Belfast IrelandNorthern IrelandStrangford LoughStrangford Lough and Belfast with artist Helen Sharkey

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Jackie De Burca Today’s guest, Helen Sharkey, is a visual artist, independent socio-cultural academic researcher and arts manager, whose current research is focused on pop up arts programmes centred in non-traditional public spaces. Helen’s art is deeply inspired by Strangford Lough, an incredibly beautiful place in Northern Ireland. In fact, the Telegraph newspaper included it in Britain’s Best Lakes. But I dare say Helen would say a lot more about Strangford Lough. Thank you so much for joining us today, Helen.

Many of our listeners won’t have had the good fortune to visit Strangford Lough so far. Would you be able to describe it to them, please, Helen?

Helen Sharkey Sure, Strangford Lough’s on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. It’s about 14 miles outside of Belfast.

The lough is a saltwater lagoon. It’s tidalled twice a day. It’s roughly about 16 miles long by three and a half to four miles wide. And it’s enclosed by the Ards Peninsula. It’s like a giant salt bath. Basically, the only point of entry and exit of the lough into the Irish Sea is at a place called the Narrows, and these have historically fast tidal currents, crosscurrents, that form a narrow corridor between the villages of Portaferry and the village of Strangford.

Sunset at Strangford Lough
Sunset at near high tide at Portaferry on Strangford Lough

Photo by Flickr user Chris Henry

But there’s been a daily ferry crossing here for over 400 years with weather permitting. The area is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It’s on a lot of conservation watchlists. And it’s been a draw for locals and visitors for centuries. From St. Patrick’s disciples and the Vikings, through to local people taking staycations now after the lockdown. So, it’s always busy. It’s an amazingly beautiful place.

Jackie De Burca OK, it sounds fantastic, and obviously, I’ve been looking at the beautiful art that you have created inspired by the place itself. You’re currently living on Mahee Island. How long have you actually lived there, Helen?

Helen Sharkey I’ve lived in a few different islands in Strangford Lough. Currently, I’m on Mahee about four years.

It’s part of four islands that are connected to each other by causeways Rolly, Cross, Reagh, and Mahee.

And it’s one of 70 small islands dotted along the coast of the lough. I’m beside a monastic site called Nendrum, which is 5th century, and I’m about four metres from the water up a slight hill on the hill of Nendrum.

So it’s – it’s an amazing place. Like I said, Strangford Lough’s version of the Florida Keys without the hot weather tourists.

Jackie De Burca OK. Yeah, it sounds amazing. How is it to wake up there? I mean, how do you feel? I know the weather obviously is not, you know, continental weather- but on a really nice day where you can see everything very clearly, how does it feel to wake up there, Helen?

Helen Sharkey Well, I love it here. I mean, the weather doesn’t bother me.

This place, when it gets really grey and windy and the rain is howling, it’s still gorgeous. I mean, to me, the weather changes, the colours, the atmosphere – I’m mesmerised by it.

It just awakens all your senses. I’m on a slight hill, so I don’t really get affected too much by the high spring tides that – the winter tides between January and March, when they’re very sporadic and they can basically happen quickly.

And yeah, that doesn’t really bother me. The lough itself I always find is more interesting at night. There’s no light pollution here because the nearest village across the water is about six and a half miles away. So the full moon, it creates these amazing, I guess, polarised shadows. It sort of creates an alternative or an altered colour palette that it transforms familiar land and the seascapes into a distortion of colour and shapes.

And only larger or macro features are made visible and it simplifies the outlines of the familiar landscape.

I am – I use a lot of this in my work. Now, it happens to be the sea here, but when I lived in urban environments, the same thing happened, albeit with manmade structures or vegetation nearby.

So yeah, nighttime for me always does it, especially with the bigger full moons.

Strangford Lough with artist Helen Sharkey
Strangford Lough from sea

Photo by Flickr user Channing Brown

Over the last few years, I kind of became obsessed about the way the landscape transforms itself into this other world. It really catches my imagination.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I saw that. I remember noticing that in definitely a couple of pieces of – of your studies and you mentioned urban environments. So, I was going to ask, have you always lived in Strangford Lough? But you’ve mentioned urban environments. Have you lived in other places, Helen, or only around the area?

Helen Sharkey Oh, yeah. Well, I was born in Belfast. I lived there until I moved to the US in the early ‘80s. Child of the 70s.

Basically, it was pretty traumatic in Belfast back then. So on Sundays, my dad and mum would bring my family out to the Strangford Lough area to Mahee Beach on the Irish Sea aspect of the Ards Peninsula.

And I think that’s where I was mesmerised by the different type of environment from a very fearful, urban, traumatised, highly political situation into this magical safe place.

Jackie De Burca Of course.

Helen Sharkey So it was a real comparison that stayed with me, even when I left Northern Ireland. I would come back quite often to visit and Strangford Lough was always one of those places.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I’m actually getting shivers when you say that so what- what’s your date of birth, Helen? Just to get for the audience.

