Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Athy's Art Group

The local Art Group will hold it’s annual exhibition starting on Tuesday, 16th September at 8.00 p.m. and continuing until Sunday, 21st September in Athy’s new venue just off the top of Offaly Street.  It will be their 30th annual exhibition and for the Church of Ireland Centre, perhaps the first large scale community venture in a venue which will be officially opened on 19th October. 

Athy Art Group was first established in 1971.  It owes it’s existence to a number of young members of Aontas Ogra who in 1970 organised an art competition, primarily for teenagers, with the entries to be exhibited on the club’s premises at St. John’s Lane.  Was this, I wonder, the first art exhibition held in the town, although I suspect that possibly that honour may be due to the Technical School on the Carlow Road, or maybe even the pre-1930 Technical School at Stanhope Place?  Maybe someone can help me with that query. 

The St. John’s Lane Exhibition proved very popular, so much so that several art classes and lectures were subsequently held, following which it was decided to hold an annual art exhibition.  The Aontas Ogra youngsters of 37 years ago secured the help of a number of adults, including Vera Roche of Mount Offaly Press, Margot Gough of Graysland and the local curate, Fr. Dermod McCarthy, to put on a much larger art exhibition the following year as part of Athy’s first Arts Festival.  The services of Olivia O’Leary, then a local press reporter and still years away from her TV/radio fame, was availed of to secure much needed publicity for that festival.  The young people involved included Rene McHugh, Fiona Blanchfield, Billy and Devlin Hughes, Mary and Dolores McCauley, Larry Connell, Frank Connell, Billy Farrell and Liam Rainsford.

The festival generated so much interest that the organisers of the Art Exhibition decided to form a local art group.  In the early years of that group 82 Leinster Street, then the Old Folks Committee rooms, was used as the venue for art workshops and lectures.  Several exhibitions were held in the early 1970s, but not so frequently as to justify being called an annual exhibition. 

Almost inevitably the club went into decline and by 1976 it was all but extinct.  Helping to revive the Art Club’s fortunes was the Athy Festival organised for 1979.  As it’s contribution to the festival the few remaining members of the Art Group decided to hold an art exhibition on a scale never before attempted.  The entry rules for the exhibition were quite simple.  Any number of paintings were accepted and the available exhibition space determined what or how many paintings were to be displayed.  Each artist, regardless of whether he or she was a beginner or professional, was given equal space and there was no pre-exhibition selection.

The Christian Brothers, who were still operating out of their Monastery at St. John’s Lane,  offered the ground floor of the local school which was available during the summer holidays.  Two rooms, divided by partitions which were folded back, provided a large exhibition space and a third room housed a photographic exhibition, both exhibitions being the centrepiece of the Art Group’s contribution to the Athy Festival of 1979.  As the entries for the Art and Photographic Exhibitions began to arrive, the Arts Group realised that the wall space available was not sufficient to hang all the material to be exhibited and so display stands were required.  Across from the school were the premises of D. & J. Carbery Building Contractors and the local firm agreed to lend 8 x 4 sheets of chipboard for use as display stands, the only stipulation being that no nails or pins were to be put into the boards when the paintings or photographs were being hung.  The artistic minds soon came up with a solution.  Placing the chipboard panels on their ends to form sets of three cornered triangles held together by twine allowed the paintings to be suspended from the top edges using heavy duty fishing line.  The exhibition was an outstanding success and the visitors book, which I gather is still available,  shows that hundreds passed through the doors during the festival.  Approximately one third of the paintings on exhibition were sold and so began the first of the annual exhibitions which have been such an important part of the town’s annual cultural activities.

The local Art Group is just one of several voluntary organisations in Athy, all of which are working away to provide cultural outlets for the local people.  The Art Group currently has a membership of approximately 70, comprising young and old, male and female, amateur, semi-professional and professional artists, all of whom share an interest in the visual arts.  The current Chairperson is Frances Whortley, whose father John was a founder member of the Art Group.  John in fact was one of the first tutors involved in the art classes provided 30 years ago.  His wood carvings, for so many years a highlight of the annual Art Exhibition, are now very much sought after. 

Liam and Fiona Rainsford, also founding members and indeed members of the Aontas Ogra Exhibition Committee of 1970, have been members and officers of the Art Group throughout it’s 30 year history.  Liam is the current treasurer, and the Art Group Secretary is Freda Coyle. 

I have been attending the annual Art Exhibition since I returned to Athy in 1982 and I can recall some of the wonderful artists whose works have been exhibited.  Lesley Fennell, Mark O’Neill, Elizabeth Cope, John Maher, Liam Rainsford, John Fitzpatrick, John Whortley, Jim Flack and many more, too numerous to mention.  I have had the opportunity to buy some paintings at these exhibitions and I have noticed how one’s taste and level of appreciation changes over the years.  Pictures bought years ago no longer attract as they once did, reflecting how the advancing years have perhaps provided a more discerning and balanced basis for critical judgment of art work. 

The annual Art Exhibition gives us a rare opportunity to see artists’ work close up.  In many incidences the skill and artistry of local artists enables us to see in perhaps a different way many well known features of our town and district.  Congratulations to Athy Art Group on holding its 30th Art Exhibition in the new Church of Ireland Centre off Offaly Street.  The Exhibition will afford many of us the first opportunity of visiting the new centre, two good reasons for attending the 30th Art Exhibition which will continue until Sunday, 21st September.

The Photographic Project which was ongoing last week finished on Saturday, 13th September and the photographs in disc or printed format are to be handed into the Heritage Centre before the end of the month.  The members of Athy Photographic Society were busy during the week and the level of interest shown by the general public in the project was very encouraging.  Thanks are due to everyone involved.  At a later date I hope to devote an article to the project, the people involved in it and the results of what I believe was a unique week long event. 

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