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Recorded comments of Castlebar Transition Year students

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was the large triptych painting, Contemplating Earthrise, oil on board, triptych, 150 x 275 cm. This work offered a direct visual encounter with Earth as a totality. The source for this painting was the iconic image taken by William Anders in 1968 from the Apollo 8 moon mission. This photograph was the first ever picture of our planetary home and the fragility of our planet was apparent when the blue Earth was seen against the vast expanses of dark space. 

Exhibited in front of the painting was Messages to the Future. This work contains the written contributions made by more than one hundred second-level students from Castlebar during a series of workshops I led with Duncan Steward (RTE) on the theme of climate change and habitat loss. They wrote of their fear and sadness about the consequences of climate change and made suggestions for what could be done to mitigate its effects. 

A further work, Young Voices, was an audio work of recorded comments by the students on the same issue. The recording was housed inside a gessoed wooden box frame, complete with vent for listening, 30 x 30 cm. This work is in the collection of Mayo County Council.


Essay by Seán Lysaght

Looking Homeward


Pauline Garavan’s Seeing Earth is an exhibition of its time, as we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic. The months of lockdown provided time for reflection and reassessment, so there is now a sense of recovery of things we may have taken for granted. For Pauline herself, this show is the culmination of a long residency at the Custom House Studios, a place that has nurtured so much fine work over the years, for both visiting and locally-based artists.

The emergence from Covid restrictions has also coincided with a summer of weather events related to climate change. Temperatures have soared in Canada and Siberia, wildfires have devastated parts of the US, Canada, Greece and Turkey, and a major flooding event in north-west Europe, all showed how critical the moment has become in our relationship with the planet, our only home.

The centrepiece of this exhibition, Contemplating Earthrise, is a manifesto, a call to a way of seeing. It seizes on a moment from space exploration, the Apollo mission of 1968, to look, not outward towards other galaxies, but in the other direction, back to our home on Earth, the first time this point of view was recorded. And this moment is the basis for Pauline’s careful painting. 

The work is in three panels, a triptych, commonly a format that allows ease of transport; but the form also carries echoes of earlier triptychs, especially from religious settings. These were sometimes used in churches, around altars, telling stories such as the annunciation and the birth of Christ.

As I looked – and listened to the sound of space – I imagined a panel in three parts: in one you have the beauty of our blue planet, on either side you have darkness, all of it seen from the barren surface of the moon. Darkness and barrenness, these things surround the planet Earth, and they make our planet seem more fragile than ever. If this triptych has a narrative, it is that our living planet is unique, with only darkness and barrenness around it. Another view of this is provided by the transition year messages to the future, which are spread along the shelf under the picture. The painting postulates a past, a now, and a future – the future being dark unless action is taken to arrest climate change. 

So we are pitched, not outwards, but back towards our living planet and the marvel of its life forms, which have been evolving through billions of years. The Earthrise painting provides a magnificent context for the smaller pieces in the main area. We are invited, through these modestly formatted boards, to look at details of woodland, meadow, and sea.


The colour tones here are soft and gentle, the application of paint is done very meticulously, there is no arrogance of gesture in the brushstroke. The technique is slow and painstaking, as the painter honours the record that was first captured by the photograph. I found the humility of this approach very appealing, in an era when art is awash with theorising about media and representation.

Pauline Garavan is attuned to the opportunities of other media, though, as she uses some underwater photographs as the basis for three pictures. These are scenes that could not have been viewed by the human eye without the aid of a diver’s mask, or an underwater camera. With her paintings, they are brought into the realm of our seeing. And there’s still that modesty in the approach: many hours, no doubt, in Gentle Swimmer, to capture the glittering water surface overhead, or the intensifying green gloom of the distant water body. Something similar is at work in Minke Whale off Baltimore; there is more work, I’d say, gone into representing the shifting water surface (think of it, all the hours devoted to this instant in the moving, wave-driven surface of the sea), than in the subtle capture of the whale’s tail-fin and tail as the creature moves away.

The picture of kelp reminds us of the rich and strange marine world that is all around us here on this island, which we rarely see; it serves the wider recognition that so much of the Earth’s biodiversity is still unknown, still a vast region for exploration. 

And then there are pictures from more familiar settings: haws on a hedgerow, mushrooms on a woodland floor, the emergence of a beech from seed, a delicate light on a buttercup – that garden weed or flower of spring, depending on your view. In these pieces we move from the vast context of space to details at our feet, within reach. I imagine we could listen to these paintings in a way inspired by the Young Voices audio piece. Haws at Rest tell the story of the May blossom, that explosive celebration of early summer, with all the reservoir of folklore accumulated behind it. Buttercup Light reminds us of that childhood gesture where we held a flower under another’s chin, to see the yellow reflected there, as if the flower had its own source of light. Little Beech takes us to bluebell woods in spring, another wonder of the early part of the growing season. Mushrooms Nestling is about autumn, this time of year; we hear increasingly about the networks of roots that connect these fruiting bodies, a powerful example of the interconnectedness of things. Each of these pictures comes with its own associations, many of them personal, showing how linked we all are to the Earth we live on.

The exhibition is clearly informed by an ethos, a desire to stand for something; to that extent it wants to get a message across. But we are not bombarded with slogans, or overwhelmed with statistics; there is none of the noise of polemic that can take away from basic connections, from what has been called ‘biophilia’, the instinctive love we feel for the natural world around us. 

The work here is a quiet labour of love of its objects. I encourage you to enjoy it, to give it the time and thought it deserves, and which clearly went into its long making. 


Dr Seán Lysaght, poet and writer. Essay written for Seeing Earth exhibition catalogue, Custom House Studios + Gallery, Westport. August-September 2021.

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