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News, Stories | 17 December 2020

From The National Neighbourhood to Winter Lights

The group with their finished artwork. Photo: Mark Stedman

The group with their finished artwork. Photo: Mark Stedman

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Michele Walsh took part in The National Neighbourhood with Dublin City Council Culture Company in the summer of 2020.

Soon after, the opportunity arose to take part in the Winter Lights Festival, and Michelle took a leap and joined. A group from The National Neighbourhood came together (through the magic of Zoom) and worked closely with artist Ben Readman to create a vibrant artwork called Look Out For The Light, which is being projected onto the Mater Hospital for the month of December. This four-minute digital animation celebrates the power of hope, community, positivity and togetherness.

Below, Michele recalls her experience of this creative collaboration.

Becoming part of a new neighbourhood

One day in August I was sitting in a socially distanced circle in the serene setting of the garden of Richmond Barracks. I was a member of a group that had just completed a 12-week virtual “National Neighbourhood” programme via Zoom. We were gathered for a live, in-person catch up, having only seen each other via Zoom in varying degrees of fuzziness and frozen images due to intermittent camera and WiFi challenges up to then.

The programme had been led by our lovely Dublin City Council Culture Company creative facilitator, Brian Fleming, with various arts and culture venues from around the city, including the Abbey Theatre, the National Gallery, the Hugh Lane Gallery, the National Archives, the Lab in Foley Street and the Department of Public Art among others. The Zoom sessions gave us a unique opportunity to connect in new ways with the arts and culture of the city while those institutions had been forced to close their doors to keep everyone safe during the lockdown.

I had relished every moment of those sessions because for me, the day job is where I work to put bread on my table but the arts is where I really feel alive and to be able to stay connected with that part of my life during the strange pandemic times was an unexpected joy. As we wrapped up our session on The National Neighbourhood, the idea was floated that if we had the interest and could find the time, we might go on and be part of another project called "Winter Lights". This would involve lighting up one of a selection of sites around Dublin during the month of December. I knew nothing more about the project, but my hand shot up. If it was going to be anything like as much fun as The National Neighbourhood had been… I was in. 100%. I had no idea of the amount of craic, learning and new opportunities that lay ahead!

16 voices of Winter Lights

Our Winter Lights project kicked off around mid-September and in a series of weekly hour long Zooms we discussed what the project might entail and what themes we might follow. The brief was to produce a piece of approximately four minutes in length that would be projected onto the building or site we would be allocated. The piece would be shown on loop starting at sunset and would serve to light up our allocated site during the darkest month of December.

We had discussions and brain dumps where we all shouted (in a very polite and socially responsible manner of course!) for our ideas and visions of what we might like to see.

The ideas were varied and came thick and fast, one thought borrowing another and suggesting another angle we might take or theme we might follow. With 16 voices contributing to the conversation, pretty soon we had a huge list of mental images and ideas and it was exhilarating to hear all the ideas and angles that people were coming from but it was hard to see how we would ever be able to distill the various ideas down into a central theme that the whole team could be invested in.

We were so lucky to have Ben Readman, a practicing visual artist working with us to help us bring our ideas to life. That was one of the most brilliant parts of the project for me. In my life as a nine-to-five office worker, I don’t meet people whose time is spent working in the arts and it was like a breath of fresh air to get an hour long window into a completely new world each week as we heard from Ben all the different ways we could display images and to talk around whether we would use photographs, animations, different types of text formatting and display. It was a complete eye opener to see how many options there are when it comes to display.

Beauty of nature

Ben mined deeper down into our ideas by means of various surveys and analysis techniques and managed to wrangle our huge web of ideas into a beautiful distillation of themes. As a group we were very touched by the beauty of nature and all that surrounds us. We wanted our piece to convey hope and to emphasise the conviction that, supported by the beauty that surrounds us in our everyday lives and with hope and belief that we will get through the current tough times, we will have a brighter post Covid future.

In order to have some words or thoughts to accompany the images, we first thought of using poetry to accompany the gorgeous colours and images that Ben had created and assembled to convey our love and admiration for the beauty of the natural world as the seasons cycle through the year.

Finding a voice

We were then given the challenge/opportunity to write some words ourselves and that was a personal highlight of the project for me. I had never sat down to write such a piece before and as I tried to compose a piece that paid homage to each season in turn and express my awe at the seemingly casual yet endlessly enthralling beauty in each season, I found that I enjoyed the process of writing hugely. It was a light bulb moment for me and it’s something I feel I will come back to some time. It’s something I might never have realised if it hadn’t been for Winter Lights!

The completed piece is a multi-layered textured tapestry using original artwork by Ben to depict the images arising from our group brainstorming sessions. The images are animated so that they move like elements of a theatre set, providing a series of different scenes. The images fade softly in and out, morphing almost imperceptibly from one to the next. The palette of colours morphs too, so that some elements move from one “season” to another, echoing the movement from one season to another through the year.

The piece reminds us that we are surrounded by beauty in our natural and built environment and that if we look for the beauty that is everywhere around us, we can draw consolation from it as we wait for these strange times to end and for our lives to expand again.

With stunning imagery from Ben, words by a member of our group, and drawing inspiration from our hero Mother Nature, our piece will be projected onto the Mater Hospital during December. It was a privilege to have been part of the team that brought it to realisation.

If you get the chance to engage with the Dublin City Council Culture Company, The National Neighbourhood or Winter Lights, jump at it! You will learn so much, you will have wonderful opportunities to engage with fabulous artists and professionals and you will have an utter blast!

Go nÉirí leat,

Michele x

Want to discover more?

You can read more about The National Neighbourhood and see how you could get involved next year here.

You’ll be able to view the group’s light display on the Mater Hospital for the whole month of December. Winter Lights is a Dublin City Council initiative. You can find out more about the Winter Lights Festival, and all 17 locations here.

Winter Lights is a Dublin City Council initiative.