Its said art, freedom and creativity can change society faster than politics ever will. Such virtue is exhaled in every brushstroke by award-winning Irish artist Michelle Rogers, whose work strives to underline humanity beneath global confrontation and change. Speaking to The Anglo-Celt's Seamus Enright, the recognised human rights and environmental activist talks about a childhood visits to Cavan, meeting His Holiness Pope Francis, the impact of 'The Donald', and activism through art.
“I followed what I thought I should do,” recalls Michelle, departing the homely pub atmosphere of Gowna's Piker's Lodge, with the lunchtime clinking of glasses and scraping of plates fading behind the closing outer door. “The thing about growing up in Dundalk is I'd never have met any artists - I just didn't think people 'could become' artists. It didn't seem something you just did.”
Turning onto Swan Lake Drive, she first points out her cousin's the Gormleys' homeplace, then grandfather and former local schoolteacher Master Hugh Murray's home. Facing the balmy summer sunlight piercing through the trees, she points with more than a sense of nostalgia: “It hasn't changed at all.”
It's here her mother Eimear (nee Murray) grew up too, and where Michelle, who is currently exhibiting a mid-career retrospective of her art at Rathfarnham Castle, and her brothers Kieran and Paul spent many happy childhood summers. The still vivid memories contained within the roadside bungalow, with painted walls and privet hedging, remain an integral part of the well from which Michelle draws inspiration when committing her often thought-provoking work to canvas.
“We'd run from the car to the house, and he'd be standing there, his arm resting on the fireplace. He had rocking chairs and we'd sit on them and say 'Granddad tell us a story', and he would. Irish and Greek mythology you name it.”
A world away from industrialised Dundalk, the Harp factory's hoppy stench hanging densely in the air, flanked to the north by the Border fortifications, in Gowna with heads filled with stories the young Rogers kids were free to roam barefooted wherever they pleased.
“You really can open children's minds with stories, and so much more if they're from someone they love and admire. I'd love to be able to tell him that now. He'd be so delighted. He was such a towering figure in our lives, yet so gentle. When I think about where my reservoir of creativity comes from I very much think of Gowna, and I remember granddad,” Michelle tells the Celt.
Despite their varied themes, Michelle sees her paintings as “essentially Irish” because of this.
Like cloying soil, she ploughs furrows with brush strokes with her preferred medium in oils. “[Oils] are more malleable, flexible, they stay wet and inhibit change. I love the materiality, I love using it thickly. The pallet I have in my head is very Irish, hues of blues and greens. As a painter you look to bottle experience, not just a place and space in time, but how it felt too.”
It wasn't until a failed attempt at studying Marketing at Dundalk Institute of Technology in her teens that Michelle fully directed her life towards becoming an artist. Initially told her work was “awful”, Michelle persisted, returning each week for six-weeks to prove her worth to an adjudicator who, finally, pointed out she “might have something after all".
"I just wanted it so bad, and I'd just seen what I really didn't want to do in life.”
Dublin opened up avenues for Michelle to explore her interest in activism, growing up in Dundalk - “a very political town” - that social awareness had always been engrained in her.
“Irish people in general pay a lot more attention to what's happening around the world than most. At the time there were lots of protests, people looking for better rights, and culturally I feel this burden was shared. But I learned too from an early age that people even though they might look the same, and sounded the same, for whatever reason they could end up hating each other.”
As early as 1993, Amnesty International selected Michelle to travel to Bosnia as part of the U2 sponsored Caravan of Conscience, tasked with raising awareness of the atrocities taking place there.
It was an experience resulting in a period of work Michelle describes as some of the most mentally and emotionally difficult. Taking nearly five years to complete, the process also dredged up inherent feelings about what was happening north of the Border too.
“It was dehumanisation through violence,” says Michelle, who reflects on a moment about three-years in where she considered simply stopping, but for a sleep-induced epiphany. “The night I decided [to stop] I had this dream, and in that dream all these birds came, dogs came, and they spoke to me. They said I couldn't quit.”
Shortly after Michelle completed this series of work in 1997, she secured her first significant sale from the same collection. It proved seminal, affording Michelle the opportunity go and live in Rome for the first time.
“I had a choice to make: either buy a car or change my life - and it did change my life. I couldn't drive then, and I still don't.”
Michelle's current Rathfarnham exhibit, which has been extended to run until September 26, features representations from all her major collections, including 'Transformations', her first major international solo show, to her most recent in Galleria Civica D’Arte Contemporanea in Sicily.
Michelle is also exhibiting two new works for the first time in Ireland, a portrait of Panti Bliss inspired by Carravaggio’s St. Catherine, and 'ECO Primavera', a to scale homage to Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, incorporating more than one hundred small threatened and endangered species of insects, frogs, birds, and flowers named on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
“I love showing my art in churches, in castles or places not necessarily white cubed spaces. I think when you put art in those locations they sometimes look naked. My art, which relates to an older setting I feel speak to their surroundings, so they need a space that's already juiced, has its own character and can resonate with that.”
A second painting in that same 'ECO' series, 'ECO Venus', Michelle developed on-site at the Earth Institute on Columbia University’s Lamont campus, and includes more than 100 ocean species the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) recognises as endangered.
Michelle believes a primary function of art is to incite debate, and whatever approach is taken by the artist, the outcome is one of a “commitment” to society.
Such awareness, and preparedness to engage with social issues has at times got Michelle into “trouble”, she admits. At Anti-Trump immigration policy protests in Rome - one of three places Michelle considers home alongside Ireland and New York - protesters held posters designed by her reading 'Let Them In'.
“Being involved in protests as an artist doesn't come without repercussions. [The Rome protests were] followed up by a lot of scrutiny. For now my poster days are over. It seems there is a certain climate we're now living in where, and I don't really know what to say, but it has been dramatically altered for the time being,” says Michelle, avoiding going into too much further detail. “[Activism] is something very close to my heart, and will continue to be. How I go about doing anything about that I'm not quite sure for now.”
A devout Catholic, Michelle is open about using her spiritual compass as the foundation for caring for her fellow man. A growing list of influential world leaders are aware of her work, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who invited Michelle to sketch the Paris Climate agreement in New York, and she also met Pope Francis earlier this year.
Having attended the launch of his Encyclical in The Vatican in 2015, Michelle describes Pope Francis as a “hero” for his work in raising awareness about environmental change.
Presenting him with one of her paintings, she says: “He's even better than you could imagine. He's warm, hands on, he's energised by people. It was a great honour.
“Through my work I meet a lot of people passionate about the environment, and some don't necessarily think art or music or contemporary culture have an awful lot to offer. But I come from the perspective we all live in this cultural bubble where everyone is on social media, or online looking at art in their everyday lives, whether they think it or not, so culture is a lot of what we spend our lives doing.”
She adds: “If you ignore culture you're ignoring the world, so it's therefore important to seize upon any opportunity we have to use culture where it is accessible for the purpose of pushing humanitarian and environmental causes.”
Michelle's Rogers mid-career retrospective, entitled 'Thread Lightly', organised by OPW and The Paul Kane Gallery is currently exhibited at Rathfarnham Castle in Dublin and runs until September 26.