Helen Sharkey Oh, I’m really old. I’m-

Jackie De Burca Like me.

Helen Sharkey Yeah, I’m a child of the late 50s.

Jackie De Burca Okay. Okay. So you would’ve been in your – late 50s – you would’ve been in your teens obviously in the 70s, correct?

Helen Sharkey Yeah, yeah.

Series 5, Study no. 14 'Celts and Picts 2'. Low relief bronze plaque in black box frame
Series 5, Study no. 14 ‘Celts and Picts 2’. Low relief bronze plaque in black box frame

Jackie De Burca Yeah. It’s just a kind of perspective for the audience who are listening and going to read about the period, obviously, that you were growing up in Belfast, what age you were. It’s just for that reason.

Helen Sharkey Yeah, it was – Well, it’s like anything if – if you’re surrounded by something long enough, it becomes normal. Even though it was often dangerous, it was normal. So until I actually left, I never could compare and see what an alternative way of living was, I suppose. I mean, back in those times are the troubles, as I call them. As a kid, I just immersed myself in visual arts and crafts. I was drawn to that when I was in primary school.

And I guess when I was about nine, I decided I wanted to become an artist and I sort of self-taught myself through craft magazines and art books. And I learned by trial and error. I remember my mum used to yell at me because I would practise drawing my shading on the wallpaper in the bedroom. It was horrible wallpaper anyway.

And I remember when I left in the early 80s, I took a photograph of the wallpaper just as a memento because I knew as soon as I left the country, everything would disappear and something bland and the shades of grey would appear because that was, you know, what they did back then.

But yeah, I used art to create my own world, I guess. I felt safe there. It fascinated me. Yeah. Belfast 1970s – It kind of had its own form of lockdown. If you were going out, you were always taking a chance. It didn’t matter what age you were. Once you walked outside your front door down the street, as happened to me, you could be blown up, beaten, shot, anything. Walking past a car where a bomb could go off a minute after you walk past it – that happened. Friends, parents, being shot outside school gates – that happened. Molotov cocktail bombs, arson attacks in your parents’ businesses, and local shops and churches. Anything was a target for one or other of the two main paramilitary groups at war with each other at that period. So you could say, as a child, seeing bombs and riots which seemed endless, going on Sundays to rural beaches around the peninsula in Strangford Lough was sheer bliss and even today, the smell in high summer of seaweed cooking when the tides died – It just is bliss.

 It was one of those things. I really – I guess my obsession for the micro came out of that because I started looking at plants. I was looking at biology slides, seeing nature’s patterns within cross-sections of plants. And then this transferred into the idea of cross-sections of life and archaeology and human strata and symbolism and visual arts.

 Strangford Lough Coast
From Flirck : Strangford Lough Coast

Photo by Flickr user Carb0nxl

I lived for a while in summer in Shetland Islands. I always had a thing about islands, but it’s between North Scotland and Norway and I lived near Jarlshof and that was a multi-period archaeology site. I just became definitely obsessed about archaeology and strata and the idea of hidden layers underneath the surface, below the present day. That sort of became my calling card. And then when I moved into an area with water that added its own layer of a- sort of a ethereal quality that came out in the photo art graphics that I started doing.

Jackie De Burca OK. So all of that obviously gives a good lead up in the background to what’s obviously integral to your art. Can you describe your art to our audience, Helen?

Helen Sharkey Depends on the decade. Mixed media. A lot of the time, which means whatever I fancy doing at the time, that works best with the theme I’m interested in. I do a lot of bronze casting. I did – what would you call it – an apprenticeship in Johnson Atelier in Princeton, New Jersey, after I did my masters in Baltimore. And I learned how to sand cast in lost-wax and bronze and aluminium.

And I basically spend an average two months a year intensely casting after about six or nine months of making the master templates and plaster wood. And I would sell this either unique or small editions of my business, along with the photo art graphics and the textile tapestries and drawings and anything else that I’ve made at the time. And that’s how I make my living nowadays. I don’t teach anymore.

Jackie De Burca Okay, and one quick question that comes to mind, just when you’ve mentioned that work. Those two months or so – Do they fall into any particular season? Do you see that, like, repeating year over year or does it just depend on the year when you might be doing that?

Helen Sharkey I have a lot of commitments. I have a signed contract with St. George’s Market where I have to be there three days a week, 48 weeks of the year. The rest of the time, I would do workshops and other things. So I do it in between other work commitments and art projects that I’m in. I’m usually doing three or four or more things at once and they overlap whenever there’s an opportunity like the lockdown. I got a ton of stuff done that was brilliant. I mean, it was sad but brilliant. Very creative period for me.

Strangford Lough Gallery at St. George's Market, Belfast, NI. Oct 2020
Strangford Lough Gallery at St. George’s Market, Belfast, NI. October 2020

Jackie De Burca You’re not the only artist- artistic person that I’ve been talking to recently who said exactly- pretty much the same.

