Tyrrellspass artist assesses the impact of illness on art
When Tyrrellspass-based visual artist Paul Roy embarked on a Master’s degree at the National College of Art and Design in 2018, he had no idea how widely relevant his chosen research topic would become within a year and a half.
Paul enrolled for an MA in Art in the Contemporary World, one of the flagship postgraduate courses at the Thomas Street institution in September 2018. The focus of his research was on how illness impacts and alters an art practice.
While this choice of topic was very much centred on personal experience – he suffers from a chronic illness – turn the clock forward to March 2020, and the problem of adjusting one’s practice to illness, or at least the prevention of it, became a problem for artists all around the world.
A native of Dublin, Paul – who moved to Tyrrellspass with his wife Sandra nearly 18 years ago – has a rich artistic background underlined by his former career as an animator with the renowned international studio, Sullivan Bluth, which was established by former Disney animator Don Bluth in the United States before relocating to Ireland during the 1980s.
At its Dublin studios, Sullivan Bluth worked on major Hollywood-level animated films, such as All Dogs Go To Heaven and The Land Before Time.
“What we did was classic, hand-drawn and hand-painted animation. I worked there for five years before Sullivan Bluth closed around 1994,” said Paul.
The closure of the studios led to a collapse in the animation industry in Ireland, meaning that Paul had to work in other industries while maintaining his vocation on the side.
During the late 1990s however, he had an accident which resulted in him injuring his spine and forced him to call time on his new line of work.
“We moved to Tyrrellspass in 2003 for a bit more space, some fresh air and the idea was that I’d have a studio there,” Paul continued. After he got settled in his new home, Paul engaged with Westmeath Arts Office and became involved in a number of local arts groups and exhibitions.
One of the groups he joined, Exquisite CoLab, saw him collaborate with three other visual artists exhibiting their work at local venues like Tullynally Castle. As an individual, Paul’s work has also been exhibited at Athlone’s Luan Gallery (2015).
His work also travelled further afield – as far away as China.
In the mid-noughties, the 411 Galleries, run by an Irish ex-pat based in China, ran an exhibition called ‘Drawing Éire’, in which a collection of paintings or sketches by 100 Irish artists were showcased in the People’s Republic.
“I had an eight-inch square to work with. They accepted five pieces from me, and some other artists from Westmeath were also involved,” Paul recalled.
“I posted the work to China, and all of our work was framed over there and shown at four different locations – Beijing, Guangzhou, and two places in Shanghai. All of this happened over an 18-month period.
“At the end of the 18 months the work was posted back to us, with a fancy catalogue about the exhibition. It cost me just €8 to post the work to China – and as a result, my art had visited places I’ll probably never see!”
Paul’s route to a career in animation and visual art was not the product of any formalised book learning. It was a gift, but people had often suggested that he consider going to college and pursuing a degree in art. This was foremost in his mind towards the end of the ‘noughties’ – but life had other ideas.
“Around 2008 and 2009 I got sick, and was later diagnosed with an auto-immune disease – sarcoidosis of the lung. As a result of this, my lung function was reduced and my ability to work is often affected,” Paul explained.
His health has experienced peaks and troughs since. In the era of Covid-19, he would rank among the very vulnerable, and has been cocooning since March of last year – only stirring out for essential trips.
In recent years, his condition became more manageable, and this prompted him to consider going to college.
He attended an open day at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) at Dublin’s Thomas Street, and learned that because of his extensive experience as an animator and visual artist, he could go straight to pursuing a Master’s degree.
And so, in 2018, Paul enrolled at NCAD for the Art in the Contemporary World MA course.
“It’s a two-year academic course,” he said. “It’s not really practice driven. You’re looking at the role of art in the contemporary world, and how it fits into various spheres across the full spectrum of human experience.
“Some of the people on the course were journalists and art writers.”
Within the scope of the course, there was freedom for students to explore any topic they wanted. In Paul’s case, it was something close to home.
“I wanted to examine illness – both physical and mental illness – and the impact which it has on an artist’s practice,” he said. “From my own point of view, I have 50 percent lung function. There are not just days, but whole periods where I am weak and tired. The physical act of creating art is more difficult because you have no stamina.
“As it’s a respiratory illness, there are also considerations around the materials you use. I can’t use certain paints for example, and I can’t work in atmospheres that are too dusty.
“So, one of the main objectives of my work was to discover if that shows in an artist’s work, their final product. I interviewed artists around the world – people who were dealing with illness in relation to their own practice.”
While there are plentiful examples of the impact of mental illness on artistic output – Vincent van Gogh, among others – there is less discussion about the impact of physical illness.
Nevertheless, Paul came across several examples to form the spine of his 15,000-word Master’s thesis.
The most interesting is the case of Hanna Cormick, who Paul interviewed for his research. Cormick, an Australian physical performance artist, featured at the 2020 Sydney Festival and was described by The Guardian as ‘the performance artist who’s allergic to the world’.
“She has a collection of some of the worst illness, both auto-immune and allergic reactions. She’s allergic to hydrocarbons, which means she can’t have any physical contact with phones or laptops, among other things. In fact, much of the hustle and bustle of modern life is off limits,” Paul explained.
“If someone drank coffee with milk, the smell of milk off their breath would trigger a seizure. Today, she lives in a sealed room and any time she goes out, she wears a full-face respirator.”
On top of all of this, Cormick suffers from Ehler-Danlos Syndrome, a disorder of the body’s connective tissues which causes her limbs to frequently come away from their sockets – something made worse by seizures.
“But she is still making art. Her art has become about her condition,” Paul added.
Interviews like this fed into Paul’s thesis, which was submitted last year. He graduated online last month, finishing off the degree remotely and taking classes online throughout 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
He agrees that the public health crisis has created a multiplicity of new challenges for artists, and that there is potential for further research.
“People I know who have had the virus also have ‘long Covid’, and it’s affecting their art practice. Others are vulnerable and working in isolation,” he said.
“Research has become harder to do with the lockdowns. The NCAD library is one of the largest art libraries in Europe, with over 100,000 books, and for a long time it couldn’t be accessed.
“But there is the potential for more research, and it’s up for consideration.”
Paul Roy’s work is currently being exhibited to a mainly virtual audience in an MA/MFA graduate exhibition at the NCAD Gallery. The opening of the exhibition, entitled ‘A Reluctant Mirage’, can be viewed on YouTube.