Art in the everyday records journey through grief

‘Tomorrow is Sunday,’ a photobook showcasing art in the everyday on a family farm, provides an insight into how one woman navigated the mire of intense grief following the death of her brother in 2013.

Miriam O’Connor’s photobook has recently been published by Gallery of Photography Ireland and supported by Creative Europe Cooperation Project, ‘A Woman’s Work’, and The Arts Council. Prior to the publication of this book, the work was exhibited at Sirius Arts Centre, Cork.

Following the death of her brother Jerome, from cancer at the age of 49, Miriam and her sister Sheila returned home to take care of the family farm. The family run a small beef farm located near Macroom.

“It has been in our family for a number of generations. My dad died when I was 11. My brother took over the family farm after my father died and managed it for almost three decades.”

The sisters helped out on the farm growing up. “Such is the nature of farming life, collectively we were all regularly called upon to help with day-to-day tasks,” Miriam said.

“In my 20s I developed an interest in photography, undertaking a degree at Technological University Dublin in 2003 and later completing a Research Masters at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) Dun Laoghaire, in 2011.”

When Jerome died, she was working as an artist and also lecturing part-time on the photography programmes at Griffith College, Dublin.

Returning to the farm was important and necessary and naturally our lives have changed through that process. It has been challenging at times, but it’s really more about how to take on those challenges and find strategies to deal with them.

“The adjustments were greater in those earlier years, because there’s an urgency tied up in farming decisions that have a cause and effect, for the seasons or even generations ahead.

“For both of us, the greatest immediate challenges centred around taking care of the animals and managing the land. And much of this has been a learning process which has taken time.”

The local farming community provided support to the family as it struggled to deal with its grief.

“In many senses, this is an ongoing process. In farming there’s a regular reliance on others to complete tasks from crop produce, grass management or cattle sales. Much like the photography community, having a trusted set of individuals to call upon for advice and support is pivotal,” said Miriam.

“Some farm tasks call for more physical labour than others, and while there are limitations, physical labour is a positive part of our everyday farming experience.”

From the photobook, we get insights into everyday ‘common problems’, ranging from poly wire being an ‘absolute terror’ for getting into a great big tangled mess or the legs of stakes getting bent and broken on a regular basis.

Tool for survival

Miriam had taken photographs on the farm previously but that approach intensified following her permanent relocation there as she journeyed through the fog of grief.

“When I relocated to the farm in 2013/2014, I used photography much like a farm tool. I was interested in how photography could operate in these kinds of circumstances, and how the act of photographing could function as a tool for survival.

“Throughout the lengthy production period of ‘Tomorrow is Sunday’, I regularly reflected on this question, and to some extent, still do,” Miriam said.

“This work has taken over six years to produce and throughout its production, I was curious and determined to find relevant ways to communicate this story through photographic practices.

I began by taking photos of everyday farming life which I really struggled with. I felt they were over sentimental and lacked the ability to communicate the magnitude of this life-changing event.

“I then abandoned this approach and produced about 30 handmade logbooks using photographs and texts which engaged with farm jobs and inventories of things on the farm, such as buckets, gates, water troughs, etc. Using photography in this way felt more objective and in ways, practical.

“Additionally, I wrote absurd stories about situations from everyday farming life and compiled a text-based glossary or index of everything I could possibly think of associated with our farming life. An index, which on reflection is both functional and futile at once.

“At the latter stages of the work I even fashioned my own farming crossword, with ridiculous questions like: ‘Where on earth is the key to the tractor?’; ‘What time do cows go to sleep?’; or “Who left the wellingtons out in the rain?’ These questions were often in response to my everyday lived experiences.”

A series of self-portraits is also included in the book. “By putting myself in the frame, in this series of self-portraits taken over an entire farming year, I was interested in ideas of visibility, accountability, labour, presence and the passage of time,” Miriam said.

“Reflecting on these various and extensive approaches at the latter stages of this work, I came to terms with the fact that all the ways in which I had utilised photography were useful and equal in their own right. In many senses, they all felt like pivotal stepping stones in the grieving process.”

For a long time, the sisters had kept their mother’s handwritten notes. Miriam recalls in the book how, when their brother died, they poignantly began to search through this archive, looking for traces of him amid their grief.

One note about the farm cat getting sick acted like a metaphor in the book as it engaged with ideas of illness, death and grief, themes that the work reflects on. The same tree, photographed at different times over several years, is captured in a number of spreads. In an exhibition context, this image is presented as one whole piece.

“The durational nature that this piece engages with is significant for me because it doesn’t favour one image over another, but positions that activity of photographing the same subject over time as a reflective experience, something opened ended, without any definitive answers,” said Miriam.

Universal themes

“This work has resonated with audiences in a positive fashion as it engages with universal themes that many people can comprehend and engage with.

“Nonetheless, it’s important to acknowledge that once work makes its way out in to the world, there’s also a degree of having to let it go. This is especially the case with a book, as books are experienced in different kinds of ways to an exhibition for instance,” she said.

“The support and validation I was afforded throughout the developmental stages of this work has been pivotal however, and I am especially grateful to PhotoIreland; Cork County Council; the Arts Council; Gallery of Photography Ireland; and A Woman’s Work for providing their support to enable me to work through this project.”

Following an open call process, Miriam’s work was selected for exhibition at Sirius Arts Centre. The show opened at the end of January 2020, and ran for a short while before all cultural institutions had to close to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

After that first extensive lockdown was lifted, the exhibition ran for a further month. Following the exhibition, Miriam was approached by Gallery of Photography Ireland about making the photobook.

“When I was approached about the book, and in editing for it, I wanted to somehow communicate the various approaches and strategies that the overall project engaged with,” she said.

Another exhibition of ‘Tomorrow is Sunday’, curated by Ruth Carroll, will take place at the Ashford Gallery, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, in the coming months.

Miriam is still on the farm and combining that with lecturing. “Currently I am developing new work which reflects on ways in which art practice and farm practice might co-exist in a more harmonious fashion and continue to remain curious about the roles that photography can assume in this process.”

*The photobook ‘Tomorrow is Sunday’ in hardback can be purchased at the Gallery of Photography bookshop for €35.