Writes Pat Johnstone
There’s a secret oasis in Brackernagh that’s away from the noise of the town and perhaps even from the stress of the times. Go through the magic door into the secret garden and there you find the artists’s studio. Purpose built about ten years ago, it is a large quiet space suffused with light. The glass doors at the end look out on to a cottage style garden filled with flowers and shrubs and an apple tree now in blossom. Through the arches the eye travels down through another green space and out onto a vegetable garden. This is the domain of Joyce Little and her husband Tommy Campbell, their own Shangri-la.
Like many denizens of the town I have known Joyce through her work for a long time but I was very surprised when she told me that she had lived in Ballinasloe since she was a child when her father came to do some work on Galway Cathedral. Joyce is one of nine children born to Ted and Rita Little who lived in Dublin. Ted was a stone sculptor, the seventh generation of his family to work in stone. His five sons are sculptors. His daughter Jacinta was one of the first women apprenticed to the trade and did some of her training out in Ballybrew stone quarry in the Dublin Mountains. So Joyce grew up, she says, ‘living with hammering and banging’.
Ted worked on many public monuments, on fountains, on the Garden of Remembrance, on Celtic crosses and on Galway Cathedral and then in Top Quarries and with the Office of Public Works in Portumna. So the family settled in Ballinasloe.
Joyce’s mother, Rita was also gifted with her hands. She did crochet and hand knitting as well as flower arranging and she still does some painting. Joyce will say that her mother was a powerful influence on her. Being an independent woman, she supported her children in what they chose to do. She believed that they should be independent, self-reliant and self-fulfilled. Joyce’s other sisters also worked creatively, Josephine as a hairdresser and Stella as a dressmaker.
Her parents’ sense that Ballinasloe would be a good place to rear a family proved right and Joyce remembers a happy childhood, going to school with friends from Brackernagh and St. Joseph’s and spending the free time up in Garbally grounds. ‘You didn’t need adult supervision; you could play in the woods and have picnics.’
Then they had the excitement of their summers in Dublin, back with their grandparents on the South Circular Road, with plenty of cousins and aunts and uncles to visit and with the Phoenix Park and the Zoo as well as museums and the city centre close by. Their parents also brought them to Dublin at Christmas time to see the lights and Joyce remembers one eventful Christmas Eve when their car was stuck in a blizzard on the way back from the city and the younger children worried that Santa might not leave any presents. But they arrived back after midnight to find that Santa had left everything that their mother had ordered at the front door. People, says Joyce, were so good in town. Shopkeepers would think to deliver the goods and nobody touched them until they arrived home.
For her second-level education Joyce chose St. Michael’s Vocational School, or the Tech, despite the nuns trying to persuade her otherwise. From the age of ten Joyce knew that she wanted to be a fashion designer and that vocational education offered more practical subjects. Her mother supported her decision. Pauline McNamara taught domestic science as it was then and Joyce remembers that there was only one other ‘town’ girl in her class. It was mostly country girls who went to St. Michael’s.
By age 16 Joyce was studying at the Grafton Academy of Fashion Design in Dublin where she would spend three years. Her influences were French designers Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel and Sybil Connolly who was more of an individual, upmarket designer. Nothing existed outside of her chosen work and Joyce says the whole era of pop music and flower power passed her by. This was the Dublin of Guiney’s, Cleary’s and Arnotts and of course, Brown Thomas. Fashion remained the preserve of the well off and the chain stores had yet to colonise the streets.
Joyce worked as a fashion designer in Temple Bar which was a centre of textile manufacturers before its gentrification. While she had stayed with her grandfather as a student she could now move into her own bedsit and later share a bigger place with her brother Tom. Now she could go to nightclubs – if proof of age was accepted – you had to be over 21! So it was Snoopy’s and the TV Club and the music of Rod Stewart, Donna Summers and Frank Sinatra. She enjoyed films too but mainly romance, stuff with a beginning, middle and an end. She was never into soaps which required a commitment she was not prepared to give.
Joyce remembers her trips to the Dandelion market which sold unusual beads, macramé and ‘floaty materials’. She loved unusual fabrics that she found there like tie-dyed and batiks and she herself liked to wear floaty, kaftan type dresses. But she was aware that this was quite exotic for Ballinasloe when even her friends would say ‘Oh My God you are not going out in that!’
Joyce was returning to Ballinasloe frequently now because she had a fella back there. Tommy had been around before she went to Dublin but now the relationship prospered and they got married in Harold’s Cross. Joyce said at the beginning that she can’t remember dates and that is proving absolutely true at this stage! Having worked in Dubarry for a year Joyce decided to set up her own business in Main Street. Many people thought it was a mad idea, especially since her proposed business premises had a hole through the roof and another through the floor boards, but she thought ‘it’s now or never’. Again she had her mother’s support though they both bristled at Joyce having to get a male guarantor for her dealings with the bank!
She traded under Little Fashions, specialising in bridal, evening and graduation wear. The high point of her career in fashion came in 1990 when she represented Ireland in the Euro-Fashion Awards in Chambery, France. She was sponsored by the Arts Council and got great support from local business in Ballinasloe.
Work wasn’t always as glamorous. Joyce remembers going down to the premises at 4a.m. on a Saturday morning to finish and press garments and get them to the market in St. Michael’s Square – without a car and only a bicycle for transport. But again she had her mother and sister and a girl called Ann Dempsey working with her and helping her also to raise her three small children.