Helen Sharkey Yeah. Yeah.

Jackie De Burca So, yeah, so, yeah. So I was just curious about – obviously, you’re okay, you’re fishing that in around your various commitments. How did this Strangford Lough gallery that you’ve created – How did that come into being, Helen?

Helen Sharkey Let’s see. Well, when I came back to Northern Ireland, European funding was centred around sociocultural projects. And so I slotted into that because that’s the way my work goes. And I did a lot of community arts projects with different communities of interest and different people with different abilities. I would do a lot of art commissions. And when that dried up after the 2008 financial crash, I started, well, I took advantage of a – what would you call it? – an arts residence in a National Trust property at the bottom of Strangford Lough called Castle Ward and after by two years as a self-employed artist, I got a couple of tax rebates. Not the world’s hugest amount, I think it was seven hundred and twelve hundred.

Strangford Lough - Castle Ward
Strangford Lough – Castle Ward

Photo by Flickr user Amanda Slater

And I basically combined those amounts after I bought a new motor for the small boat and basically started Strangford Lough Gallery. That’s kind of the start of it. My arts residence in Castle Ward gave me this huge free studio. I mean, it was freezing. It was a mediaeval clock tower in the farm. It became famous because it was renamed by the Game of Thrones people as Winterfell Castle. But it was basically a mediaeval square building. And I was in the basement and I would get a lot of visitors and I would keep on doing what I was doing, making moulds or painting or whatever and talk to them, not talk to me. And that’s how the whole demonstration and the idea of exhibiting more to the public and interacting with them came about. So basically by 2013, and the tax rebates, I was, I suppose, simultaneously working at Castle Ward. And after by the three and a half year which I’d gotten in St. George’s market – It’s a very old market. It’s about – let’s see – markets came into being in 1645 in Belfast when it became a city and it had various formats. But in the middle 19th century, it was built and it’s like a giant glasshouse that happens to be a market. And I was really pleased to get into there because it’s the largest creative cluster, I would say, north or south of Ireland, of artists and craftspeople within a non-traditional environment because it is a market. But it’s huge.

Jackie De Burca Okay.

Helen Sharkey And I mean, you get bored. So I started doing demonstrations and talking to people and explaining what I was doing and maybe getting them to do it. So it kind of came about naturally. It involved itself, maybe?

Jackie De Burca So how would one of those demonstrations pan out, Helen? What would you – or does it depend on your mood on the day? Can you describe whether it’s done–

Helen Sharkey No, I try to keep them pretty – well, I mean, the media, the mediums, the materials, the processes might change, but I would usually have something already determined in my mind that I was gonna do. Maybe it was a commission I had to finish or something. I might be doing a lino print or I might be doing painting or I might be doing needle felting for the tapestries. I worked a lot from photos for people that want specific places done in this technique that I use. It would be representational so quite realistic. And I would just start. Put the materials down, little small table and chair. So that way, a lot of kids would see what I’m doing because I learnt early on if the kids are interested, then the parents are more inclined to know, let them watch. And I figure if I can influence the kids, then maybe, later on, more people will make stuff. And so, it just escalated. And it’s something I do every day while I’m there. Sometimes, I’ll do it for seven hours straight in between selling stuff to people. Other days, I might only do 15 minutes of the time, take a break, do other stuff, come back. I mean, it’s not set in stone, so it’s reactive to the conditions of the day and what time’s available to me.

Jackie De Burca And would you have people coming back then Helen, you know, local people- that they’ve been involved or they’ve enjoyed one of your demonstrations? Do you feel that there’s a sense of community built up around these demonstrations?

Helen Sharkey Oh, yeah. I mean, it depends on them. Sometimes, I would just give stuff to them free once they’ve tried it and say, give that a go, look on YouTube, go for some of the free dry felt videos and give it a go. Other times – Well, more recently, over the last few years, I started making kits. I make them very cheap. So I would say, look, try this. But that’s only if they were saying, Do you – you know, “Do you teach?” “Can I attend workshops?”

And I would say, well, there’s this or whatever. So yes, there is an aspect of making money out of it, but there’s also enabling them by making it cheap enough where they can then start. So yeah, I would sell entire kits or just the materials – It’s whatever they want. I mean, Belfast, St. George’s Market, it’s been voted- I guess the UK’s best large indoor market 2019. Well, it’s been voted that many times, but there are about two hundred and fourteen businesses. About 30 per cent of them are arts and crafts, maybe more now. There’s a really good art vibe there. It’s educational, informal. It’s, yeah, it’s kind of like informal education, not a whole process of people learning, but it doesn’t feel like learning. It’s not a chore. It’s entertaining because they can watch. They can interact if they want to give it a go. I’ll show them as long as they’re over 12 years old and sign the disclaimer form, of course.

