Memories of regular sea crossings with her seriously ill husband lingered with Majella O’Neill Collins, the Sherkin artist whose work has been bought by George Clooney, writes Colette Sheridan.
When Sherkin Island-based artist Majella O’Neill- Collins was ferrying her seriously ill husband in and out of hospital, what “saved” her during those traumatic days was the work that she was imagining in her head.
Making numerous trips to hospitals in Cork with Michael for chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat his pancreatic cancer, O’Neill-Collins was unable to paint. So she worked in a different way, writing and making videos as well as envisaging paintings.
“Michael was very unwell for a few years,” says O’Neill-Collins.
He’s finished treatment now and is in the clear. It went on for about three years.
And while it was a difficult time, this resourceful artist has an exhibition of paintings at Cork Airport for the month of May, based on the comings and goings to the mainland in a small punt that she and her husband own.
The exhibition, entitled Crossing, was inspired by the journey back and forth from Sherkin to Cork. The oil on canvas paintings are semi-abstract, bold in colour and often depict the sea. O’Neill-Collins even enlisted a contact with a drone, to take photographs from the sky.
“I was looking to work from the stills, turning them into paintings. But the stills were very linear. I had this image of things being looser and more dreamlike. The view from the air looked like mapping. So I ended up doing aerial views, from my imagination.”
O’Neill-Collins, brought up in Church Cross near Skibbereen where her parents ran a post office, has been married to her Sherkin Island native fisherman and farmer husband for 27 years.
Captivated by the beauty and wildness of where she lives, her work has been bought by Hollywood star George Clooney and West Cork-based actor Jeremy Irons.
Clooney, says O’Neill-Collins, saw her work at the Inchydoney Island Hotel, nearly two decades ago. He subsequently bought one of her seascapes in a gallery in Innishannon. She didn’t meet the actor but was obviously pleased with his patronage.
“It’s really nice when someone takes a piece of you away with them because they like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone from the street or someone famous. It’s a compliment.”
O’Neill-Collins, who has two grown-up children, is the facilitator for the Dublin Institute of Technology visual arts course on Sherkin Island and is the founder of the CUH art collection.
Her exhibition at the airport aims to provide an unexpected attraction for people travelling, while the CUH collection is an antidote to the bare walls she noticed there some 17 years ago when her brother was a patient there. He had been in a bad accident but made a “miraculous recovery”.
O’Neill-Collins felt that “if someone wanted to cry at the hospital, they could turn into the wall for a private moment” and see art. The collection comprises work from some of Ireland’s leading artists, including Jesse Jones and Hughie O’Donoghue.
Living on Sherkin Island is heaven for O’Neill-Collins. She is philosophical about the times that the island is cut off due to severe weather.
“On Sherkin, your whole life works around the sea and its tides. You’re cut off a lot of the time. It’s a bit like life. You have good days and other days that are not so good. For me, the sea is like a metaphor. It’s about memory and place and seems very connected to the emotional side of things.”
O’Neil-Collins is currently working on another exhibition, based on the videos she made in the punt while travelling with her husband. “My skills in technology aren’t great so when I looked back at the videos, I saw that there were no heads there. But it works really well. The videos don’t need a head. You’d have to see them.”
Feelings of isolation on Sherkin rarely trouble O’Neill-Collins. “I’m more lonely on the mainland than I would be on the island. You either love it or you don’t. It’s an acquired taste.”
Crossing is at Cork Airport for the month of May