Passing on art to the next generation

One of the great things about a county of 200,000 people, like Kildare, is that there are bound to be numerous interesting people living and working there.

One of the great things about a county of 200,000 people, like Kildare, is that there are bound to be numerous interesting people living and working there.

Whether they are natives or new arrivals, they all have a history, and there-in lies many great stories.

Kildare town woman Susan Boyle has one such story.

Having spent the past decade or so studying and working in the arts, she’s now back in her home town, breathing new life into the corridors and rooms of her family’s old house in the centre of the town.

The past decade has seen her being the red-headed object of curiosity amongst dark-haired Mexican children as she tried to teach them about the Children of Lir, “rolling around on a floor for a year” (her words) at a prestigious London university and working with terminally ill children in Barretstown.

Now she’s giving local children their start in the wonderful world of art.

Her studio is in a large, bright room beside the family pub, over-looking Kildare’s Market Square.

“It’s beside the pub, go in through the green door,” was the instruction on the phone to this reporter who had arranged to meet Ms. Boyle one bright Wednesday morning a few weeks ago.

So the Leinster Leader duly arrived at the door and knocked. There was no answer.

Pushing the door, we entered the house and immediately saw a sign on the far wall that directed us up an old staircase.

A series of further signs, ‘almost there’, ‘just a little bit further’, ‘around the corner’ brought us, finally, to the end of the corridor where Susan was inside, making tea.

Art has been Susan Boyle’s life for the past decade, and her walls are adorned with paintings, drawings, books about painting, and a row of plastic dog’s tails upon which to hang up your coat.

It sums her up – somebody happy to operate in that sweet spot between art and practical humour.

After school she went to Trinity College Dublin to study Drama.

The well-regarded course included a year abroad and chose the University of California, Irvine where the course was “practical and arts related”.

There, things were on a different scale. “They had eight different theatres on campus, and one of them could accommodate up to 500 people, just on the stage.”

“The director of the course realised that the college’s biggest resource was the students,” she explains.

This lead to a programme whereby students would go into the communities and schools of the southern Californian city and work with the people.

She ended up in a school, peopled mainly by the children of Mexican immigrants who were fascinated by her red/blonde hair.

“It was a great cultural learning experience,” she said, adding that one of the things that fascinated the children was when she invited them to take their shoes off.

“That’s something you don’t do in Mexico.”

After completing her degree, Susan started working in Barretstown as a drama specialist.

“It was tiring and exhausting. It was a high energy job and the kids were great to work with.

“It was great fun to use drama, because even though they were ill, or in a wheelchair, or didn’t even speak English, there were no limits to drama.

“It bridges a lot of gaps.”

However she described the emotional toll of the nature of working at the Camp. “A lot of kids just don’t come back,” she explained.

A chance encounter with an old teacher lead her, soon after, to teaching primary school which she did for a little while before deciding that she would have to choose between it, and the arts.

This lead her to the University of London, Royal Holloway, to complete a masters in performance studies which had, she explained “a very practical understanding of drama”.

However, as she discovered, “you were expected to act, which I didn’t like.”

Eventually, despite her initial reservations, she threw herself into it and “spent a lot of the year rolling around on the floor”

Back in Ireland some time later, Susan was approached to do some arts consultancy, and following some initial work, “word of mouth” enabled her to get more and more work.

In the meantime she worked with Kildare County Council’s ‘If I had an artist for a day’ programme which involves a team of eight artists who are available to schools for a day.

“Some want you to design a programme and deliver it to the kids, while others want you to work with the teachers.”

This coincided with a “a big push on drama in primacy schools” and it is quite popular, although, not as popular as it should be she feels.

In more recent times, with the economic recession, much of the consultancy work has dried up.

But, ever resourceful, Susan has started to teach art to a group of youngters.

“This allows you to have more control over what you’re doing,” she explained, adding that she’s now teaching up to 50 children a week.

Something she has noticed is that the older children (she has some teenagers) are starting to learn from the younger ones.

Recently, she gave all of her students a mirror and told them to draw themselves.

“In a world where we are all creating our own portraits on Facebook and Twitter, it was good for them to see and try to recreate their own portraits.”

It’s fun, it’s practical and it’s art. Right up her street!