Yeah. Yeah. You have to do stuff like that, of course.

Jackie De Burca Of course. So it’s basically kind of a spontaneous artistic experience for those people who got involved, I suppose?

Helen Sharkey Yeah, I mean, I do do them in other places. I would do a lot of fairs. I’ve been invited to Glastonbury as a – as a craftsperson in the green fields, doing the workshops and things and interacting with people. I would do a lot of art trade fairs, although of course not this year.

'Life on the farm-Cycle of meat production'. Acrylic on hessian. 8ft x 10ft.
‘Life on the farm-Cycle of meat production’. Acrylic on hessian. 8ft x 10ft.

I’ve done a lot of other markets. Anything like that – that I feel there is an interaction and participation aspects and that it is accessible to anybody. I mean, even with the surge of immigrants recently over the last few years – they don’t speak English – Somehow, we still manage to have a conversation. And, you know, I get them to try things and I explain things. And a lot of the kits I have are huge amounts of colour photos so they can actually see without the subtext or language how to do something. Plus YouTube or anything else. So it’s a combination of all of those. It gets people thinking about making stuff and realising that it has other benefits. It chills their minds. It stops them worrying, and it gives them some free space in their head. All of this type of thing, art therapy of sorts.

Jackie De BurcaYeah. I was just going to – I was just going to use the word therapeutic. So that leads on quite nicely to a question I have for you, Helen, which is do you feel that art, or any other form of creativity has the potential to be healing and maybe even help promote peace?

Helen Sharkey  Wow, that’s a huge subject. And the answer is yes.

Jackie De Burca I know.

Helen Sharkey Basically, let me say, for me, I’m not qualified as an art therapist, but I have noticed community arts, one of its aspects of social games, is renewed self-confidence, feeling of hope for the future because they’ve learnt new skills and they realise they are able to learn, the possibility of making money, increasing social capital within deprived areas. All of that happened over Northern Ireland over – started in ‘81 when the EU started giving agricultural grants site and then housing grants. And then they became more inclined towards socio-cultural projects, women’s projects, others’ projects. I got involved in that when I came back in the late 90s and I saw firsthand how things changed, the creation of community centres, art centres being run by the local councils rather than governments somewhere else. Northern Ireland is like a real-time case study of how it works. It’s my PhD work, I did a hundred years of this in various fields and sectors, traditional, educational, non-traditional, informal education, and I could go on forever. It’s basically another conversation and if you start me, I will not be able to stop.

Jackie De Burca And maybe we will do it some other day. So I like the fact that you give me the opportunity. It is a subject that I find fascinating. And actually, throughout the series of interviews that – you’re one of the early interviews, Helen – I am actually asking other – you know, writers and artists, just to drop a couple of names who have already been interviewed – Henry McDonald and Malachi O’Doherty, about this subject that obviously you’re in a great position to perhaps you had to do a separate – a separate chapter?

Helen Sharkey Well, the whole community arts – and to a certain degree, informal self-help sector – I mean, your guy friends from Matarasso, Florida, Howard Gardner, Frier, Akita, Goldberg de Bono, Owen Kelly – all these people have influenced visual and other artists. I mean, my interests in the past have been in multi-arts. I’m not just interested in the visual arts because not everybody wants to make stuff. People want to make music or sing or dance or move or talk. And I followed the tracks by that change, specifically in Northern Ireland, in the UK. Not so much the Republic of Ireland because Northern Ireland was quite unique from when it was set up in 21, 22. Well, the 20th century through tonight, it’s like – It’s – the joke about Northern Ireland is that it’s a perfect place for small case studies. I mean, food companies experiment on us all the time, you know? Have you ever tried the champagne flavoured Crunchie? Well, you will if you lived in Northern Ireland, you know, where this perfect environment for experimenting on because we’re so compact and our population is teeny. So, yeah.

Jackie De Burca Hmm, interesting. Yeah, I can see that. You’re – Just to divert slightly why we’re still talking about the environment of the St George’s Market and you are more involved there. Also hadn’t done purely, you know, having your space for the gallery obviously over the weekend days. What are you doing in terms of the market there, apart from the gallery?

Helen Sharkey Well, once I got accepted into it as a casual, I worked my way up to what they call a permanent trader. And that’s where you’re given a contract and your space is secured. That’s annually renewed. Basically – Well, some context first, I think. As a kid, my parents businesses were bombed and arsoned and went bankrupt and so we moved around a lot. My Dad used to sell ceramics and furniture. He’d buy from Manchester, at the various markets. And I mean, the joke in our family was we could tell what that was by the time market we were in, because each time, we’d have a market and different days and this would be maybe on the weekends or in the summer. And I’ve always had this close bond for market communities- the real grass root types of people and businesses, and they’re the ones that then go on and develop their businesses.

