Greengrass Bluegrass Newgrass Project
an essay by Susan Gorsen
Much has happened since the summer of 2002 when 6 artists from KY converged on Belfast for the Trace Gallery July 4th exhibition organized by Deirdre Robb. Simultaneously, these American artists, with the addition of artists from the Dublin area, were invited by the Belfast GBN Group and Billy Coulter, Leisure Services Manager of Castlereagh Borough, to once again work collaboratively with each other as well as a select group of talented teenage artists from East Belfast.
Using the computer and art studio facilities of Castlereagh College, the basic task essentially replicated the Artopia Project done in Louisville several months before: offer talented teen artists the chance to work hands on side by side during a week long project thus providing them the opportunity for an intensely personal look into the creative ideas process and problem solving skills of an international group of artists with well established professional careers.
After only a week in the studio, the completed works of art were installed for exhibit in the lobby of the Waterfront Hall, Belfast's' premiere cultural performance facility. It must be noted that without the non-stop, support, encouragement and engineering expertise of Mick O'Rourke and Gordon Garner, installation for some of the above mentioned projects might have proved to be challenges beyond the scope of some artists' abilities. Participating artists were C.J. Pressma working with Colin Davis, Maura O'Rourke with Marty Walsh, Joyce Garner and Ray Duncan, Ian Fleming with Tom Pfannerstill and , for the 2nd such collaboration, Suzanne Mitchell teamed with Deirdre Robb. Susan Gorsen served as recording photographer for the entire project.
During their stay at the lovely Clandeboye Lodge near Bangor, the visiting artists had the opportunity to tour highlights of the North Antrim coast as well as rural towns near Belfast. Everyone enjoyed having evening meals and parties and impromptu musicales in the homes of several Belfast artists , along with a special night of bowling entirely arranged by the enthusiastic student collaborators.
Having very successfully completed 3 ambitious programs in less than 6 months, the group discussed the many benefits and logistical challenges of these international studio and exhibition projects. Many of the artists involved have crossed the Atlantic 4-5 times for events relating to the Grasses Project. Amazingly, with so many creative personalities involved, none wished to withdraw. Many others were interested in taking part in future Grasses Project endeavors. It was jointly decided that these programs need to both continue and expand. Emphasis was placed on trying to include artists from other regions as well as bringing in artists from other disciplines such as writers or musicians. The biggest questions relate to who and how this might be accomplished. The Belfast artists had very successfully formed the GBN Belfast Project and were in a position to make formal applications to various funding groups. In Kentucky, funding opportunities for a grass roots artist driven initiative continued to look unpromising.
In Louisville, the Erin Devine Gallery mounted the 4th "Irish Art Now", a February 2003 exhibition featuring Marua O'Rourke, Brian Haggerty and Caro Hopkins. By the summer of 2003 Ian Fleming and Maura O'Rourke were already planning an independent collaborative project of their own involving the history and mythology of Tara, home of Ireland's ancient kings. This major 20 painting exhibition with full historical documentation opened in Louisville's PYRO Gallery early in January 2004.
Working toward the goal of not wanting a loss in momentum for the Grasses Project while trying to figure out how to expand and in which direction for our next major focus, Maura O'Rourke (with minor administrative assistance from Ian Fleming, Erin Devine and Susan Gorsen)organized "Encompass", a small works exhibition held in March 2004 at Ardgillan Castle in Balbriggan by the sea, Co. Dublin. This was a very successful exhibition with nearly 300 in attendance at the opening. Undoubtedly much of this show's success is owing to the diversity and unusually high quality works submitted by more than 50 artists from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the US.
Currently there are 2 more Grasses Projects on the horizon, an assemblage of e-mailed images from 60 artists to be both installed and, at night, video projected at Queens University in conjunction with the November 2004 Belfast Festival. The Belfast GBN Group has cleverly organized this international cyber art project, in part, to escape the universal Customs restrictions and expenses placed in the path of artists trying to find an audience for their work in a foreign country.
The 2nd program being planned involves a 3rd studio collaboration between artists from KY and southern Indiana hosting artists from Ireland and Northern Ireland for approximately 2 weeks in mid-May. Partnering with the Grasses Project will be the Mary Anderson Center, a rural Indiana artists' residency and retreat facility 15 minutes across the Ohio river from Louisville, and the Fine Arts Department of Indiana University Southeast who are permitting our artists to use some of their studio facilities as well as offering their Barr Gallery to exhibit the completed project. This newest planned collaboration will be different ,not just in the expanded number of invited artist participants, but because of the decision to include both Irish and American writers and poets as integral partners in this creative venture.
