I first met Janet Murran a few years ago when I moved to West Cork. I didn't know anyone or how I was going to fit into this community of makers and artists and she was firmly welcoming and quietly encouraging. Janet Murran is a visual artist whose work is deeply rooted in her home of rural West Cork. She's also a wife, mother to three children from 12 to 17 years and in the relatively short time I've know her, has managed to shoe horn in several art related roles, and has a number of creative side projects in collaboration with others. Her paintings are sometimes deceptively simple, belying her mastery of materials and understanding of subject matter. Further investigation into her broad body of work raises speculation as to what is really behind the seemingly straightforward images and she doesn't shy from darker themes. I'm lucky to have two of Janet's painting hanging in my home and they are works that from time to time, request you look at them with new eyes. As much as she would be the first to point out the flaws in my claim, Janet lives the way I think many aspire to – keeping a family, gardening, cooking, walking her Jack Russell Terriers, rowing, catching up with friends and somehow carving out time everyday to make new work in her studio. She is a creative talent, fiercely kind and a person of immense integrity.
Where did you grow up and what influence did it have on you creatively?
I grew up on a farm not too far from Innishannon and our nearest village was four miles away. The farm was hugely influential; I loved the animals, walking the land, the seasons. There was always change, always something happening, it was never boring. We had access to a shed full of tools and I can't imagine now my own children having access to saws and hammers and nails. You were allowed to use it and the one rule was that you put it back. You didn't have to ask anyone, you just cut your piece of plank which was going to be used in your playhouse. If there was a tin of paint, you'd be able to use that to paint what ever you were doing and there was a lovely freedom in that.
Looking back, has there been anyone in your life who influenced you in what you're doing today?
My grandmother who lived down the road from us was key in the sense of that lovely quiet teaching. We'd sit on the step and she'd teach me knitting, embroidery or crochet. Her hands were never still, she was always busy mending socks or a hole in a jumper or knitting woolly hats. I remember her knitting the socks, so she was just mending socks she had knitted. The other person, who is my rock, would be my husband, because without him I couldn't pursue a career as a visual artist. There's an element of constantly picking yourself up and dusting yourself down and trying again. I can't imagine that I wouldn't have that as my first thought in the morning and my last thought at night. He facilitates me in that and encourages me.
My parents never stopped me from doing anything creatively. Books were my fathers thing. In the seventies, my mother made all our dresses and would have a ribbon to match every dress, so there was a lot of creativity around me. It rarely was just to put something on a wall, it had a purpose.
You spent a decade or so travelling - whilst you were travelling, were you drawing or doing photography?
I always had a sketchbook with me and used to draw with a normal bic pen. When I first travelled I made my money by mending things, I'd go around to all the boats and if they needed uniforms fixed, a button sewn on or a zip repaired, jeans taken up, whatever needed mending I'd do it. Everyday I'd make enough to afford my hostel for the night, food for the day and a couple of drinks. I used my skills I'd learnt from my grandmother to keep me going and then I got a job on the boats. When you're working on boats it's full on, you work hard and play hard. I read a lot as you were nearly always waiting for someone to come, guests to arrive, or they'd gone ashore and you were waiting for them to come back. You could read a chapter of a book as oppose to pull out the sketchbook.
Why did you decide to settle in West Cork?
My grandmother was from Schull and my mother from Rosscarbery and I've always loved this part of the country. When you get to Leap, the landscape changes and I love that ruggedness you get when heading further West. We were driving through Skibbereen and there was a tree in front of the old Arts Centre with big loaves of bread hanging down and I thought 'Any town that has that stuff going on is for me'.
How did it come about that you did the Visual Arts degree course on Sherkin Island?
My youngest was about one and a half at the time and so many things that seemed impossible became possible very quickly. Through Sean saying he could work around the hours, through me realising it would be around the weekends and Sean and I could work it out. I thought, 'Nothing to lose here, I can do it' and that was the start of four years of me being able to focus.
Are there ethical implications of the art materials you use?