But markets are like micro breeding grounds for business and for – Well, I’m going off the point. But anyway, when I got into St. George’s Market, the building, it’s owned by the Belfast City Council, so we pay rent to them. And after a few years, I could sort of see there was a bit of a malaise, a bit of a problem. There was no interaction between the council markets unit and the traders, all 214 of them, and their businesses, et cetera. So I decided to apply to go on to the sub-committee. That’s an annually elected thing with all the traders electing you. And then I decided to go and apply for the main board as a, what’s called an NMTF – National Market Traders Federation of the U.K. Limited Representative for the Belfast branch. And of course, all this is voluntary. Don’t get diddly for it. But I wanted to represent them and lobby for them because as you can tell, I’m a bit of a talker and it’s not an issue for me. Dialoguing, slash debating slash arguing slash negotiating with councillor types.

I have no fear of them, you know, so I just get on with it and do my best with the other board members to represent these businesses in a fair way and that they don’t get disadvantaged because they’re micro or self-employed people.

Strangford Lough - Copper Pans Shop
Strangford Lough – Copper Pans Shop

Photo by Flickr user Amanda Slater

Recently, with the lockdown, we were closed for, well, 16 weeks, I guess. Most of the traders didn’t get any kind of or didn’t – What would you say? They didn’t get any of the grants that were available to that sector for various reasons. So, the committee, once we were allowed to start meeting virtually or socially distancing, we met with the unit committee of the market. We negotiated over two months to get the market open because the council weren’t going to open it. They thought maybe November or maybe next year. So anyway, we got that down to early July. But then when you – out of the two hundred and fourteen stalls, maybe only a third of them would be allowed in because socially distancing within an indoor space requires a lot of room.

So we’ve about a third of the traders there and we have only so many people allowed in the building at once. And we have our one-way systems and it works well. We don’t have the live music anymore because nobody’s allowed to sing because it might contaminate the place. There’s other things, restricted hours, et cetera. So, we lobbied for a rent holiday, a rent waiver, and they refused us twice.

And then we decided we’d go online, we’d go on the radio, TV, papers, old school lobbying and basically put our point out to the public. We were on TV a bunch. And the third time lucky we got what we call speakers’ privilege. Belfast City Council’s Strategic Policy Committee, which was viral and we were unanimously approved by all the councillors, which was really nice – doesn’t happen a lot in Belfast. And the traders have been granted now three months’ rent holiday commencing September 4th as long as we don’t go into lockdown.

Jackie De Burca Okay. That’s another – that’s another interview on another subject, isn’t it Helen?

Helen Sharkey Oh man, let’s not do that to them.

Jackie De Burca No, not- not today. I’d love to go back to your own work because, of course –

Helen Sharkey Yeah.

Jackie De Burca It’s obvious that you have a lot of fire if you like. If you don’t mind me using that expression for a variety of areas.

Helen Sharkey I’d like to think of it as obsession, really. But that’s fine.

Jackie De Burca Obsession is good as well. OK. You’re suitably obsessed with many very important issues. That’s what comes across at least. Going back to the actual, different media that you’re working with artistically on the gallery website that we’re going to publish underneath the podcasts when we go live with that. So, people –

Helen Sharkey Thank you.

Strangford Lough View
Strangford Lough View

Photo by Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia

Jackie De Burca Of course, I’m delighted to do it. People will be able to have a look in their own time after they’ve listened or while they’re listening. And I was drawn towards the landscape collection, Helen, purely because, of course, one of the main themes of our chat today is how the landscape is influenced to that series number- Series No. 2 there on your website. And one of the ones that really sort of struck me in and struck me on many levels, kind of in a spiritual way, in an artistic sort of visual way, in a way on the heart chakra and everything is Study No. 3, which is called the Fallen Tree. And that for me, has an otherworldly feeling about it. Did you remember how you were particularly inspired when you were creating this one?

Helen Sharkey Yeah, that was done at the time I was living on Reagh Island, which is the island linked to Mahee, and I was working at Castle Ward – been on the so-called Winterfell Castle. There was a lot of tourists and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to sell them stuff?”

So I had to be very careful that it was mediaeval gothic/slightly linked to GOT but obviously not plagiarising it because those guys are a bit serious about that stuff. Wouldn’t you? Couldn’t blame them. Anyway, that particular one, Series 2 Study 3 – Fallen Tree, and Series 2 Study No. 5 – Mythical Paththose two came out of a need to make money and also to try and reflect the atmosphere of GOT. And also, it’s what I was surrounded by. And I was doing a lot of colour popping on black and white graphics at the time, like hand-tinting- kind of like nerd art, as my husband calls it. Hey, it’s popular. I can’t- those things have been- It doesn’t matter what age, whether you’re like a goth or an OAP, they all seem to love them.

