Let the tide be your guide
Sometimes, it’s nice not to have a plan and just stroll down to your nearest beach with a rake. It could be Bunmahon beach or a stone’s throw away in Kilmurrin Cove.
This is the feeling we get about how Sean approaches his art – chilled, passionate about the sea and the shore and a very creative person who is incredibly inspired by his surroundings. His sand drawings mirror this, and Waterford’s beaches and beyond become the artist’s blank canvas.
We interviewed Sean at his studio, The Art Hand in Bunmahon, that he runs with his wife, Miranda. He even made us a cuppa’!
Sean, can you tell us a bit about your work and how you got into sand art?
Well, the sand art began one day in April 2014. I was sittin’ on the cliff in Kimurrin overlooking the beach below. We had only moved into the area and we had two young kids. I said to my wife, Miranda, “What are we going to do here to make a living here?” I was blind. I could see no natural materials, I couldn’t see any potential for making art in the landscape. And then a horse was led from a horsebox onto the beach and was led by a rope and made the most beautiful circle. It was like an epiphany moment. I thought “If a horse can do it then so can I!”. I literally ran home and got a rake and tried it out straight away.
Wow, that’s pretty amazing Sean!
Yeh, I discovered there’s a sand artist community internationally around the world. There’s not that many of us but we get to meet up occasionally, which is nice. So that’s how it all began.
Sounds like it was meant to be. How many pieces do you think you’ve done?
I’m quite meticulous about it. Because the work is temporary, the tide comes in and washes it all away, I’m very particular about recording it. I’ve done about 400 pieces. I do have an archive, a catalogue of every single piece of art I’ve made in the environment.
Would most of the work you do be around the South East, or do you travel all over?
On a day-to-day basis, most of our work is based here at our art school, The Art Hand in Bunmahon along The Copper Coast. We are literally halfway between Tramore and Dungarvan so we’re spoilt for choice in terms of the environment here.
A lot of the more commercial work we do in terms of sand art would be around Ireland – Kerry, Cork, Galway. We did a couple of projects last year in Northern Ireland and the UK; we were in Northumberland, Scotland. A very exciting project we’re doing this March is in Texas. I’ve been commissioned to go over there as part of a land art festival called the Llano Earth Art Fest (LEAF). It’s hundreds of miles from the coast, it’s in a river valley with boulders. I’m going to be making art in the dirt, mud – it’s not a desert but it’s not far off. It’s exciting, I can’t wait to get over there in March.
Are you the only one who does the sand art, or is there a team?
No, sometimes there could be one, two, three, four, five, even up to twenty-eight people at one time. My friend, Joe Lonergan, often joins me on some of the adventures we go around the country on. For more commercial work, like Clean Coast Week in Northern Ireland, there could be twenty or thirty volunteers. We’ve also worked with universities in Belfast.
The solo pieces, where it’s just me, is my favourite work. I go down and don’t know what I’m about to draw. It’s really a case of responding to what I find on the day. That for me is almost like a form of meditation.
What inspires you? You have a rake, is that the only tool you use?
Yeh, I have a stick ha, ha! I have a garden rake, a few different types of rakes; I like to use wild bamboo that I gather. But yeh, what inspires me is what I encounter on the day. So when it’s a solo piece and not a commercial thing, my work is a response to the available sand. I’d be considering where the sun is, where it’s gonna be in two hours’ time, where the tide is gonna be in two hours’ time. You’d be tryin’ to pace it and time it. You’d be hopin’ for a moment where the sun just peers through the clouds, where’s this shaft of light comes down in a kind of Monthy Python kind of way in the very end and the clouds just part. You get the money shot then.
Sounds very spiritual Sean!
Well, no matter what you’ve been doing during the day, what your deadlines are, you can’t possibly think of all these other things because you become so consumed in the moment. Mindfulness is all about the moment, isn’t it? So in a beautiful way, there is a spiritual element to it I’m very open to, in terms of being at one with nature. The only thing you’re conscious of is the changing tide, changing weather, clouds that are coming in – you’d be very aware of the direction of the wind too. There’s a bit of an adrenalin rush sometimes too if you know there’s a bank of rain about to hit. You’re always trying to work with nature to get the best out of it. Nature is full of surprises!
It kind of wins in the end then?
Yeh, that’s the beautiful part of it for me. In fairness, if my camera broke down or my drone wasn’t able to fly, I would get upset about it, but in a mindful kind of way, I’d just accept that was one of the ones that got away.
Do you have a favourite place to go to relax in Waterford?
