Bernie Dignam's creative edge


By Michelle Newman

 Born and raised in Finglas, north county Dublin, Bernie Dignam now lives and works in Connemara on Ireland’s west coast, but her formative years continue to have a profound impact on the textile artist.

Growing up, Bernie’s father was an upholsterer meaning there was ‘always fabric around the house’ and a creative path was an inevitable one, although in ways becoming an artist was a bit of an ‘accident’.

“I actually fell into it because I didn’t study fine art. I went back to college as a mature student and did a degree in interior and retail design, focusing on furniture design,” says Bernie.

After spending four years working on a timber research project at the University of Limerick and feeling as though she had lost contact with the furniture industry, Bernie decided to re-train as a teacher in order to give herself a little more job security for the future.

“I did a higher diploma in the Limerick School of Art and Design because at the time there weren’t great employment options. We’re talking the early to mid-nineties when design wouldn’t have been very well recgonised or valued in Ireland. I thought this might be a good option, to have another string to my bow,” she explains.

“That’s when I was introduced to textiles and something kind of clicked with me.”

Bernie was already living and working in Connemara when another opportunity arose in the late 1990s and as she says herself, that is what has been ‘paying the bills’ ever since.

“They opened up a further education centre in Letterfrack and because I had the teaching qualification and the experience I got the job teaching art and design.”

Bernie – whose younger brother Christy is the lead singer of Aslan- credits her parents with allowing their children to forge their own career paths and never steering them in a certain direction.

“My parents didn’t push us to be successful in a conservative way, they kind of guided us to follow our heart, they let us develop and let us be. My dad was a really strong worker so he gave us a really strong work ethic and honesty was a very important thing in the family,” says Bernie.

“I think if you are pushed to get big points in your Leaving Cert and go to a certain career you then get locked into that and it can be very difficult to change. Being allowed to follow our hearts [means] most of us have been successful in our own lives in different ways.”

As Bernie works with textiles, her pieces are not regarded as works of fine art. This pretension is something she disagrees with and would like to see a change come about because it doesn’t fully reflect the quality of her work.

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“If somebody paints a landscape it’s seen as a piece of fine art but if I create a landscape piece with fibers it’s seen as a craft, which is seen as lower,” she says.

“I think it probably connects a little bit with being from Finglas as well where there’s a stigma growing up, it’s kind of a snobbishness. I like to challenge that because to me, the fact that I paint with fibers shouldn’t mean that I’m a lesser artist if the quality of the work is still comparable.”

Colour plays a big part in textiles which is evident in Bernie’s work. She also explores many themes in her art and says the landscape she sees around her is a great source of inspiration.

“Being the oldest of eight I was given a lot of responsibility as a child. I have a tendency to be a caretaker and my personal boundaries were quite loose. I just found that I was in situations with people where they were taking advantage and I didn’t have the ability to say, ‘no’ I felt guilty about saying it,” she says.

“I observed in Connemara that the land boundaries are so important and how people can end up with ongoing feuds for generations, having some serious trouble with their neighbors over some tiny little bit of land. It made me look at the boundaries in a different way and I started to represent them in different print making techniques; looking at walls and fences and the different ways that people mark their land boundaries, with the idea that if our personal boundaries were as clear as land boundaries we’d have more harmonious relationships,” Bernie says, adding that completing the body of worker helped her to come to a personal realisation.

“It brought my attention to it and made me examine the issue and as we all know, being aware of something means you can start solving the problem.”

Working full-time as an artist in Ireland is rare as generally people cannot afford to do so. That’s why many artists like Bernie have another source of income to make up the difference.

“I would know quite a few, maybe 30 artists that are living in the Connemara and about three of them are making a living out of it. I think most people they either have a very low standard of living or they’re teaching, working in graphics, interior design or some other commercial aspect,” Bernie says.

“I’m working in a further education centre that encourages a lot of people to upskill and go back to education or retrain. I have a gallery as well, Fionnghlas Thiar Gallery, where I showcase my work and that’s open by appointment.”

Teaching has made Bernie aware of some of the misconceptions and mistruths regarding visual arts.

“People have this weird idea that you can’t learn art, you either have it or you don’t. The majority of western adults have the ability of an 11 year-old to draw and our education system seems to be very focused on the liner, logical, rational left side of the brain, rather than the right side of the brain,” she says.

“People are very intimidated and it can be difficult to get people to break down the barriers and get them to realise that they can learn can be the biggest challenge.”

Along with teaching, Bernie also runs Connemara Creative Workshops for people who are there purely for enjoyment, but there are added health benefits that go with it.

“I think generally speaking that being creative is very therapeutic and just that feeling of, a feel-good factor that you’ve actually created something out of nothing is beautiful. It’s good for the soul,” she says.

“I do two hour, half day, one day workshops in a couple of different disciplines in printmaking and textiles. I keep the class pretty small, four to six people generally and the whole thing Is doing something that takes you away from the cares of the world. You’re with like-minded people, it’s an escape for a day. All of the workshops that I deliver I specifically choose them so that people can go away and with very little investment, can continue on themselves.”


For more information on Bernie Dignam or her work, visit her website (Connemara Creative Workshops and Fhionnglas Thair Gallery can be found on Google Maps).



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