One final note. For nearly 2 years Louisville's Suzanne Mitchell and Deirdre Robb of Belfast have been trying to work out the time and place to both create and exhibit a collaborative series of their own. This project is currently scheduled for exhibition in June 2005 at the Louisville Visual Art Association's historic Water Tower facility. Depending on the exact dates their exhibition will be on view, it may be possible to move the Mary Anderson Center artwork from IUS to the Water Tower's 2nd gallery during the Mitchell-Robb installation. Considering the number of artists with hands on involvement for both these projects, it might actually be possible to generate some long overdue media coverage for the Grasses Project in Louisville.
earliest history, much of the city’s rich cultural heritage
and personality can be traced to large numbers of Irish immigrants
who made active and colorful contributions to the region’s
growth and development. Breeding and racing horses, as well as
distilling whiskey, are Louisville's strongest industries which
trace their origin to the lives and traditions of settlers from
all over Ireland. Bluegrass music is a direct link to early Celtic
airs and tunes locked away to ferment and distill in the timeless
treasure vault of Appalachia. Storytelling, folk humor and the
roots of gracious Southern hospitality are quite possibly other
legacies left by early Irish immigrants to the Bluegrass country,
with its rolling green topography so reminiscent of rural Ireland.
To date, there has
been no focused opportunity to explore, connect or begin to compare
the wealth of visual art talent from these two regions. With that
in mind, the GreenGrass/Bluegrass/NewGrass Project brings together
professional artists from across the Atlantic to build bridges
both personally and career related which will enrich the artistic
climate of both communities, with the additional benefit of providing
a collaborative context for artists from the north and south of
Ireland to meet eachother away from the troubled political climate
of their homeland and hopefully forge relationships which will
endure once they return to Ireland.
Project is a cultural exchange program Louisville artist Susan
Gorsen thought about developing for more than 15 years. Her personal
love affair with Ireland dates back to a month long visit there
in 1968 when she was thoroughly captivated by the land and its
people. Although Gorsen’s family tree has no Irish roots,
she regards Ireland as her spiritual homeland, a welcoming place
that mysteriously tugs at her heart and infuses her with a source
of seemingly limitless creative energy. After a 29 year absence,
Gorsen now spends part of each summer in Ireland traveling, meeting
artists, making her own art as well as working creatively with
sick or troubled children as well as young people caught in Northern
Ireland’s revolving door of political and paramilitary turmoil.
Since its inception
early in 1998, the Grasses Project has introduced Gorsen to numerous
artists and arts administrators from both the Republic and the
North. As a result of those connections, she first arranged a
Louisville show for Fingal artist Maura O’Rourke in March
1999, followed that same summer by 2 Louisville artists exhibiting
in the Republic of Ireland. In August 2000 Louisville’s
Erin Devine Gallery had an exhibit of Kentucky artists at Ardgillan
Castle, an Irish Heritage site north of Dublin; that Louisville
gallery is having its 5th annual show of Irish artists in March
2003. In March 2001 Belfast artist Colin McGookin came to Kentucky
to exhibit with Queen Street Studio artists Sally Young and Amanda
Montgomery at Louisville’s artist run co-op, Zephyr Gallery.
In addition, McGookin, former Administrator and founding member
of Queen Street Studios, Belfast’s oldest studio cooperative,
served as juror for the Louisville Visual Art Association’s
2001 Water Tower Annual Exhibition, an 8 state competition which
is the region’s oldest and largest. McGookin also gave a
lecture about the evolution of his own career and the difficulties
faced by most professional artists in Northern Ireland during
the height of The Troubles there.
Also in March 2001,
7 Belfast artists had an exhibition at BankOne Gallery, which
is administered by the LVAA. As part of the Grasses Project cultural
exchange, 4 of those artists (William Artt, Christine Bowen, Ian
Fleming and Deirdre Robb) along with Colin McGookin attended their
opening receptions and spent a week in Louisville as guests of
local visual artists. Louisville Mayor David Armstrong officially
proclaimed the first week in March 2001 as “Irish Artists’
Week” in recognition for and support of the 3 simultaneous
gallery exhibitions featuring work by artists from both Northern
Ireland and the Republic.