My favourite place in Waterford? My art is my getaway from the world. The place in Ireland I like the best is the shore, so wherever I am in Ireland, it’s the shore. There are places that you can’t get to unless you time it for low tide. That for me, that element of exploring that section of ground for me, finding that cave does it for me. Oh, and we did get a new couch recently – it’s my second favourite currently ha!
There are a lot of places here on the drive out to The Copper Coast that are exposed.
Around here, we’re blessed. We’ve got Kilmurrin Cove on one side and Bunmahon on the other. Even within that short space, I’ve become familiar with the rocks, boulders, the level of the sand, you know. On Christmas Day I did a piece, and I noticed how low the sand was at a given place. There’s a love-heart rock, and I know that in a few weeks time, that love-heart rock will be immersed in three or four feet of sand. Maybe it will appear someday, I know where that rock is! There’s always something new. The tide and the shore changes all the time and that for me is the beauty of Ireland.
Quite inspiring! And your favourite Waterford slang?
I meet a lot of people on the shore. I met a woman yesterday who saw I had a stick in my hand and a rake and another few things. She thought I was going fishing. I love the way people in Ireland love to give advice; she was giving me advice on where to catch the fish, haha. I love that if I curse, if I drop an ‘aul ‘F’ word, it opens the door up to you to really put your vocabulary out there, and I kinda’ like that. She threw a few F’s in as well haha. In the end, I didn’t have the heart to tell her but I eventually said I was going to draw a few pictures there in the sand!
Brilliant. So, three people, you could dine with dead or alive?
Dinner time in this house is myself, my wife Miranda and Mathilda and Alfie. There is a dynamic, asking each other how is your day but if one of four people aren’t in good humour, well I’m always interested in that, it’s always an important part of our day.
The other day I was down on the Cùilean, it’s where the river comes down to the beach at Bunmahon. It’s a beautiful place. I was wading through the water in my wellies and I was surrounded by a shoal of fish, which I was convinced they were salmon ‘cos I’m not a fisherman. I was ringing my friend Joe and said that he better get down here with his rod. The fish were still jumpin’ out of the water when he got here. I actually lit a little fire there while he was doing some fishing and I was stone stacking. The fish were literally jumping up out of the river and I could just imagine us cooking that fish just right there and then.
That for me would be a better dinner than anything, just being on the shore and eating whatever you had in your pockets or catching that elusive fish. He still didn’t manage to catch a fish! Now that woman I met that was cursing on the beach knew her stuff and said they were mullet.
Any restaurant you like to go to in Co. Waterford?
My friend, Ted Mullane is always in Geoffs, it’s not even just that they have fantastic food in there, it’s the kind of moment of being able to see the flames coming up in the kitchen when they’re cooking a stir-fry, or when you ask for a cup of tea, it’s “What kind of tea would you like?”. Meeting Ted Mullane, which Miranda and I did recently – moments like that make it for me. I’m not that much into formal dining in restaurants to be honest. My favourite place to eat would be on the shore.
If you had a superhero power, what would it be?
Em, I’m absolutely useless at surfing. I seem to have an instinct of every time I try, of putting the board up to me to protect me from the wave which is not what you’re supposed to do! I would love at low tide to be able to walk into the water and continue down onto the shore and be able to breathe underwater. I have thought about making art underwater so being able to breathe underwater would perhaps help that.
Now the birds-eye view is so accessible. Five or ten years ago, aerial images were not as accessible; sometimes people had a photo of their house above their fireplace that someone took. When you look at a crow or a seagull, look at the way they are able to just find that air pocket. I was flying a drone in 42km an hour winds a few months back (you’re not meant to fly a drone in those winds) and I was able to find a place, like a seagull where I could actually just park the drone into the sky and not a budge, yet all around it was an absolute storm.
There’s actually another place just down from the front field here where even in a galeforce storm, there’s a section where no wind hits the grass where it’s flat, calm grass in this area and everywhere around it is just flappin’ around.
And why is that, is it because of the cliffs around it?
Yes, it’s because of the shape and south-westerly prevailing wind that kind of hits the cliff on either side and sort of funnels it up and goes over the top. It’s a strange thing to walk through a field and you’re literally being thrown around and then it’s just pure quiet and calm.
Sounds like you know all the special places out here!
Yeh, I love returning to places, you know. When I do festivals in the UK and all around Ireland, and I get called a second or third-year. They might only be a simple beach in a town or village but you get to know how the tide changes, how quick it comes back in, the levels, the terrain and rocks, and where the sun is gonna be. Here, you’re used to the sun rising in the East and setting in the West, as it does elsewhere, but when you go to the east coast of Ireland or east coast of the UK, East is in a different place. When you change that dynamic, like in Northumberland, I was looking out at Norway rather than looking down at Spain. So the aspect changes.