I use acrylics, which is a plastic. I want to use oil paint, but because I've worked with acrylic for so long, I will need time to explore how I'd work with it. I used charcoal and paper initially because it's so low impact, but you have to fix the charcoal and I was using a spray that became quite toxic. I don't think any materials are particularly easy on the environment.
Your paintings references the world around you and you especially explore rural themes. Sometimes, your work has an unexpectedly darker side.
Scarecrows are sad, they are put up with great hope, but I'm not sure they actually achieve very much. I know the people who've made them probably don't consider themselves to have a creative bone in their body and yet here's this construct that is three dimensional and it's got a personality and it's doing a job. I'm very drawn to that. When you look at them up close, the person has put a bit of detail in and you think 'They really got into this'. When they've been thrown to the side of the field because their job is done, it can take on a much heavier meaning. Some of that work for me is my strongest and was loaded with meaning.
In your Instagram posts you often offer a narrative which gives an insight into the way you see the world - do you think it's important to tell the story?
I use words quite a lot in conjunction with my art, although it's more notebook work. If I go to a place I try to sum up a sense or feeling of the place through words and it can be a very simple list describing that place, what am I seeing, what am I hearing, what am I feeling, what's the sensation, maybe what's the weather like. I'll never forget that place then or that time based on the list and those words correspond to the work when I'm painting. Some pieces just compel me to write just a little bit.
Do you have any rituals or practices that help you in your creative work?
You need to be in the space in order to get started. If you feel you've got nothing to say, there's always paper that needs prepping, or the studio to tidy, or maybe mixing colours is a good way to start. There are days when I'd be in my studio and have put in a good two hours of prepping boards and only started applying paint and the alarm goes off and I need to go for the kids and you just have to stop then. And that's fine. If I have another hour later on, whatever was there might come straight back to me and that quite often happens, it's a state of mind to keep it alive. I do what I can when I can. Some days are really good and I'll only be prepping boards for five minutes and then I'm off. I use the words, 'What have I got to lose?' a lot. Being in the space is the most important thing and once I get in there, I'm not looking at the dishes that need washing or the clothes that need hanging out.
How do you find inspiration and then organise it?
My kids are so sick and tired of me stopping the car suddenly to capture something. I use my camera a lot, because I'm driving by or out walking and I need to capture it there and then. At the moment I'm working on waterways, so if you look at my research you see the same images, at different times of day, or different angles. I always have my notebook with me if I'm waiting for the kids and I can do my writing or sketching then. My inspiration is largely from the landscape I'm walking or driving passed everyday. I'm watching it and studying it. I've a series of drawings I called The Two Trees and it's one particular field I revisited season after season. I've drawn it with big round bales in the field, another time I went back and they'd just spread lime and the tractor marks through the lime looked like snow. There's always something else there.
Tell me about the puppet making, the use of recycled materials and the story telling?
My kids go to the Gaelscoil in Skibbereen and I knew three other ladies who are creative, so I thought we'd pull together as a team and see if we could make something happen. I find puppets are great, for the child who's a bit more gregarious, you're not asking the child to quieten down, you're asking him to calm down his puppet. Or if there's a child who's shy or has struggled learning, you're not directing actions to the child, it's through the puppet. We linked up with Green-Schools which encourages recycling in schools, so for the most part it was all done using recycled materials. We never wanted the kids to go out and buy anything to make a puppet, they just needed to open their eyes and look around their home, then we would show them how they could turn bottle lids into hats, buttons or eyes. Nets that you buy fruit in can be made into fantastic hair tied in bunches. We've done puppetry for the St Patricks Day parades, made a set of artist heads when we were promoting Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre and we made the Phoenix for the O'Donovan Rossa festival. One of the girls would be good at mechanics, I tend to be able to picture what it's going to be like and form it, another girl is good at giving it that finesse, so we're a good team. We are working on other creative projects, too.
You have chickens and grow your own veg. Why is self sufficiency important to you?
It is what was always done, growing up on a farm. I love the seasonality about it and nothing gives me more pleasure than to go to my tunnel and pick fresh veg that I've grown. I'm always amazed that some of the seeds are so tiny and you plant it and have this tiny little seedling and within a number of months you're eating a carrot from a tiny little carrot seed. I think it's astoundingly amazing and I'm always bowled over by the size of the seed and the amount that it gives me, there's something humbling about that.