During the summer of
2001, Susan Gorsen was invited back to Belfast by Ian Fleming,
winner of a Year of the Artist Grant from the Northern Irish Arts
Council, to collaborate with him and Deirdre Robb on “Flow”,
his week long community based environmental sculpture project
for Creagah Glen Park in Castlereagh Borough, just east of Belfast.
This collaborative experience had such a profoundly positive effect
on these 3 artists that plans were developed to expand the concept
of collaborative ventures by inviting 6 Irish artists to come
to Louisville early in April 2002. These artists were teamed with
Louisville artists as well as high school students from the LVAA’s
innovative Children’s Free Art Classes program who worked
as studio assistants. The objective was for the artists' teams
to develop and execute a major collaborative work of art at LVAA’s
Artopia Creative Arts Studios in an open doors environment giving
the public access to the entire creative process. These older
CFAC students gained invaluable experience working with professional
artists to resolve artistic and technical problems while meeting
the 5 day production deadline. The Grasses Project once again
arranged for visiting Irish artists Ian Fleming, Colin McGookin,
Maura O’Rourke, Deirdre Robb and Marty Walsh to stay as
guests in the homes of Louisville artists and further expand the
personal aspects of this cultural exchange program.
Working closely with
the LVAA and the Castlereagh Borough Council’s Community
Services Manager, Billy Coulter, the Grasses Project and studio
groups from Belfast are planning for 5-6 Louisville artists to
exhibit their work in Northern Ireland during summer 2002. Additional
efforts are underway to replicate or redesign the April artists’
Artopia collaboration for these same Louisville artists to work
at Castlereagh College in East Belfast with visual artists from
the region and a select group of talented Irish teens. This would
be a pilot program where Castlereagh Borough’s Community
Services would introduce a version of the LVAA’s 76 year
old Children’s Free Art Classes Program to educate talented
youngsters in Northern Ireland. As an essential part of the Grasses
Project, reciprocity for earlier hospitality in Louisville will
be provided for the visitors from Kentucky.
The Republic of Ireland
and Northern Ireland both have Arts Councils which provide funding
support for established professional artists to produce new work,
expand career opportunities, and ship their work to international
exhibitions. “Art Flights” is a program through Aer
Lingus and the Arts Councils for qualified Irish artists to apply
for full reimbursement for 1 round-trip plane ticket involving
a significant professional opportunity or international festival
or exhibition each year. This kind of career support for creative
artists is virtually unheard of in the United States. As a result,
many American artists are seldom able to afford any international
travel for themselves or their artwork. In addition to these grants
covering an artist’s travel expenses, several Irish shipping
firms routinely underwrite the significant costs related to professionally
crating and shipping artwork to international venues.
In the absence of American
public funding for such ambitious artist initiated projects, private
donors and the corporate sector are the best hope for program
support assisting Louisville artists and their work internationally.
The Louisville Visual Art Association, a 501 C-3 non profit organization,
is acting as fiscal agent for the GreenGrass/Bluegrass/NewGrass
Project and will collect and distribute all funds donated to underwrite
this cultural exchange. Money is needed for administrative expenses,
Honorariums, publicity and mailings, art materials for the projects,
as well as lunches and drinks for the week 10-12 artists and 12-15
CFAC students are working at Artopia in April. In addition a separate
fund must be established to support Louisville artists and their
work going to Ireland in July during the most expensive travel
season. The concept of artists hosting other artists partially
solves the housing and meal problem associated with international
travel, but the cost of crating and shipping artwork is extremely
expensive and places great economic strain on even the most successful
artists. Kentucky is not an especially wealthy state; its Arts
Council has minimal funding for individual or artists’ initiated
projects. As the commonwealth’s largest metropolis, Louisville
is a city known to generously support the arts, but most of the
time "the arts” refers to the performing arts rather
than the visual arts. The established success to date of the GreenGrass/Bluegrass/New
Grass Project offers private and corporate art patrons as well
as philanthropic institutions the chance to support a major grass
roots cultural exchange program which truly expands Louisville’s
reputation as a progressive presenter and supporter of all the
For information about
contributions, please contact Susan Gorsen by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the
Green Grass/Bluegrass/New Grass Project.