from the responsibilities of home and to reconsider my work from a distance, so as to return energised by a new thought or process. I have been awarded international and Irish residencies over the years including: Carpe Diem in Kochi, India; the European Leonardo Programme at Tartu Print and Paper Museum, Estonia; and Cill Rialaig and The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. On a self-made residency to the US, I was introduced to water-based mono-printing with master printmaker, Tony Kirk, who collaborated with artists I admire, including Wolf Kahn and Kiki Smith.

The work which started at the residency in Kerala, India, led to two solo exhibitions: ‘This is where I belong, this exact spot’ at Farmleigh, Dublin, in 2017; and ‘Outside the urban’ in Axis Ballymun in 2018, which was a return to my childhood neighbourhood. In both of these exhibitions, I explored my adoption and mixed race Irish-Indian inheritance through a series of paintings in oils and watercolours. I have been working in watercolours for a few years with group shows in The Bankside Gallery London, the Palace of Arts Krakow, OED Kochi, and the Mall Galleries, with recent shortlisting for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition. In 2019 my work received the Annual Watercolour Society of Ireland President’s award. 

Watercolour encourages a greater freedom for me to go with the paint, to work to a scale outside myself and to work into a three-dimensional and moving space. Under lockdown I began swimming in the local Lough Ramor. The feeling I have in the uplift and uncertainty of the lake water, is the same feeling I have when I paint. There is a lightness and lack of control inherent in watercolour and these qualities inform the new temporary installation and underwater photography processes I am presently exploring. These new ways of working also seem more reflective of the lost time we are living in at the moment. I call this work ‘The Epilimnion’ – being inside and also marginal to the lake, to the landscape and to myself; being both an immersed participant and an observer at the same time. A self-portrait of sorts. 

I do self-portraits at significant times in my life and some are held in public collections including the OPW Dublin, UNESCO Paris, and the Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Prize, London. These are studio observations on myself as a painter, mother and woman in contemporary Ireland. I feel through the lasting medium of oil, these will go forward into time. Recently I saw two exhibitions by women artists which included powerful self-portraits – Maria Lassnig’s solo show, ‘Ways of Being’ at the Albertina in Vienna, Austria, and Helene Schjerfbeck in the Royal Academy in London. In 2022 I will have solo shows at Hambly & Hambly in Dunbar House, Enniskillen, and at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, India. 

Michelle Boyle is an artist and occasional curator with an academic background in Cultural Anthropology and Landscape Archaeology.