What is your relationship with fashion and clothing?
For all my love of fashion, I don't like the fashion world. I really don't like waste and excess and the way that because it's cheap it loses it's value. In an ideal world it would be better to have less and that it's better quality.
I think I'm very lucky to live in Skibbereen, for the most part I don't feel enormous pressure from the kids that they are in the latest of gear. My son was always a guy who, when he liked something, would nearly wear it to shreds. The thing that has come to the house is internet shopping and my daughter would be a huge advocate of that. She's not foolish with her money, she buys a few key pieces and the thing that I think is really cool is the girls her age share their clothes. They might be in a different outfit whenever they go out, but they're sharing them. They've done that from the very beginning and that came from them.
Do you have an heirloom piece perhaps clothing or something else that you will always keep?
In my work I've done pieces on what I call Hidden Beauty or Hidden Treasures. I have quite a few bits that probably nobody would put on display; they're chipped and somewhat discarded and have become unloved over time, but they are actually very dear to me, because I know my ancestors would have used them. I've a dictionary going back to 1889 and some crockery that also goes back quite far. They won't be heirlooms as such, but what I'm trying to do in my paintings is create works that in themselves may become heirlooms. So the objects, whilst not useful or particularly beautiful in their own right have become objects of beauty and given new life through working with them. So I see them more as being heirlooms in the paintings than heirlooms in themselves.
When do you feel most connected with yourself?
When I'm in the landscape; when I'm walking a field or when I have the dogs with me and I can 'off road', I just love solitude, being alone and being in the landscape. I absolutely love being in a field or being by the coast – Skibbereen does it for me, I am most myself when I'm in this place.
Is there a book or film that you would recommend?
There are two films, The Deer Hunter and Out of Africa. The Deer Hunter took me completely out of my comfort zone and was just monumental. Out of Africa, I so loved the costumes and so wanted to become a costume designer or fashion designer, it was really key at that time. As for a book, I read Girl With a Pearl Earring way before the film came out and I was just blown away by Tracy Chevalier's writing and her descriptions, such as the mixing of the paint. I've read it three times. There are times you put down a book and you don't want it to end because it was so magical. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok is about an artist, another beautiful book, one of those books you know you're better for having read it, you're different. I love books.
Are there any favourite quotes or mantras that you turn to?
It's always, 'What have you got to lose?'. Being an artist is an amazing and wonderful thing and what I do isn't a hobby, it's way beyond that. You question yourself daily, 'Why am I? What is it? What is it all about?'. You have an exhibition and maybe the reaction isn't as hoped and you wonder why you do it and what's it all about and you constantly need to be picking yourself up, because there's an urge inside of you that is driving you. So you have to have something like 'What have you got to lose?'. I've been doing this steadily now for about seven years and everyday is brighter, even a walk in the rain is so much better because I do what I do, everything is more interesting because of it.
Thinking about ethical living and sustainability, what small things can we do everyday to live as more conscious consumers?
A difference that could be made straight away is packaging. As a mum with a family the bin fills in a day and it's ridiculous. Stuff individually wrapped which then has to be wrapped in a package, but then you might have a special offer where there's two, so those two packages are wrapped in another package. How much packaging do we need? I just get cross about it. We have to reduce and re-use a lot more. If we all cared just a little bit more, pick up that piece of rubbish you see blowing across the street, it's not going to kill you to pick it up. It's our planet and we need to mind it.
January is about fresh starts and new beginnings and resolving to do things differently and better. Are you someone who makes New Years Resolutions?
No, every time I go up to the studio it's, 'Let's give it another go'. New Year for me is actually a time of reflection, where you are thankful for what you've got. As I get older, having parents who are elderly and seeing what they went through, it makes you realise that this minute, this moment, today is precious, so it's not about the new year, it's about being grateful and making the most of now. I have a philosophy to make the most of right now. If it's a wet day, grand, but do you know what, it's a grand day, too.