Art has the ability to change how we view the world, says celebrated artist Dorothy Cross whose work reflects the wonders of the natural world. Cliodhna Prendergast meets her at her studio in Connemara …
Photography by Cliodhna Prendergast
The ability to examine, consider and imagine is what makes us sentient human beings. Humanity progresses by developing our way of seeing the world and imagining possibilities. Most societies have an inherent fear of change, preferring the constant, the reliable. But without change, our communities and society at large stagnate. Art allows us to safely explore what could be, allowing the act of creating to reveal an as yet to be perceived, even unimagined, result. There is no greater explorer of what could be when the natural world meets artistic expression than Dorothy Cross. I meet Dorothy at her house and studio in Connemara to discuss natural selection, our connection to nature, and the perspective of the artist and the observer.
Cross, a member of the RHA and Aosdána, one of our foremost contemporary artists, works through a range of media, from installation to opera, sculpture, video and photography. She is the subject of and creator of four books; the latest Dorothy Cross/Crossing published by Dürer. In December last year she was conferred with an honorary doctorate from Trinity College. Cross celebrates what the world already has to offer, she reimagines, reinterprets, reanimates beauty, drawing on a deep knowledge, empathy and personal experience.
Dorothy recently collaborated with Red Rhino Wilderness Scarves, an initiative set up by Elizabeth Folgen from Sullivan’s Bakery in Oughterard, Connemara, to support the Lapalala wilderness school in Waterberg, South Africa. Past collaborators with the charity include Craig Foster, producer of Netflix film My Octopus Teacher and co-founder of the Sea Change Project, and international conservationist Dr Jane Goodall. Dorothy has created two scarves from a photographic series of a Connemara sunset and a tidal pool. All profits go to the running of the school in South Africa which educates young learners from disadvantaged areas to become the next conservation leaders.
Dorothy grew up in Montenotte in Cork. Her mother, Dorothy Cross née Kinmonth, “knew beautiful things – her colours were eau de nil and Chinese gold”. Her father, Fergus Cross, inherited Cross and Sons garage in the city. “He would have preferred to have gone to sea or raised donkeys.”
Dorothy is very much woven from the strong threads of these two people. She has a deep appreciation of beauty and finds it in the everyday and in the natural world. Her love of the sea and all living creatures is reflected in her work. She came to Connemara first to dive in its waters. She found a seaside field for sale and built a cabin, as her father had done in Fountainstown in Cork, where they spent her childhood summers. She then built a bigger cabin in the field. Eventually she bought a house across the road, where she now lives and has her studio. It is perched on a height overlooking the sea, Clare Island and Maol Réidh mountain, near the mouth of Killary Fjord. The beauty of Connemara serves as both inspiration and balm for her soul. It is a place to investigate and contemplate.
In Dorothy’s studio with its large window overlooking the sea, works past and in progress are arranged. A giant clam shell, her Everest sculpture in a handmade glass case covered in books and paper. Her diving gannet hanging by the tapestry of her Daunt lightship. Below, Connie her dog sits by the woodburning stove. I open the drawers, which feels like unpacking a corner of Dorothy’s labyrinthine mind. There are collections of smaller, precious pieces; her mother’s La Page theatre binoculars, cutlery; mother-of-pearl and silver, a glass eyeball, old photographs, a golden thumbprint, a set of fish teeth, a box of finger bones, a pipe case, a measuring tape in a leather case. There is order but a freeform order.
When Dorothy was younger she was pushed towards going to university – her whole family was academic – but she chose art. She says that being an artist is the ultimate freedom: “You can work with an astronaut, or an icicle, a mouse or a shark or the stars, you have access to anything, in a way.”
Dorothy believes our ways of seeing the world can evolve, can be changed, by art. “Art can make one look at the world in a different way, a new way. It’s about possibility and progress and considering the world in multiple versions of itself. We come out of a secure place which can bring us into beauty. Baudelaire says beauty is always strange, but people are very often afraid of what is strange. So, the power of art is this: if you are afraid of something, then you see the underbelly of it and it shows you something new which you are no longer afraid of – a way of perceiving, a new way of looking at something.
“You can’t dictate to people how to understand, appreciate, love or hate art. Every piece of art is going to be liked or disliked in different ways depending on who is looking at it, depending on their imagination. Art doesn’t have any rules. There is an immense freedom in it. It relies on the imagination.”
To better understand, I relate her words to food – as a chef, this is my purview. When you walk into a restaurant or open a cookbook you are open to the prospect of surprise. Certain flavours trigger a response, good, bad, unremarkable. Stepping outside your comfort zone, you are most likely to be surprised. An ingredient prepared in a novel way can make what was once disliked exciting, make it more digestible; exposing it to other ingredients can make it easier to absorb or indeed reject. The more you experiment, the more open you are to diverse flavours. The more art you experience, the more your imagination opens and possibilities are revealed.