Series 5, Study no. 5_ 'Flying in a storm'. Low relief bronze plaques in deep black box frame, by H. Sharkey, 2020. 30cm x 30cm x 5cm ). £200. Includes P&P.
Series 5, Study no. 5_ ‘Flying in a storm’. Low relief bronze plaques in deep black box frame, by H. Sharkey, 2020. 30cm x 30cm x 5cm ). £200. Includes P&P.

That particular area is a forested area. It’s – I guess, used by the locals for barbecues. And there’s this massive spruce tree. It’s growing horizontally, not vertically into Strangford Lough. Half of its roots are still in the ground. The other half there kind of – What would you say? Rounded off by the wind erosion. And after high tide, it’s magical. The branches near the lower end of the tree by the water are covered in seaweed and it looks like they’re hanging Christmas tree decorations. And I just loved that eroded exposed coastline because it reminds me of the archaeological human strata themes that I like.

And I guess I was into full GOT mode of arts production back then. That and the Mythical Path one. But they’re from the same area, the forested area on the east coast of Reagh Island and Strangford Lough.

Jackie De Burca OK, and you’d actually almost – looking at it as I am, as we’re chatting – Obviously, each in our own- each in our own environment. You’d almost expect there’s such a sense of fantasy about it that you’d almost expect, you know, either fairies or something to appear there at the same time as what you were doing in the landscape-

Helen Sharkey  Dragons.

Jackie De Burca Okay, maybe dragons also.

Helen Sharkey Yeah. It was my attempt to – to work within the environment I find myself in while still staying true to myself. And the influences came from where I lived on Reagh Island at the time.

Jackie De Burca Okay, and out of this landscape collection that you have in Series 2, you’ve mentioned No. 5 obviously is connected with No. 3. Are there a few of those? I said 3, but it doesn’t matter. There might be two, might be four. Are there some of those that really describe your own connection to the area? Better than the rest of them?

Helen Sharkey Well, because it’s photo art, graphics, photography that’s been altered. Series 2, Study 12, the Snow Shadows. That’s again when I was in Reagh Island on a boat. And it just reminds me of a moment in time. There was about a metre of snow fell overnight. It was one of those few times snow stayed in Northern Ireland and it cut everybody off for several weeks. The silence that engulfed the island, it was like time standing still. And even ironically, the saltwater around the coast was frozen. The waves of the water was frozen up to two metres out into the lough and it felt otherworldly. I mean, it was a lot of fun, the snow as well. And we eventually did get out when we persuaded a local farmer to use one of his many JCB toys and clear the roads.

Strangford Lough saleswoman
Strangford Lough saleswoman

Photo by Flickr user horslips5

But yeah. It was amazing. That I remember. There’s a lot of – there’s one called Nuts in Love, Series 2, No. 7. It’s – I was at a Halloween party and I split a walnut, and inside was weird. The nut split, but both sides were heart-shaped and it was a bit of serendipity. It was kind of direct influence from nature. I started making a little mini still life. I made a heart out of yellow wax and balanced the nutshells on top of it and photographed it using artificial light to cast a heavy shadow that happened to be heart-shaped because of the way the nuts were sitting together in two halves. So it’s like serendipity having fun. It was one of those crazy moments and it was very – on a small scale, but it sort of encompassed the whole idea of being directly influenced by nature in a very tangible way.

Mike Paine Luckily, this is not a party political broadcast. It is a short announcement to mention our sponsor. This episode of the Creative Places and Faces Podcast is sponsored by Property Insurance Centre. Property Insurance Centre’s sponsorship helps to support the local economy by promoting not only local writers, artists, and craftspeople, but also entities involved in travel, tourism, and hospitality. This first series of the Creative Places and Faces Podcast has an exciting line-up of guests, including Jan Carson, Henry McDonald, Anne Smith, Malachi O’Doherty, Andrea Spencer, Helen Sharkey, Eva Thorp and many others. Today’s sponsor, Property Insurance Centre, specialises in commercial and residential property insurance and all types of business insurance. Originally established in 1976, this family insurance brokerage has served thousands of businesses and families just like you Over the decades. To discover more or become a sponsor, click on the sponsorship link below this podcast.

And now, back to you, Jackie.

Jackie De Burca If you were to compare your own identity as much as you would like to reveal, obviously, in this conversation, with the landscape that embraces you, what similarities would you see, Helen?

Helen Sharkey I think the one that affects me on so many levels, it’s Series 3, Study 4 – what’s that one? – Sunrise over Strangford Lough.

Series 3_ 'Sunrise over Strangford Lough'. Photo Art Graphic by H. Sharkey
Series 3_ ‘Sunrise over Strangford Lough’. Photo Art Graphic by H. Sharkey

It’s like these pink and purples and it’s before the sun comes up. It’s that half-light time. It was taken about five A.M. on a summer morning, on Ringneill Quay in Reagh Island. And it was looking towards the Ards Peninsula opposite Ringneill and Reagh Island in the land side of the lough and then opposite it is the peninsula side. And it was like one of those really fine, dry, misty mornings because the atmosphere, the moisture from the water was burning off as the sun was coming up and it was like nature’s painting. Now it only lasted a few minutes. It evaporated when the sun got brighter, but it was a very ethereal moment and it was a very deep experience and it was very powerful. And you get a lot of that on Strangford Lough. It’s like – It’s amazing. Yeah. So I would say that one.