Who would play you in the film of your life?
Well, Niall Tóibín recently died and he played my dad in Jim Nolan’s production of The Salvage Shop. Jim Nolan set his play in The Salvage Shop that my dad and I had. We were like the guinea pigs, role models for how he would structure his play. In the same way the father and son in the play and the father and son in our reality, John Olohan, the actor played the son. He can play me.
Niall Tóibín playing Sylvie Tansey in Jim Nolan’s play The Salvage Shop
And how would you like to be remembered?
From a monumental point of view, it is what I leave behind me in terms of my art that will live on. But somebody recently said to me at a funeral, actually, it was Pat Hennessy, the undertaker, at Miranda’s mother’s funeral a couple of weeks back. I asked him something because he’s an undertaker.
So, I do a lot of memorials for groups or families that have been bereaved; I’d facilitate group art or sand art, whatever. I have delved into my own spirituality in terms of how to facilitate that kind of thing with other people, to share a celebration of someone’s life or the sorrow of someone’s passing. I asked Pat Hennesy about how he saw the afterlife, and he quite simply said that he isn’t a big church goer but that he will live on in his children and his grandchildren. That for me stuck a chord, I thought it was so beautiful.
No matter what we do in this life and if we have the opportunity to have children, and they have the opportunity to have children, all those things we can pass on to the next generation.
How do you use art to facilitate people getting over things – do groups of people come here to the art school?
These days we are able to pick and choose, I know that sounds a bit cocky but ten years ago, when we opened The Art Hand, it was at the height of the recession. What do you need in a recession? You don’t need art! It’s the last thing on your list. That’s why we said we’re gonna open an art school, teach kids and bring groups together, and do all kinds of things for children and adults. We developed a reputation for ourselves through the work that we were doing – collaborative art, different projects in schools.
In the last year or two, with environmental art and the beach art, we’ve been able to pick and choose the projects we take on. So we only take private groups now. If a group of friends or a family group want to do a collaborative mosaic or a beach project, we’ll facilitate that but we don’t advertise events where we look for people to take bookings anymore.
Between now and next September, I’m personally not available to take on any projects. I have a book to be completed for the library for next March. A lovely project that I’m doing with migrant families that’s an art project that culminates in a book. Then I’m off to Texas for two weeks and then off to the forest in Curraghmore for the All Together Now Festival to do forest art there in August. We have maybe seven or eight smaller one-day projects already booked in. I literally couldn’t take on a project now. Had you said that to me five years ago, it was ‘When can I start?”
My wife Miranda, she returned to painting, she hadn’t painted in fourteen years since we had the children ‘cos of the fumes off the paint and stuff and we were too busy trying to earn a living. Teaching was the easiest way during the recession. She has just had a couple of pop-up exhibitions lately. People look at us as having the idyllic life, we have the ‘artist’s retreat’ or ‘we’re the luckiest people in the world’. You know we work really hard, but now it’s paid off. Getting paid to do what you love to do.
Sounds like the dream job!
It surely is. I was with Green Party councillor, Marc Ó Cathasaigh doing a piece. We were down on the beach, being pelted by the rain and Marc asked: “Are we finished now?” and I said: “No, no, we gotta mark out all these!” and he told me I had the best job EVER. That kind of struck a chord with me. We carried on with what we were doing and the sun eventually did come out. Not when we hoped but yes, sometimes I have to pinch myself and think, “Jesus this is great, being paid to do what I love.”
Any advice for young people today who want to get into something like this?
I’m working with about 16 migrant families from all over the world – Syria, Sudan and the potential that is in some of these people that are now living in Ireland is phenomenal, right? We all have this thing where, when someone doesn’t speak English as fluently as us, we seem to think that they’re not as smart as us. But some of these people are latent with knowledge and skills and potential.
I really do like to encourage people to look at the positive. The Facebook page I’m involved in ‘I am Waterford‘ – the whole ethos of that group that I’m the admin of is sharing pride and positivity. If there was one piece of advice I could give anyone, is that if there’s a problem to be solved or try to find a solution that needs fixing, try and change the dynamic of it for a second and think of it in a positive way even if we can’t all be confident. It’s that shift in behaviour, so for a young person, get out there, be proactive. I am competitive but I’m only competitive with myself. I always try to make something better. That’s why art school took so much out of people in the past.
If you become too aware of what’s been made before you, then you’re looking back, not forward. So I would say to people to get up, get out, make stuff, be happy with it and move on and make some more stuff.
Check out The Art Hand’s Facebook page here.