In the studio, I am drawn to Dorothy’s sculpture Finger Crab, a beautiful crab, found on the seashore, with a human finger in place of a claw, all cast in silver. “The little crab was lacking a pincer, so I cast a finger and put it on to him. It’s about skin and the hardness of the crab. There is a beautiful story in Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia where Chatwin discovers how, in the Fuegian Indian language, the word for depression translates into ‘the crab without a shell’. That is so beautiful. We don’t have shells, yet we can relate immediately to that use of language. It’s all about vulnerability. A little crab is adorably cute because you give him a little pinkie that sits opposite his claw but it’s really about his survival mirroring our own. It’s also about what is outside the frame of the mirror, and that’s where art gets interesting.
“As an artist, when talking about natural selection in my practice, I am selecting what to give the viewer, what to edit, isolating things that have a significance. The viewer then considers: Is it discernible, translatable? What is it I am feeling? Have I seen this before? It is that mystery and magic that makes art wonderful, wonder being the word. When a piece of art is brilliant, like a film or a Bach sonata or a poem, something molecular shifts in the body which is sometimes not detectable, you may not know until later. It is exaltation sometimes, and that’s what we are looking for.”
Dorothy gives me an insight into her practice by explaining one commission. Some years ago, an invitation to create came from a woman who was curating a show at Bloomberg headquarters in London, the centre of financial markets.
“Sometimes a commission like this is an opportunity to dive into new territory and that is what is so fabulous about being an artist,” she says. When she visited the glass-walled offices, suited workers at computers, all involved in the financial world, she remembered how pearls were the most valuable item on the planet in the 15th century and were used as currency. She thought, how beautiful.
“My aunt was a pathologist and I happened to have the bones of a human hand that belonged to her. Years ago they used human bones for teaching anatomy.” Then Dorothy asked her brother, who is a marine scientist, to put her in contact with a pearl farmer. He found one in Tahiti. “I decided to bring the fingertip bones of a human hand to Tahiti and insert them into the body of a live black-lipped oyster; an oyster that makes black pearls. My intention was to explore the idea that the bones were from the end of our anatomy, it was about touch; that beautiful point.
“These were the smallest bones of a body possible to insert into an oyster without it rejecting it. Oyster pearl workers took their tiny callipers and inserted the tiny bones into five black-lipped oysters, for five fingertips. The animal is irritated and creates nacre, which is what pearls are made from, to wrap around this little bone. It’s almost like a pregnancy. Each animal can make up to about five pearls in their lifetime. Four of the animals rejected the bone. I ended up with just the index finger.”
This, it turns out for Dorothy, was the happiest of accidents. She feels it had nothing to do with her in a way; it is just the way she looks at things. She presented this piece with the rest of the human bones with just one fingertip covered in nacre. “You think of Michelangelo’s pointed finger, St Anne’s pointed finger: it’s about direction, it’s about heaven, it’s about the end of our anatomy. We had one fingertip. If we had five it would have looked like nail varnish. The essential part of it is that what has occurred was because of a threat, the animal wrapped the bone in the beauty of nacre and made it smooth, it brought a cushion of beauty. In the end, what nature did was perfection, one fingertip. You learn so much by diving into new territories and it’s a wonderful access to different types of people.”
Kinship is Cross’s next project, following on from 2019’s Heartship, in which a human heart was placed on an Irish naval vessel and sailed up the River Lee in Cork city to singer Lisa Hannigan’s voice emanating from the vessel. Both Heartship and Kinship were created in partnership with Mary Hickson, a creative director based in Cork and director of the award-winning Songs from a Safe Harbour with Cillian Murphy and Enda Walsh, among other productions.
Kinship centres on the ritualised journey of an Egyptian sarcophagus containing the mummified body of a man which arrived in Ireland in 1914. “The carrying of the body back to Egypt is an act of return, almost an act of nature. It is a journey of respect, heavily symbolic and relevant today when millions of people on the planet are displaced and homeless,” says Dorothy.
The mummy, which Dorothy knew of from various accounts, was buried in Egypt over 2,000 years ago. While it spent over 100 years in Ireland, it was hardly ever seen by anyone. When Dorothy went looking for it for Kinship, she found it, almost incredibly, just over the hill from where she lives, stored by UCC at an archive in Letterfrack. Now, with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs, in partnership with UCC, Dorothy and Mary Hickson, with the help of curator Maeve-Anne Austen, and John Fitzgerald, poet and recently retired librarian at UCC, will take the mummy back to Egypt with ceremony and respect. Hymns and ballads to life and death will resonate across the project as the sarcophagus journeys home. Kinship will be the subject of a documentary, already begun and a visual art book.
Dorothy possesses an insatiable curiosity coupled with a keen intellect and an innate sense of what it means to share this planet. Her work continues to question and explore the very nature of humanity and is today more essential than ever before. “If you look at natural selection and the present-day migration, displacement and suffering of vast populations worldwide – that’s a different type of survival, a natural selection which is our responsibility and part of how we look at the world. We have to continually assess how we look at the world.”
And Dorothy has not lost any of the sense of wonder that she set out with. “My frustration about being 66 is that I watched men land on the moon on telly when I was 13 and they haven’t gone back there. I find that utterly disappointing. I expected there would be massive progress in my lifetime. You could say we have the internet but men on the moon was just something else. I wrote him a letter you know, fan mail to Neil Armstrong. It was wondrous.”
Dorothy Cross Red Rhino scarves are at Sullivans Oughterard, Co Galway and online at www.redrhinowildernessscarves.org.