Jackie De Burca OK. I mean, I can see that again, just looking at a computer screen, you can see with some of the work exactly what you’ve just said. Water, obviously, that you’re surrounded with there is a very creative force for- for many people. Do you feel, Helen, that your creative output would be different if you weren’t able to live close to the water as you do?

Helen Sharkey Not really. I mean, I have been consciously making art since – what, eight or nine, and I’ve only lived near water relatively recently. I mean, Belfast, Baltimore, D.C., New Jersey, California, all those places that I lived and worked in the US for a couple of decades, they were influenced by archaeological themes.

When I used to visit home, I think in the early 90s, it was the end of the summer. The water was pretty good. I was dining in County Clare and I nipped over to Valencia to go on to Skellig Michael Island off the Galway coast. And I’d been itching to get on there for years because the stones and there was something there I just had a connection with. So when I got there, I had the same feeling I now do about Strangford Lough. It was identical. It was very strange. And I wanted to live there. But of course, the – What are they called? The department of whatever it is in Ireland that looks after the monuments, they wouldn’t let anybody live there. So I decided to move up here instead. But it was gorgeous. That whole – I mean, if you didn’t break your neck climbing up those very steep stairs and you don’t have vertigo, you’re rewarded by the view of the beehive huts as seen recently in the movie. What do you call it? The sci fi thing. Anyway, it won’t come to me.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I’m not sure.

Helen Sharkey Anyway, that that’s the place that the hair in the back of my neck went up. There’s that kind of cross slab that looks slightly figurative and it’s overlooking the view of Skellig Michael to the Bird Island behind it with the beehive huts and- Star Wars. That was the new remake they did there. Yeah, they took over the place. Anyway, to get back to the point. That was the place that gives me the same atmosphere. And it was another island. So there’s obviously something about islands.

If I didn’t live here, I would visit. It doesn’t really matter. I’m lucky to live here, but if I couldn’t, I would just visit. I mean, my work- now that it’s taken this additional aspect that the water gives, I don’t think it’s going to disappear because I did or didn’t live here. It would stay. It’s too much ingrained in me now. I think.

Jackie De Burca So in a sense, by being there, how many years did you say you were in that area, exactly?

Helen Sharkey Let’s see. 2020. That would be 13.

Jackie De Burca Okay. So –

Helen Sharkey But I’ve lived in the area, but not by the water prior to that. So, yeah. I mean, I’ve known of it forever and I know the area well.

Jackie De Burca Yeah. So, in a way, one of the words that comes to mind, would you feel you’ve merged, you know, enough sufficiently with that landscape that you would take it with you, basically, if you had to go somewhere else?

Helen Sharkey Yeah. Also, I have a huge archive and catalogue of images I’ve taken over the years. I’m one of these people that has like 24,000 photos on my phone and the iCloud – that type of thing. Plus, I have a lot of external hard drives that I always keep as a sort of backup and all that stuff. I mean, all I have to do is spend an afternoon going through that and I have enough work for, like, the next six months. So, no, I’m not gonna leave it anytime soon and it’ll always be with me. So, yeah, you could say I’ve merged with it. Yeah.

Jackie De Burca And how- how about the other environment that you spend three days a week in being Belfast being your home city? Is – Is that an environment that has sort of a similar weight for you but in a different way? How would you compare the two?

Helen Sharkey I would say Strangford Lough for me is for me. And then being in the market, obviously, I make a living from it. A lot of visitors, I make a lot of connections, there are people that order commissions. But I also feel like I’m paying back and I’m contributing maybe to the next generation by showing them how things are made in a very simplistic way. So it’s kind of like I’m enjoying myself, but I’m also contributing and paying back. So, it’s a – it’s a kind of give and take thing.

Strangford Lough Harbor
Strangford Lough Harbor

Photo by Flickr user Carol 

Jackie De Burca Okay, that makes sense. Yeah, that makes sense. Now, just for those people who haven’t been to Belfast. If you had a friend coming from somewhere else, so somebody you knew in the States, for example, where would be the favourite place in Belfast that you would have that friend stay? Be it a hotel, a BNB. Would you have a particular favourite?

Helen Sharkey Oh, classic. The Europa. The most bombed hotel in the world until the peace agreement of 1998, of course. More or less. Yeah, I mean, it’s – it’s the oddest hotel, but it is central and the people are fabulous. I would say the Europa Hotel. The BNBs and the guest houses in Belfast are amazing, too, but that if they wanted to remember something- Belfast. The view from the hotel is a 360 and top floor is definitely one of those places I would recommend.

