Laura O’Connor, second from left, alongside fellow members of the Array collective after winning the Turner Award.

Cavan artist picks up coveted Turner Prize

Rachel Whiteread, Antony Gormley, Gillian Wearing, Damien Hirst, Steve McQueen, and Grayson Perry... And now Laura O’Connor and her pals at Array.

A micro-cheer erupts down the phone when the Celt adds Laura’s name to the list of just some of the artistic heavy weights who have previously picked up the Turner Prize.

“I grew up following YBAs – Young British Artists – Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, was one of my favourite artists, and Rachel Whiteread was part of that group, so was Gillian Wearing – so I was a fan of that work and scene, so yeah, you never even expected to be nominated for the Turner Prize nevermind win it,” she says.

A measure of her success is that, while Sarah Lucas refused to accept a nomination, Tracey Emin actually missed out on the big prize.

A day and a half on from the prestigious awards bash at Coventry Cathedral and Laura’s still elated. She’s not sipping champagne but having a Pizza Express with her husband’s family who live in Derby.

This year all four nominees were art collectives from Britain and Ireland.

“It’s quite clear there was an agenda to be more socially inclusive and look at different types of art practices, not individual practices. Times are changing and I think Turner Prize are probably seeing that as well.

“It doesn’t take away from the fact it’s still the Turner Prize and it’s still a massive accolade. We’re all still shocked – none of us have really processed it,” she tells the Celt on Friday.

Belfast based Array have been collaborating since 2016, and their work responds to issues such as welfare, access to abortion, mental health, gay rights, as well as the gentrification of areas. They were nominated for the Turner Prize off the back of their acclaimed exhibition hosted by Jerwood Arts in London titled ‘Collaborate’, which showcased their quirky approach to protesting.

By being part of a collective does it amplify or diminish the pleasure the Celt wonders?

“It’s definitely made it nicer – not that I’d turn it down if it was given to me!” she quips.

Laura accepts that working in a group doesn’t suit everyone, but everyone clicked within Array. “I trusted that when we were nominated we would be able to pull it off and there wouldn’t be any friction - and there hasn’t been. It’s such a pleasure, we all love each other. It’s really important to have those people around you and support you.”

Laura doesn’t feel any extra pressure to live up to the expectation exerted by the Turner Award.

“We’ll all have to update our websites,” she jokes, adding that their status as grassroots movement promoting social justice will help navigate their future paths.

“We’re very grounded people. “What’s the point in being intimidated by this? We’ll just enjoy it and be ourselves.”

Laura’s workload on the project was undertaken in the midst of pregnancy and the birth of baby Patrick. When the show opened her fellow Arrayians were trying to video call her to share the moment, but she couldn’t answer the phone.

“I was trying to be quiet in case I’d wake the baby,” says Laura, who also lectures art in the South West College in Enniskillen.

She wasn’t the only member of the collective to have a truncated Turner experience as Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell had a daughter a fortnight after Patrick was born.

“Both of us were stuck in Belfast - neither of us got to see the show, so we went to see it together on Wednesday morning,” she recalls of her very first viewing of the famous Sibín and film, The Druithaib’s Ball, which she edited.

“I was working on that up until I was 41 weeks pregnant, but I only saw the show for the first time the day of the ceremony. So it was quite an emotional day to see the show and what everyone had done and turn what we had talked about for so long into the show.”

When they won Laura, Sighle, and a third Array mum, Emma Campbell, all brought their children on stage to share in the moment.

“Turner Prize, and Array – you don’t get paid to work in those capacities, and then you have your families and everything else to look after - so to be able to get to that point of being on stage, having done what we have all done, and taken on those responsibilities is really important, and to make it visible was important.”

Laura actually took on the daunting task of giving the acceptance speech – the first made by an Irish artist in receiving the award.

“Once you give birth, you’re not afraid of anything anymore,” she said. “Fear has changed!”

She accepts that winning will open doors for the group.

“We definitely will aim for bigger things, and put ourselves on the map. Why not?”