At some point in her 17 years of self-employment Joyce was asked to teach fashion design with AnCo, later Fás and she went from there to teaching day and evening classes with the V.E.C. She agrees that most opportunities came to her; she didn’t have to actively look for work.
Towards the end of that period Joyce began to look at other avenues for her creativity and opted to study sculpture at N.C.A.D. on a part-time basis for five years. She went on to do a Fine Arts degree from G.M.I.T. and a Masters in visual Art in Dun Laoighaire. She recently attained a Diploma in Youth arts from NUI Maynooth.
Having moved from Main Street to Society Court, Joyce and Tommy found their present home in Brackernagh which offered them a place to bring family, work and business together. Here they raised their three children who are now adults. Mark is head chef in the award-winning Artisan Restaurant in Galway; Joshua is working in drawing and animation. Indeed the apple does not fall far from the tree! Zara is a writer in Wales and still studying. The bond between mother and daughter is deep as we saw in Zara’s poetry at the recent Group 8 Exhibition:
I miss the sound of your step
On the stairs – slow and weary
Like the stream of early morning
Light. I miss the smell of Yves
Saint Laurent penetrating the air.
I miss the sound of your rocking chair,
As you scratch reluctant words
Into morning pages, tracing your artist’s way –
(I still refuse to let you burn those thoughts
– They are a catalogue of the chats we could’ve had).
I miss the sound of the fifth kettle
You’ve burnt out since the start of the year,
I miss the smell of baking that permeates
When you are near.
I miss the sound of the dog nagging
You to brave the elements –
I miss the smell of wet socks
When he returns from having had his way.
I miss the sound of you sighing at tangles
As you crotchet with eyes hooked to the TV.
I miss the sound of your voice.
I miss the feel of your arms around me.
I miss those nights when you were only a seat away –
I miss the feeling of knowing you are near.
Meanwhile Tommy, who had worked in Dubarry for years, changed careers, having been swept into bog oak sculpture on a summer course given by the Dutch sculptor Peter Koning. He also worked with Joyce’s brother , the late Brian Little, but would say he is mainly self-taught. He sources his raw material locally but also from his brother-in-law in Kildare. His work is highly regarded being unusual in that it is always brought to a fine finish which suggest months of patient and painstaking work. The raw material dictates the final figure as if he is releasing the figure from the bog oak.
Joyce is a visual artist who now combines all her creativity and learned skills in her work. She uses textiles, print, paint sculpture and photography. She will go from one project to another and work on installation pieces in her wonderful studio. ‘To me what’s important is the process, how it was made, perfected? What worked and what didn’t? It’s the beginning and the journey of making a piece of art; it could take six months to perfect. For example I could mix stone-dust and copolymer and it could take months to see if it works, that’s the exciting part.’ And she adds, ‘I thought I had left textiles behind, but it still creeps into the work’.
Those of us who saw Joyce’s work in the recent Group 8 Exhibition on the theme of ‘The Gathering’ can see this clearly. Her installation, ‘Wish You Were here’ involved hundreds of postcards collected from friends and family from all over the world stitched together to form a wall hanging while in the middle were two family suitcases that had also travelled the world. Joyce says ‘This work is about being away. In my immediate family, my two brothers and my only daughter live abroad. I have relatives and friends living in over twenty different countries. Some of these may never return to Ireland. While making this work, with this in mind, I wanted these people to be here.’
Most of her work, because it is installation, isn’t saleable. Some of it goes into galleries or other large spaces. Joyce donated work from the 2011 Group 8 Exhibition on the theme of ‘The Battle of Aughrim’ to The Aughrim Interpretative Centre. This features a map of the Jacobite encampment and two women’s dresses of the period one for each side in the war but asking the question ‘Where were the women?’
‘Work is something I have to do,’ says Joyce – ‘it’s to do something I love and feel passionate about. To come into the studio is sheer joy, it’s not work. I do this for myself. I went back to become an artist solely just for me. It’s not about money or gain.’ But, she adds, an artist does need an audience. When I put it to her that we Irish have not had an adequate education in the visual arts Joyce says that not everybody likes art and ‘you can’t make people like it.’ The artist can show a body of work and explain it but ‘once it goes on the wall it belongs to the viewer, the audience’. They may like the colour, line or tone without really knowing what it’s about. An artist has to be confident enough in their own work, believe in it and have the courage to stand up for it. If an artist puts a statement on a work the audience will try to interpret that; it could be totally different from the artist’s intent but it’s still valid.
Joyce shares her creative gifts with the community in many ways. She teaches in Youthreach on Mondays and Wednesdays, preparing students for Leaving Cert, she teaches children during the summer and also holds adult classes. As artist-in-residence with the Brothers of Charity she works with T.O.P.E in Poolboy and Fís Nua in Creagh. She is also a member of The Group 8 Artists Collective whose members came together in 2009 with a view to bringing their work to the people of the area in order to add to the cultural interest of the town. As organiser of the annual East Galway Art Trail Joyce has great praise for the libraries in the area who host the art trail and especially for the local library in Ballinasloe. Joyce says that there is much talent in Ballinasloe but many artists are self effacing and it is only when they are invited into an exhibition that this talent is seen.
This busy lady is now preparing a submission to Limerick Open Print Exhibition and she will be giving Bealtaine workshops in The Aughrim Interpretative Centre during the month of May.
And after all that creative engagement with the community Joyce can retreat into her wonderful studio. Her children are reared, her parents living in Aughrim now and settled into retirement although Ted is still working at projects that take his interest. With Tommy working in his studio or out in their lovely garden Joyce is the picture of contentment.