Irish colony inspires local painter to reach through the fog

On a cold, rocky outcropping on the southern Irish coast, Lillie Morris found inspiration.

The Augusta painter was awarded a two-week retreat this past summer in the abandoned town of Cill Rialaig on the shore in County Kerry, Ireland. There, she concentrated on her artwork, free from distractions.

“When you’re alone, you really have to reach deep inside yourself. You don’t have any instruction there. You’re just on
your own,” she said. The art that she created while on the retreat, and the rather prolific work she has completed since her return, is the subject of her exhibit at Broadstrokes Gallery that opens Oct. 19. So inspiring was the experience
that she continues to draw upon it.

“I’ve got the wall space here at the gallery covered, but there are still things I want to paint,” Morris said.

Ireland, she said, lends itself to an abiding connection to history, architecture and art: “You go to Ireland and in
the middle of a pasture of cows there’ll be a stone tower.”

Remnants of the past linger, like the colony at Cill Rialaig. The village was discarded during the Irish Potato Famine. But two centuries later, seven tiny stone houses were renovated as part of the Cill Rialaig Project, a project of publisher Noelle Campbell-Sharpe. With grant money, the magazine guru helped to create an artist’s retreat in the abandoned town on the remote Bolus Head peninsula.

Morris spent a week alone in a 200-year-old stone cottage with a loft bed and a studio space, all just big enough for one
person. The radiators on the walls didn’t function, so Morris stocked the old-fashioned turf stove — similar to a woodburning stove — and kept it blazing.

“You’re at the end of the earth, really. It’s a real isolated area,” Morris said.

Steep, rocky cliffs and few beaches pockmark the shoreline, an unforgiving area to which the English relegated Irish
residents during their occupation of the country. The nearest town was a 45-minute walk away. But the severity of the landscape holds a cold beauty, an unpolished charm that wails like the lament of a violin. The crisp, foggy mornings enveloped her in a cloud and forced her to paint inside.

“The first four days I spent there it was dismal and cold and rainy — your typical Irish weather that they’re always apologizing for,” Morris said.

Undeterred, she brought flowers like calla lillies and water irises inside to draw from. The flora that grows wild there is a gardener’s dream.

“I was determined to paint every day that I was there. I really wanted to use this time to work,” she said.

Although some artists boarded in the six other cottages when she first arrived, mid-stay she found herself alone. The
word “utterly” doesn’t even begin to describe it, and she didn’t have a car.

“I was there in this little tip of the end of the earth in this little stone cottage all by myself,” she said. “We seldom know what it is like to be completely alone. There was not an unnatural sound to be heard — just seagulls and water and wind.”

Yet, once she heard a thump at the door that startled her and brought her to the small window at the front of the cottage.

“There was a sheep scratching his rear end on the stone at the edge of the doorway,” she laughed. “It was so comical. He wouldn’t have been there if he’d known anyone was inside.”

But when the sun came out, everything changed. The weather went from frigid to unseasonably warm, bringing out  fair-skinned Irish sunbathers who popped up in the pub at night with bright pink sunburns.

“Their water down there, in places, is like the Caribbean. It’s just incredible crystal blue water,” she said. “On a clear
day you can see other islands and peninsulas out into the ocean.”

She and her husband, who joined her after the first week, spent their downtime exploring the countryside and climbing
the 670 steps to the top of Skellig Michael, a rocky island off the coast that for 600 years housed a monastery. They
communed with the Irish, German, American, British and Brazilian artists and photographers who arrived during
her second week — particularly the German artist, who caught fish for the group and with whom Morris, who is also a musician, jammed. She is a featured performer of Celtic music in the area, including the wildly popular Celtic Music Cruise down the Augusta Canal.

“I couldn’t have foreseen this but the art and music aspects seem to have complimented each other in a very unique way,” she said.

And although her two-week stay at the end of the world has passed, Morris said the aftershocks still resound.

“I don’t feel that I’m the same artist I was when I went,” she said. “I have emerged from that situation at a different level. I just think I’m painting at a different level, with probably greater confidence.”

The Cill Rialaig Project offers the retreat to artists who are still learning and growing. The application asks how an artist believes that he or she might be affected by the experience.

“They are particular about who they allow to come there, but it’s not based upon any awards you’ve won. It’s based
on people who express to them their sincere desire to grow artistically,” Morris said, and that sometimes artists don’t see the effects of the experience immediately. But it infiltrates and grows until what an artist experiences expresses itself at the end of a brush, in the pluck of a string and in the click of a shutter.

“The only thing that’s asked of us is  that we consider leaving a piece of the work we completed there. I left three pieces because I’d like to go back.”

“Ireland, Etc. 2006… My Cill Rialaig Experience” opening reception will be Oct. 16 from 5-8 p.m. The exhibit covers
work completed during Lillie Morris’s residency at Cill Rialaig in County Kerry, Ireland. The exhibit continues through
November. Call 706-860-6055 or visit broadstrokesgallery.com.

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