Thomas Pool: How would you describe your background and training?
Holly Pereira: I’ve had quite a circuitous journey to my current practice. I studied Fine Art with a focus in Sculpture at NCAD from 2000 to 2004. A lot of the focus in that course was on conceptual art-like installations, and performance, video and sound art. I practiced as a painter after I finished my degree – mostly because I did not have access to the equipment I had in college – but I had paint and brushes. I spent about seven years going on residencies and putting on shows in places like Berlin, London and Singapore.
By the time I was in my thirties, I was looking for more financial stability. A friend of mine was an illustrator, and I thought I might give that a go. The switch from fine artist to professional, commercial illustrator appealed to me as I would not be dependent on whether work at an exhibition sold or not.
After a trip to Berlin to the animation festival Pictoplasma in 2013, I was imbued with the possibilities of animation. Making illustrations move was so enticing. Coming home, I applied and was accepted to Ballyfermot College to study Classical and Computer Animation for two years.
This was a massive learning curve. The technical aspects of animation were rigorous, but they highlighted the importance (and rewards) of a daily drawing practice.
After graduating, I tried to find a job in an animation studio. Most of the studios here work on children’s shows, and I wasn’t really interested in that. On a whim, I decided to start freelancing as an illustrator. That was in 2015, and the business has grown and widened since then to what I do now, which is large-scale murals and commercial illustration.
TP: Your work has been commissioned by many prestigious clients, including Google, An Post, the Guinness Brewery, Bewley’s, and Now TV, not to mention the show you co-host on RTÉ. How do you divide your time between client facing work and more personal pieces?
HP: A lot of artists employ the “one for them, one for me” approach. I try to keep a certain amount of time and energy for personal projects, like the piece myself and Emma Blake painted in support of the protests in Iran. In January, we painted a massive mural on Dame Street, in Dublin city centre, following the Mahsa Amina protests in Iran with the Iranian protest slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom.” We also worked with the Yaran Collective on this mural, a group of Iranian human rights activists in Ireland.
It is important to me to leave space for work like this – projects that broadly align with human rights. However, freelance work is irregular. Sometimes a project (especially illustration) comes in with a very tight turnaround time. Keeping my schedule flexible helps. It also allows me to work on pressing projects as they come along. Not having the next six months of work in place can be stressful, but after nearly nine years freelancing, I’ve learned to relax a bit and take the work when I can, and concentrate on personal work when the opportunity arises.
TP: How has your ethos shaped your practice so far, particularly the influence that folk art and typography has on your art?
HP: I found that when I left NCAD I was stymied by my own critical thinking. I was very critical of work I made, so much so that I almost couldn’t start a project. When I started freelancing, I made a conscious decision to make work that brought me visual happiness – whether that was through colour palette, form, or motif. I rediscovered the joy of aesthetics, something I neglected in the past in favour of concept. This shift relaxed my process, and I started to make work that was instinctive, and didn’t overthink about what it all meant.
It also helped that I was about 34, and had been somewhat around the block in artistic terms. I cared less what other people thought of my work, and that was terrifically freeing.
I love folk art, art brut and outsider art because it is work that is not calibrated by academia or convention. It feels instinctual. I love that folk art connects a tradition of grandmothers in Poland painting their houses with flowers, or weavers in Serbia making rugs, or even prehistoric artists painting the walls of their caves. I am not suggesting there are no rules or systems for these disciplines, but more that they are not bound by the precepts of the established art world.
Typography was my entry point into graphic design, which as a fine art student, I had (with the idiocy and idealism of youth) considered to be tied solely to commercialism and capitalism. Belatedly yet thankfully, I now have a fuller understanding of design that it is about communication. If communication is the song, typography is the voice that carries the melody. Type can have a multitude of voices, and as humans, we are all literate in typography. We have been reading lettering and signs, and inferring tone and meaning from those things, since we were able to read.
And yet, the simple truth is that drawing lettering makes me happy, and that’s why I do it so much.
TP: You’ve created many murals in prominent areas over the years that advocated for important issues, including the Yes campaign, the aforementioned Mahsa Amini protests, decriminalisation of drugs, and mental health awareness. Do you feel that street artists, due to the high visibility of their work, have a duty to create “politically motivated art”, as it was so notoriously and recently put?
HP: I don’t think any artist has a duty to create any kind of art. I know plenty of street artists and muralists who choose to create apolitical work, and for me, that is perfectly acceptable.
The first mural I painted in the street was “Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Choice” with John McNaeidhe and Emma Cafferky in 2016, during the Yes campaign. We painted this as a response to some of the frankly violent imagery the anti-choice side had posted around the city. Our ethos was to create a beautiful piece of art that sneaked in our pro-choice message; a kind of flowery Trojan Horse. The double hit of making something worthy of looking at, and letting your message loose in the world, really opened my eyes to the potential of public murals, and art in the street.
When I paint a mural in the street, I do try to be conscious of who is going to look at it, and how they might feel. For me, it’s about igniting conversation about a certain issue, but in a palatable way. Something that does not pander to the status quo, but instead invites discourse.
TP: The current Public Art Mural Bill before The Dáil is seeking to allow artists and property owners to commission murals without needing approval from local councils. Where do you stand on this bill, and how do you feel it will affect street art if it’s passed?
HP: I think it would make my job, and the jobs of other muralists in this country, easier if the bill were to pass. Painting in Dublin is restrictive, so the impetus is to take your paint and go elsewhere to work. That is not a good environment in which to build a creative city.
I do think there needs to be some process around what is acceptable to our society, and what is not. However, many other cities around the world have a vibrant and inclusive street art and mural scene, so there is no reason why it should not work here.
Lastly, I think what is often overlooked when discussing murals is that murals are not permanent. This is sometimes at odds with a more fine art sensibility of the art-object being invariable and lasting. Many muralists and street artists have the attitude of “take a photo, then it’s gone”. Once you walk away from the piece, it’s not yours anymore, it belongs to the street. Streets and cities change, and if you don’t like something in them, you can always paint something new.
TP: Are there any new projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
HP: I’m excited to start working in new mediums, and am exploring different avenues for my design work.
Apart from that, I’m looking at painting more murals abroad next year. The weather is generally better (a big concern), and there is a deeper history of public murals in Europe, so I’d like to connect with that, and improve my practice.
Holly Pereira is a Singaporean-Irish illustrator and muralist based in Dublin, Ireland.