Jackie De Burca Okay, perfect. And if you’re taking a bit of time out from – from your obviously very busy schedule, where would you be bringing this friend? Mainstream sites, quirky sites? Where, where would be the must sees?

Helen Sharkey Well, they’ll be bombarded with imagery, industrial heritage, shipbuilding, arts, etc. I personally would say if you wanna meet what the locals call the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland, I would say St. George’s Market. I’d say Crumlin Road Jail, Lennon Hall Library. It’s amazing. Go up to the third floor. Climb Cave Hill. Have a look at the view of the city.

Belfast is a horseshoe shape of mountains wrapped around a kind of valley or basically what was a swamp that had been drained.

The zoo’s pretty cool. The Ulster Museum has a very eclectic collection, especially a lot of local arts. And I know as a school kid, I was – I practically lived there. That and the library. Was either art or books. That was my two things.

Jackie De Burca Okay, that sounds great and what about the special nights out? They’ve just arrived or it’s a Saturday night. You want to dress up and bring your friend out to somewhere that’s like a treat restaurant, wherever would that be?

Helen Sharkey Deanes, Queen’s University. Or the one on Howard Street. Another Deanes that’s really nice. Probably there. I mean, there are a lot of brilliant places. The new cathedral quarters has a lot of very, very good restaurants. But I think the university area’s quirky and they might like that more.

Jackie De Burca Okay. And do you have any kind of like when you when you were going off for lunch in the market, when you’re working, do you pop up, pop around the corner to somewhere casual or do you go somewhere within the market, where would be a casual place that you would recommend?

Helen Sharkey Well, there’s a bunch. I mean, the Observer Newspaper voted St. George’s Market the Best Food Experience in the UK. But if I wasn’t in the market, I would go to – I like John Long’s Fish and Chips – been around forever. It’s where Howard Street crosses over Great Victoria Street into Grosvenor Road and opposite the hotels in the Upper House. That’s really nice. The food’s fantastic and it’s like the 1960s booths. It’s really, really, I guess, as authentic as you could get. That survived the 70s, 80s and 90s in Northern Ireland.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, yeah, yeah. And obviously, presumably are quite, is quite good. Now, quite well settled for what we’re dealing with in the – in the days of CoViD 19 as well.

Helen Sharkey Yeah. Because of the boats and the way it’s laid out. I mean, it’s always been bijou and tiny, but the booths and the high chair backs, you know, they’re- you’ve got about five foot of wood ahead of you and partitions and that’s always been there. So it makes naturally, well partitioned eating area.

Jackie De Burca Okay, and if I don’t know whether you head straight out, straight out to Strangford Lough at the end of the day in the market or the odd day, would you stay for a drink with some of your colleagues, where would be the favourite bar to go to?

Helen Sharkey Anywhere behind Ulster University’s art colleges, the John Hewitt Bar, Duke of York. Any of those. They’re nice. If I’m outside of Belfast and the Strangford Lough area, food or drinks has to be a place called Daft Eddy’s at Sketrick Island, another island. And it’s fantastic. It’s called Daft Eddy’s because if the tides high enough, you’re not going to get on or off it, which is always good for business.

Jackie De Burca Okay. It’s a great name. What kind of food do they serve there, Helen?

Helen Sharkey Fresh seafood from Strangford Lough. Really good ciders. They recently developed their outside eating area. Big glass fronts. Even in winter when that wind howls over the lough. Those two-inch thick glass partitions protect you. And it’s brilliant. It’s – It’s up there. It’s – It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it is amazing. Daft Eddys.

Jackie De Burca Okay. That’s brilliant to know. Okay, listen, Helen, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon. Now, as I said before, going to point- put your website under the recording here that we have. And I look forward to speaking to you again. I think we will definitely – we’ll have one or two more chats in the future if it suits you, Helen.

Helen Sharkey Yeah, if you’re interested in how Northern Ireland, a real time case study of- an experiment, an expanding heritage of identity. Simply put, then, it’s the place. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s kind of another obsession. Yeah, I’m obsessive. What can I say? It’s my superpower.

Jackie De Burca Okay. Thanks again, Helen.

Mike Paine We hope you enjoyed this episode of the Creative Places and Faces Podcast. If you would like to apply to be a guest or a sponsor, be sure to check out the links below the podcast. Until next time. From all of us here. Take care. Stay safe and be creative.

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Jackie De Burca

Jackie De Burca is is a travel, arts and culture writer. The author of Salvador Dalí at Home, De Burca has spent much of her life in Spain since 2003. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, she is the creator of Travel Inspires: the authentic travel magazine by the people, for the people. She mentors aspiring writers around the world, who have the opportunity to showcase their work on Travel Inspires. De Burca feels an inspirational connection with the land in Spain, while maintaining her deeply rooted attachment to Irish landscapes, soil and of course, the Irish character.

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      Strangford Lough and Belfast with artist Helen Sharkey

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