A Response to Place
By Tracie Barrett China Daily
Photos Wei Xiaohao- China Daily
A Response to Place
From knitting to painting, Irish artist weaves her heritage and surroundings into her art, as Tracie Barrett discovers.
The first thing one notices on entering the Beijing apartment of artist Niamh Cunningham is thenumber of canvases covering almost every inch of wallspace. A closer look shows an equallyimpressive variety of styles and subject matter – the dark reds and black silhouettes of hersubway series, thickly applied impasto oils that form rugged crags on a huge mountainscape,and the soft, seemingly melting lines of her Transparent Milk portraits, inspired by the work of the contemporary Chinese artist Zheng Delong.
Nor does the Dublinborn artist limit herself to working on canvas. Stepping into her studio orbrowsing her website, one can see a delicate knitted skull spun from her own hair and a moresolid knitted spiral that serves as a calendar, both public and very personal. Cunningham’sspeech is an artwork of its own, her soft Irish brogue weaving ethereal and elemental images,as she speaks of the countries in which she has lived and traveled and her evolution as anartist.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not when one sees the detail in her work, Cunningham studiedbiomedical sciences at university and has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in the field.Art has always been part of her life, however, learned first from her mother and grandmotherand honed through practice and experimentation.
“My gran was a painter,” she says.”So she gave me my first oils when I was 11. My motherused to make marmalade from real oranges and when the crates of oranges came, there was a canvas board on the crates.”
Her grandmother, a “hobbyist” painter, taught her how to prime the boards and they were her first canvases.
“When I was in primary school, the only thing I felt super confident in doing, the only thing Iwas better at than anyone else in school was knitting and sewing,” she says. “It was one of the legacies my mother handed to me.”
That legacy has been an integral part of her connection to China and particularly to its women,as she knitted parts of her Pillar of Time installation piece while traveling the city by bus.
“The women on the bus would be very interested. Some of them would insist on taking it andshowing me how they hold their knitting needles and how they wrap the thread. And there isthis unspoken etiquette with knitting that you finish the row before handing it back. So thereare a few rows knitted by complete strangers on the bus in that pillar.”
Cunningham works on her art from around 9 am each day until 6 pm most days, and she maysqueeze in another hour or so in the evenings. She is currently working on China landscapesfor a solo show planned for December at 3C Creative Mall in Beijing’s 798 Art District and hopes to complete another 20 paintings by that time.
She says she has “loads of ideas” inspired by Beijing, including a series about the city’spublic transport and the “slow ballet” of bicycles – “almost like a swarm of bees or insects”.
“I think if you have an opportunity to make new work for an exhibition, it’s natural to push yourself into unknown directions,” she says.
Cunningham currently has two China landscapes in Nature – a charity fundraising group showorganized by artist Patty Hudak at 66 Art Workshop in Chaoyang district, showing until June15.
You can see her work at niamhcunningham.com.