What Was: unmarked
Paintings by Helen O'Toole
I am a painter whose recent body of work explores how a historically oppressed people and its culture are influenced and molded by the land. The landscape of my birth and its history continues to inform my studio work. In recent years I have been working on a series of monumental paintings that question and attempt to illuminate the socio-mythical expressions of my ancestors caught between the violence and exploitation of the colonizer and the meager limestone bog landscape of the west of Ireland. Land disputes and grudges carried on over generations, families and homes wiped away during the famine in the 1840s, and children mistreated and abused by the brutal religious and civil institutions of that time. The landscape surrounding the area I grew up in is extraordinarily suggestive in subject matter, yet its sublime beauty is deceptive. Economic and social progress is omnipresent today, but an invisible and persistent connection to a darker past lingers. It is evident in the stone walls that were constructed often with the rubble of abandoned limestone famine dwellings, as well as the marks and erasures that cover and demarcate the land, concealing its history.
My paintings probe this covert mess of darkness and trauma, implicating the inner lives of my ancestors and their sense of place. I allude to an otherwise cloaked connection to a darker past that persists. The burnt-out big houses, the remains of famine cottages, and the limestone walls surrounding stony green fields are expressions of the stories told, marking out what’s mine and what’s yours. Land markers and erasures divulge the stains and concealment of past histories in What Was: unmarked.
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