Irish artist and architect Jo Anne Butler describes how travel has informed her work and why there’s no place like home …
Growing up in a small rural town in Co Mayo during times of huge emigration ‘travel’ always seemed more like an inevitability than a choice. You move away to study, for summer jobs and then you just continue to travel and explore and it becomes part of you.
I have a degree in Fine Art from NCAD, Dublin and spent an Erasmus semester in Poland as part of this. I also have a Degree and Masters in Architecture from UCD and spent a semester of my Masters in Denmark. Looking back I can see spending this Erasmus semester in Aarhus, Denmark changed my career. During the semester we travelled across the Danish countryside on a series of factory tours. There I got to see revered Danish furniture design classics in production. The revelation to me was that there was no magical unreachable secret – just a series of steps and a process that leads from raw material to end product. That gave me the confidence and curiosity to transition from Architecture into product design after graduation.
Some of my most memorable travel adventures include my J1 with friends in New Orleans, and a trip overland from Hong Kong to Shanghai. My husband, Gearoid [Muldowney] and I also travelled across Finland in a campervan after our daughter was born. There is a really strong connection to nature in Finland and this really rings through in their visual and design culture. More recently, I was the co-curator of the Irish pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale and had the chance to spend lots of time in Venice. I know as an architect I’m supposed to enthuse about the buildings but honestly, I just loved being on boats and the light reflections on the water most of all.
In a way, the challenge has been to figure out how to move home. How could we apply all that we have learned and seen? We wanted to build a design studio and make home objects that were from this place that we could export to international design retailers. Could we do this while living ourselves in the west of Ireland? This is what Gearoid and I are slowly building with Superfolk – a small, west of Ireland, family business with an international reach. We take a holistic approach to design and making. When you know that you are going to be making something multiple times – you’re going to make sure that you design a product that is enjoyable to make. Natural materials are more enjoyable to work with. We also really believe that when something is enjoyable to make, this care, love and playfulness shines through in the end object.
I’m constantly inspired by our epic, wild landscapes here in the west of Ireland and by the warmth of the people. Rural Ireland is creative, diverse and quietly defying dated stereotypes. We are not witnessing an increasing conservative-rural/progressive-urban divide that some might have expected. The results of our recent national referendums show this.
As for lockdown, I think it will take all of us some time to process the past few months. Yes – I am very grateful for our warm, dry secure home, our little garden and the warmth and solidarity of our neighbours. But did we undertake lots of home redecorating – no, not at all. We planted flowers and herbs. A phrase I hope to remember forever is our daughter running out each morning to check on things growing in our garden. Each time a new shoot or flower appears she comes back into us to excitedly report “Good news from outside!” So maybe what I have rediscovered is the hopefulness of new flowers in spring, as seen through her four-year-old eyes.
Like anyone with small children and no childcare or school – we’ve been planting seeds, building tents, having endless home “discos”, making and painting and inevitably washing loads of dishes. Time alone to contemplate and design new products has been elusive. Recently I was fascinated to hear Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse) describe how her Montessori teacher training methods influenced her career in food and what we now call “the Slow Food movement”. So I’ve begun to read about the Montessori philosophy and I’m really looking forward to bringing more of this way of thinking into our design work.
Once travel restrictions loosened from 2km/5km to county-wide travel, it felt like the entire world had reopened to us. There are endless landscapes to explore: the mountains, seas, lakes, bogs, rivers and forests in Mayo.
A favourite little place of ours is the eastern shoreline of Lough Mask in Co Mayo. It’s a very special place. The bare karst limestone pavements and boulders and crags around the lakeshore are riddled with amazingly regular pitted little holes, giving the rocks the appearance of Swiss cheese. And this unusual pockmarked limestone landscape has become the perfect habitat for diverse and rare flora and fauna – much like the Burren, but less well known. There is no visitor centre or chic little cafe – just the chance to watch wildlife play in this rare, peaceful, overlooked and almost secret place. www.superfolk.com
Main featured image: Lough Mask, Co Mayo photographed by Superfolk
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