AN Ennis duo’s new artistic endeavour has been bringing sparks of colour and creativity to electrical boxes in locations throughout the county capital.
Artists Rachel Macmanus and Robert Downey are the pair behind this project, busily brightening up the boxes dotted throughout Ennis with different works of art.
The artists have joined forces to create the Negative Space Collective, a new platform to develop contemporary art and further strengthen visual arts culture and opportunities in the west of Ireland.
The electrical box project involves a series of urban art pieces which have been created with the support of Clare Arts Office, under the PRISM Urban Art scheme.
And, they both hope this project will be just the start of a movement encouraging artists and communities to come together to create art for everyone.
The striking works on the electrical boxes include, among others, depictions of teenagers at Club Bridge, a garda near Ennis Garda Station, a contemporary take on the Maid of Éireann close to the famous monument and images of natural heritage in the Island car park, next to the River Fergus.
Explaining where the idea for the collective came about, Rachel says both she and Robert decided to collaborate having met via Instagram and “come together more over what we didn’t like”.
They believe Ennis is a “vibrant, busy town with a growing population”, but it needs more outlets for contemporary art. “We came together to talk about what we could do to develop contemporary fine art initiatives, which could mean sculpture, painting, mixed media – not necessarily paintings on walls,” explains Rachel.
“We talked a lot about what we could do and thought initially we could look at urban art. We both have opinions about art being for everyone and being democratic, it’s lovely to make work that everyone can see.
“We talked about having pop up galleries, but realistically the footfall from that is tiny compared to having a piece of work in the public. So we thought how can we start off by putting pieces of work out there that everyone can see?”
Rachel and Robert approached the “very supportive” Clare County Council Arts Office with the idea for the electrical box transformations.
Before the project began Tommy Scott of the local authority accompanied Rachel and Robert on a tour of the town, identifying which boxes were in the ownership of the council and could potentially be painted.
“When we first went to the council we had naively photographed a load of boxes we thought could be used. Then we got a real education on who owns what, there’s the ESB, Irish Water, Wifi boxes, old county boxes, there’s seven or eight different owners. So we had to work out which ones we could work on and Tommy kindly walked us around.”
Among the artworks proving popular with the Ennis public are the garda near Ennis Garda Station and ‘Paddy the Pigeon’ on the opposite side of the road – a spot where feathered friends regularly congregate.
Rachel tells us, “Our goal with this is to make what you would call site-specific images. In each place we put them, there is a connection to that space. Because the garda station is there we thought doing a garda would suit, and there is a bit of humour in it as well.
“You can’t tell if he’s waving or stopping traffic. When Robert was creating Paddy the Pigeon the shopkeepers were coming out and they were delighted to see it because it adds something to the street.”
While some of the works are easy to spot, others are hidden gems and take a little bit of effort to find. Tucked away on Bindon Street the artists have painted two horses on large wooden doors, with Rachel saying they were influenced by the history of the locality for this piece.
“Tommy told us those doors were originally entrance ways to tunnels below the road leading to the cellars of the large three storey Georgian buildings on the other side.
“That carpark was originally where horses and carriages were parked, then rather than going over the road they would go under and up to their gaff. We thought, we need to make some kind of reference to that.”
On Club Bridge they have created two paintings of teenagers, not just inspired by the local secondary school students who regularly pass by, but also highlighting a message about young people.
“The first painting is a girl and it’s called ‘Don’t Tell Me To Smile’, and it’s a bit more of a serious work. People tend to brush teenagers off, and it’s not easy for them these days.
“On the other side there is a painting of a teenage guy holding a fluffy duck. It’s supposed to show vulnerability for teenage boys which is why it’s called ‘I’m Not As Tough As I Look’. We’ve got really good feedback on those, they are quite tucked in but we are using strong colours to make things pop.”
Each painting has its own inspiration and backstory, and people can “delve a little deeper if they wish”, but “even if you don’t know the backstory, it was important to us that the paintings are still nice to look at,” outlines Rachel. T
heir next artwork will be on a large box at the DeValera Park with Rachel revealing that it will make reference to the famous Tom Steele.
They have been painting the boxes since August, with preparations beforehand taking about six months. The biggest challenge they have been facing has been the weather.
“We have a debate every morning about what we will do, a to and fro on what the weather forecast most recently said. When we started off it was during the really strong heatwave and the paint was practically unusable.
“Now we’re dealing with the rain. We’ve had periods of time where we just can’t get them done. This has certainly been a learning curve for us, the actual technical process of painting on these, having to crouch in awkward spaces and deal with the public to make sure you’re not being a hazard.”
Unfortunately some of the artworks have been targeted by vandals in recent times, meaning Rachel and Robert have to repair the damage.
“It’s really annoying, but that’s what happens when you put work out into the public space. To a degree, you don’t own it any more. But you just have to trust that people will have a bit of respect for it.
“The other hope is that local people will take a small degree of ownership over them and if they see any vandalism that they might notify us so we can look after them. It’s a real shame though, because all the paintings do is add to the space,” she says.
Rachel describes working together with Robert as “a voyage of learning for both of us”. He agrees, adding the experience is one which will benefit the collective as it continues.
“I had to learn to look at things in different ways and learn new things. It’s always nice to come into something and learn something that you can bring forward,” says Robert.
Looking to the future the pair hope to secure funding to paint even more boxes. They are also looking to expand the collective’s reach to include other artists as well as members of the local community in creating more artworks – possibly in buildings which are currently vacant in the town if they had the go-ahead.
Robert explains, “We have talked about an open call to invite other artists to come and identify sites they would like to paint and continue on the idea of site specific pieces. We call this project with the electrical boxes a trial run, we already know the ins and outs and what to expect.
“We’d like to do projects that would encourage people to join in, nearly as it’s being done, and for them to interact with it. This is the kind of project we would be hoping for if we found a building situated in the town so if people were passing that we could find some way of getting them involved.”
Rachel adds, “We are always walking around going ‘Oh, that would be a great space there’. There are so many empty buildings and it’s a shame. Ennis is a town with lots of people, a real cross section of a lovely spectrum of people. It’s important that, for any project, that we engage people from all types of backgrounds.
“When I was working on an electrical box a young girl stopped me with her baby and she asked me lots of questions about it, telling me she had done art in school. It was lovely to get that interaction. Art can unify people in that way.
“The electrical boxes are kind of like our portfolio pieces, so people know what we are about. When you have work up somewhere then people have a reference and they can form an idea of what you’re doing and we can build from there.
“We had said initially that we would like to do a pop-up gallery, but the problem with that is people think if they come in they have to buy something. We want to open a creative space that people can come in and interact with what is happening. We are cooking up a few different ideas at the moment, hopefully we can persuade an auctioneer to let us work on a building.”
Robert adds, “You just have to do things to find out if there is an interest out there and see if it works, and if it doesn’t, how you can change and evolve it so hopefully there is interest in time.
“You can see it in other places, you just need to start from scratch and build that community. In Limerick there are people who started doing smaller project and over time they built and got support. There are lots of artists in Ennis and people with an interest who might feel they don’t have an outlet but if we build something and make awareness, we are hoping people will come together with us.”
For more on the project check Negative Space Collective on Facebook or their Instagram page @negative.space.op